The Great Escape (1963)

March 28, 2009

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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  And that also tells you what this isn’t, this is by no means a serious historical document.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.

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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

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In Like Flint (1967)

February 24, 2009

I watched Our Man Flint recently and really enjoyed it and here we have the archetypal sequel: what it lacks in freshness and originality it tries to compensate for by lowering the bar.  The acting is hammier, the gags are more obvious, the storyline is more outré and the whole thing is dumbed down to ensure the broadest possible appeal.  And it is enjoyable, just a little regrettable.

One of my favourite things about the Flint films are the inventiveness of the writers in coming up with Flint’s abilities.  The best that we get here is when he is writing a dolphin dictionary- a feat which enables him to speak to a dolphin and gain its assistance in penetrating the enemy lair.  It is almost as if the concept is funny enough without the extra effort which made the first so special- the gadgets from last time (especially the hearing equipment in the shirt) are missed here and although the 73 function lighter- 74 if you include lighting a cigarette- survives its usefulness is downplayed.

Even James Coburn seems to have lowered his aims with this one, he played the first film straight- as all the best comedy is- but here he starts mugging for the camera.  It’s a real shame as Flint on the one hand and Harry Palmer on the other provided a really strong counterpoint to the Bond films and, in the absence of Coburn’s comic alternative, they were able to become ludicrous self-parodies themselves.

Another regrettable disappearance is the antagonism between Flint and Lee J. Cobb’s Lloyd Cramden.  Their spiky relationship in the first film was an interesting layer to the film however Cramden, who had found Flint’s abilities no compensation for his disdain for authority last time out, simply fawns over Flint this time.  The only interesting thing Cobb has to do this time is to wear a dress and shave off his moustache.  A waste.

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The storyline takes Flint to Death Valley, Moscow, the Virgin Islands and Outer Space (Bond would be 13 years behind him) but the sets are unconvincing and the whole thing has the naff cheapness of a budget sequel.  You can see the series heading down the Escape From The Planet of the Apes route and perhaps it’s for the best that this film wasn’t followed up.  The closing sequences see a battalion of nubile girls attacking a military colony on a flotilla of pedaloes- like the Dunkirk evacuation filmed by Russ Meyer- and the leaders of the female-only organisation who were trying for world domination conceding that it’s best to let men run the show.  Outdated that surely, even in 1967!

And so this is a disappointing sequel and the death knell of a series not yet out of infancy.  Entertaining, campy but crap.  3/10.  Mind you it was at least prescient- if only more Americans had shared Flint’s disdain for the notion of an actor as President.


Our Man Flint (1966)

January 21, 2009

I love Bond and I do take Bond far more seriously than it deserves.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the genre being spoofed- if it is done well.  The original Casino Royale (Niven, Sellers, Allen, Welles, Belmondo et al) was a huge disappointment given the talent involved, but this- from the year before- is far more impressive.

Following 1965’s Thunderball, this clever spoof doesn’t stretch the joke too far.  Super-suave spy Derek Flint (James Coburn) is assigned the task of stopping a shadowy group who are holding the world to ransom from their secret hideaway inside a volcano- by the way, the inside of the volcano may as well have been the inside of a shed in comparison to Ken Adam’s Thunderball set.  There is none of the clumsiness of Austin Powers or the Get Smart series, Flint is an extension of the Bond persona and his sole gadget- a lighter with 82 functions (83 if you include lighting a cigar)- is far less outlandish than the Bond gadgets that were to follow.

This is fun and disposable- Lee J. Cobb was wheeled in front of the camera and given lines to yell as a senior US Official and Devon Miles from Knight Rider appears as a nutty villain.  It’s well worth enjoying and better than all but a couple of Roger Moore’s Bond films 6/10.