When I reviewed The Sound of Music (1965), I mentioned how it was a film that my mom forced my sister and I to watch when we were in middle school. One movie that she liked that she never had to convince me to see was The Great Escape (1963). Now, my mom is no history buff. That I inherited from my dad. So, I never quite understood what her fascination was with the classic World War II film. And, like The Sound of Music, it is quite long, almost three hours. That is without any musical interludes, too. I am convinced that without songs The Sound of Music would be roughly an hour in run time. While The Great Escape has none of those moments, it is infinitely more interesting.
What do belligerent countries do with the enemy soldiers they capture in battle? The Great Escape shows what Germany did with downed pilots during World War II. The Germans have built a new prison camp for a specific group of captive, mainly British pilots (with a few Americans). As the film opens, we seem them being brought to this facility. Their nominal leader, Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald), meets with camp commandant von Luger (Hannes Messemer), who says that German high command has specifically put all these men into this one place. They have done so because they have all tried multiple escape attempts, and they built the camp in the hope of making it escape proof. At the same time, von Luger admonishes Ramsey for the actions of his men. They have cost the Germans a great deal of men and material tracking down runaway captives, things that could be used to fight on the front. Ramsey sees escape as the duty of all captured soldiers, and he reminds von Luger of this fact. Thus, of course, practically as soon as this meeting is over, Ramsey leaves and begins discussing how they are going to escape. Their plans received a boost with the arrival of Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), also known as “Big X,” who is seemingly obsessed with breaking free and causing as much trouble for the Germans as possible. His plan is to construct not one, but three separate tunnels underneath the wires. In doing so, they put together a well-organized committee of fellow detainees, each with a specific task to perform. In order to keep suspicion off their activities, they develop an elaborate system of warnings whenever the guards get near one of their tunnels. While the digging goes on, they come up methods of getting the proper papers once they get away, forging them, manufacturing the proper clothing, etc. The film spends a little time in dealing with each one of the problems associated with concealing their plans. Still, there are consequences if they are caught doing something the guards think they should not be doing. One of the first escape attempts is done by Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) and Flying Officer Archie Ives (Angus Lennie), but they are spotted before they got too far. The punishment, like that for most infractions, is to spend time in “the Cooler.” Think solitary confinement. With Ives, we see the toll that imprisonment, particularly in “the Cooler,” takes on these men. Days before their planned, er, great escape, the Germans discover their main tunnel. The resulting alarm defeats Ives, and his desperate attempt to climb over the wire in the middle of the day results in him being shot to death. With one of the three tunnels now closed down, they put an even bigger effort into one of those remaining, desiring to stick to their appointed date. They want to make their attempt on the night of a new moon, meaning at a time when it was going to be darkest. However, when the day arrives and they poke through the sod on the other side of the wire, they find out they are twenty feet short of their target in the nearby woods. Hence, their desire to get hundreds out is in jeopardy. What saves them somewhat is an air raid that happens in the area, meaning the camp had to go dark in order to hopefully avoid being hit by bombs. Still, only seventy-six prisoners get out. From this point on, we see various groups traveling through war-time Germany. Most of them are recaptured, and fifty or so of them are summarily executed. This news is delivered to the prisoners as the film ends.
The way The Great Escape concludes makes it seem much darker than it actually is when you see it. It is one of the more memorable films in cinematic history, and that is not because of the high body count, although it says at the end that the film is dedicated to those fifty who died. Instead, what people seem to remember most about it is Steve McQueen’s performance is Hilts, otherwise credited as “The Cooler King.” I like this movie, and Steve McQueen, as much as the next guy. Still, I am not sure why people think so much of McQueen when talking about it. Take his nickname, for example. He shows up in camp, and is immediately put into “the Cooler” on the first day. Each time he is put there it is for a month, and there are three separate stints before the big escape. While it is cute that he sits in his cell throwing a baseball against the wall to pass the days, if they had spent a great deal of time showing him in this setting it would not have made for a less exciting cinematic experience. I also take issue with his time on the lam. Wisely, he manages to secure a motorcycle and a German uniform. Yet, while riding through a town full of German soldiers, he gets made. Though he manages to evade his pursuers, he then decides to take off the uniform. Now, his goal is to make it to Switzerland, and he motors right up to the border crossing. Surprise, surprise, there is a check point. I would think that if he had still been dressed as a German soldier, he might have been able to make it past the check point and been home free. Instead, we get an albeit thrilling sequence where he is jumping barbed wire fences on his motorcycle, and these are some of the most iconic scenes in the film. But he is still recaptured. They are great, but largely unnecessary.
What is interesting about The Great Escape from a faith perspective are two pairs of characters. They are Flight Lieutenant Danny Welinski (Charles Bronson) and Flight Lieutenant Willie Dickes (John Leyton), and Flight Lieutenant Bob Hendley (James Garner) and Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasance). Danny is the main digger, though both he and Willie had earned the nicknames “Tunnel King.” As we find out shortly before the final escape route is ready, Danny is extremely claustrophobic. The only reason he puts up with the tight underground spaces is because he is that determined to break out. However, when there is a collapse while he is working, it is enough to convince him to try to cut through the wire. What saves him from this riskier proposition is his friend and fellow digger Willie. Though Danny is determined not to go into the tunnel again, Willie coaxes him along, vowing to stay by his friend the entire way. They are one of the few that manage to get away. Bob makes a similar commitment to Colin. As the captives’ forger, Colin relies a great deal on his eyesight in order to produce exact duplicates of the necessary documents. Unfortunately, his vision begins to degrade severely to the point where allowing him to make an escape attempt would jeopardize the entire operation. This is when his bunkmate, Bob, the one responsible for scrounging all their materials, offers to stay with Colin throughout their wanderings. While they make out of the camp and manage to steal an airplane, it crashes shortly thereafter, Colin is killed, and Bob is recaptured. I bring up Bob and Willie because they are willing to help their friends in moments of difficulty. The Bible is full of moments of people coming to the aid of those about which they care. When Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus had died, not only does he raise him from the dead but also goes to comfort Lazarus’ sisters. In a situation like in the movie, it would be understandable for Bob or Willie to leave Colin and Danny behind, thinking of their own potential escape and survival. What a blessing it is that there are people out there willing to takes such a risk.
It is somewhat counterintuitive to think that a film like The Great Escape that is almost three hours can be as good as it is, even today. I enjoy seeing people presented with problems and finding solutions to them. While most of these pertain to how to escape from a prisoner of war camp, my Catholic brain appreciates Bob and Willie’s actions. Even though it is a war movie, there is not a bunch of gratuitous violence. It gets a solid recommendation from this reviewer.