With Elmer Bernstein’s Western-style theme tune, a name like The Great Escape and those big fuck-off red titles you know where you are with this from the start. It’s a bombastic, unsubtle, flag-waving crowd-pleaser. There’ll be no ambiguity or equivocation here. This is a regression to childhood; the Allies are Dennis the Menace, Bart Simpson, Winker Watson and Kevin McAllister while the prison guards are their hapless parents and teachers. And that also tells you what this isn’t, this is by no means a serious historical document. It very well may be a dramatisation of a novelization of real events, but that’s like relying upon a blurry photograph of an artist’s impression of a bank robber to identify a suspect. No, whatever the titles may have you think, this is a fantastical exercise. Of course, that’s not a criticism- it’s a defence. Critics of the lack of authenticity in this film really should avoid cinema as a medium of entertainment.
What you can justifiably put the boot in about is the almost total lack of plausibility- the claustrophobic tunnel-digger, the blind forger, the American flier in chinos and a sweatshirt who got shot down clutching a baseball mit, James Coburn’s dreadful broad Orstrialiurn accent, the secret still that even the prisoners can’t find which produces enough moonshine for three hundred men… It just depends how far you’re willing to suspend your disbelief. Me? Well, in the right mood I’ll accept it- even if it does make being a prisoner of war look like more fun than a night out with Keith Moon.
But whether it’s any good is the most important question and, well, it’s okay. It’s the best part of three hours long and there only a few dull passages- for example, the first half hour seems to fly by with all of the characters being introduced in turn, but the next half-hour on the complexities of hiding different coloured dirt and how to get a camera out of a prison guard drag. What’s more the sheer volume of characters makes it a challenge for John Sturges to introduce them all- giving Cavendish a scarf and Henley a polo-neck may help us distinguish between them but that’s no use if we don’t know which is which. And that’s the best thing about the film, the clarity of characterization. God only knows what kind of a challenge it must be keeping such a huge cast of star egos happy with their screen time while keeping the film under five hours long. Sturges does that really well here. Whoever is directing The Expendables will find that out for himself soon enough.
The next best thing about the film is linked with that. The next best thing about the film is Steve McQueen. Okay, I’m biased, I love Steve McQueen but he is genuinely the most watchable thing on show here. It isn’t his acting, which is competent enough, it is his charisma and sheer screen presence. I suppose the fact that he is swaggering around in what looks like his own clothes and had the whole iconic motorbike sequence added just because he likes motorbikes helps. John Sturges, deliberately or otherwise, just lets him stroll onset and steal the film from everyone else. No-one remembers Charles Bronson and John Leyton rowing away at dusk in beautiful soft-focus, but everyone remembers the motorcycle jump. I suppose that means that Sturges’s decision to humour him paid off, even at the cost of completely overbalancing the film.
Despite the best efforts of arch overactor James Garner and dear Dicky Attenborough, Donald Pleasance is the only man who comes close to McQueen when it comes to creating a memorable character. He is thoroughly lovable, a perfect English gentleman designed for Hollywood consumption. Splendid.
What is most usually overlooked about The Great Escape is the amount of time that is spent on largely unsuccessful post-escape events. The Elmer Bernstein theme and the very phrase ‘great escape’ represent- in the minds of the majority- Allied supremacy over Nazi tyranny; like the Dunkirk evacuation or Custer at the Alamo or even Balboa’s first tilt at the world title, glorious failure is much more memorable than mere success in Hollywood’s estimation.
So it’s mostly crap, but enjoyable, iconic, quotable crap that everyone needs to have seen to understand the intercontextual references that appear in countless other books or films or songs or TV shows. The Great Escape is far more than just a film, it is a part of our cultural heritage. 6/10