The Great Escape (1963)

The Great Escape
Directed by John Sturges
Written by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett from a book by Paul Brickhill
1963/USA
The Mirisch Company
Repeat viewing/Netflixrental
One of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Hilts: I haven’t seen Berlin yet, from the ground or from the air, and I plan on doing both before the war is over.

I’ve loved this movie since I was a kid.

The German Luftwaffe gets the brilliant idea of putting all Allied POW escape artists into a single camp.  The theory is that they can be watched over better.  In practice, the officers are equipped to execute an audacious plan.  An RAF mastermind called “The Big X” (Richard Attenborough) is in charge.  The goal is to be able to tunnel 250 prisoners out of the camp.  The scheme relies on team work, with everyone assigned to a specialty. American Air Force Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) isn’t playing.  His many solo escape attempts  earn him lots of time in solitary confinement and the title “The Cooler King.”

The first two acts of the story concentrate on the planning and details of tunnel construction.  The last part is the daring escape attempt itself when little goes as planned. With James Garner as a Scrounger, Charles Bronson as a Tunnel King, James Coburn as an Australian (!), Donald Pleasance as a Forger, and many other fine British character actors.  There are no female roles.

The film is almost three hours long but I’ve never felt it dragged at all.  POW and heist movies are a favorite of mind – I think because I enjoy learning the mechanics of complicated schemes. This was my introduction to McQueen, Coburn, and Bronson long before I knew they were super-cool.  I just liked them.  The whole thing works beautifully. The adventure is given the perfect underpinning with the iconic Elmer Bernstein score.

The Great Escape was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film Editing.