The Great Escape (1963)

March 28, 2009


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  And that also tells you what this isn’t, this is by no means a serious historical document.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



Hunger (2008)

February 4, 2009

The director of this film is usually described as an artist-turned-filmmaker.  I must confess that I don’t know anything about him, though the name seems familiar somehow, but this film is very much a piece of art.  For a directorial debut, this is an astonishingly confident piece- as if McQueen’s art background him empowers him somehow and provides the freedom to produce very bold work.  That freedom works extremely well.

The film is stark and brutal in its portrayal of the conditions within the Maze prison.  It focuses upon the human story and not the political context.  As little attention as possible is paid to the rights and wrongs of the prisoners’ actions nor the British Government’s,  they are simply laid out as facts for context.  It is possible to view the film as falling into three distinct parts- the first establishes the conditions within the prison, the second is a long scene between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a Priest, with the final third charting his decline and death.

McQueen takes an unconventional means of making a ‘biopic’.  In a film which is ostensibly about hunger striker Bobby Sands, the main character doesn’t appear until midway through.  The first half of the film is all about establishing what life is like for the prisoners.  There are long periods of stillness and silence, a microcosm of the boredom the prisoners endure.  The degradation and inhumanity of the prison cells are starkly portrayed and the prisoners’ blanket protest (considering themselves political prisoners, they refused to wear prison uniforms and were therefore naked but for a blanket) and long matted beards and hair emblematic of the bodily protests to follow.  The cells are so vividly depicted that their stench seems to emanate from the screen.  This is realism as a horror film.  Terrible visual images of men smearing the walls with their own faeces and living amongst it, the grimy air thick and putrefying, their discarded meal remains eaten by hand and then smeared into the squalid mess already clinging to the walls.  These men are brutalised by their conditions and by the guards and brutalise themselves, they regress to the point of animalism- a wordless, often mindless, unclean, base savagery.

The film, in fact, opens by following one of the Prison Guards through his meticulous domestic routine- neatly pressed uniform ready when he dresses, symmetrically laid breakfast table, checking under the car for bombs- into the changing rooms of the prison where the camaraderie of the other guards (presumably of the non-political prisoners) is juxtaposed with his steely solitude and absolute silence.  As his hands are washed we see his lacerated knuckles clearly.  The clean orderliness is a vivid contrast for what is to follow inside the prison and the officer himself is an integral part of the film’s narrative.  He appears only twice more.  Once when he is part of an army of prison guards who forcibly bathe and cut the hair of the prisoners- this is little more than an opportunity to beat the men and is the source of those lacerations- and again when he visits a retirement home and is assassinated without warning by an unknown assailant.  This is fantastic film-making because of the questions it provokes about the morality of both sides and what the viewer would do in those positions.  No conclusions are offered, only questions.


The middle section of the film is stunning.  A fixed camera holds Bobby Sands- forcibly cropped and sporting facial injuries- and a Priest (Liam Cunningham) in conversation.  Their conversation develops slowly and carefully as though the men were boxers dancing from side to side, measuring the strength of the other.  They smoke and discuss and the conversation turns to Sands’ plan to lead seventy-odd prisoners on a hunger strike designed to force the British government to recognise their actions as political and not criminal.  McQueen is very careful here not to preach a particular message, Sands speaks with sufficient detail and passion to convince of his own dedication without allowing the scene to turn into a soapbox tirade.  The Priest and Sands argue at length about the motivation and justification for and repercussions of the action: “you want me to argue about the morality of what I’m about to do?  For one, you call it suicide- I call it murder”.  It is clear to both men that this is a final protest and one which cannot achieve its ostensible aim.  This is the only protest, the only significant action, the only act of defiance left open to the prisoners.  The scene has gone on for ten minutes or more without a pause, a cut or a change of angle- as with Herzog’s Woyzeck (discussed recently) it takes tremendous bravery for a director to pin a film on performances only with no recourse to editing whatsoever and in that vein this scene is a huge gamble but works excellently.

It works excellently right up to the first point that lets the film down.  As the conversation draws to a close, Sands tells the Priest an almost certainly apocryphal story from his childhood as an explanation of his motivation.  Where the film thus far has been grounded in realism and has had a clear intellectual integrity, there is now a pause whilst a fantastical element is added to offer unsubtle clarity at the expense of plausibility.  The story jars horribly with everything that has gone before, undermining it and offering a concession to conventional cinematic expectations which is utterly disappointing.

McQueen uses the final section of the film to investigate in graphically close attention the process of the hunger strike.  Fassbender’s harrowing acting performance up to this point now becomes a disturbing piece of performance art as we see the starvation process played out upon his body.  As Christian Bale did in The Machinist, Fassbender goes to extraordinary lengths of physical suffering, losing stones and weakening himself to the point of exhaustion to depict the dying Sands.  His physical condition becomes genuinely sickening and you begin to ask yourself if this is morally acceptable in the name of art.  What was an extraordinary performance becomes an unmissable one at this point but, sadly, the film deteriorates.  For most of the final sequence the haunting physical decay of Sands is shown in stark silence by McQueen and this echo of of the opening section of the film works fantastically but at the very end- as Sands expires- McQueen begins introducing childhood flashbacks to the piece and some of the melodramatic story which disappointed in the middle third is acted out.

This is such a great disappointment, as if McQueen’s courage failed to hold and he had to offer up a more acceptable, time-honoured and less risky conclusion to the film.  It also moves the film dangerously away from the perspective of a fascinated but impartial and objective observer to becoming something of a hagiography of Sands.  It isn’t quite that, but the balance and thought-provoking manner of the opening  two thirds certainly stops abruptly.  In Sands last days his carer is changed from a medic who appears genuinely compassionate, though not necessarily sympathetic, to a huge muscular man whose first act is to show Sands the UDA tattoo on his knuckles and then to allow him to fall painfully to the floor.  This isn’t the intelligent and non-partisan approach which made the film so fantastic, it is heavy-handed and manipulative.

It is such a fucking shame.  Nine tenths of this film is bold and artistic, it is a genuinely thought-provoking cinematic exploration and the remainder is disappointing, conventional melodrama.  9/10

Nevada Smith (1966)

January 16, 2009

My choice of film is usually fairly arbitrary and often depends upon what TCM or Film Four have scheduled or which of my high-priority LoveFilm selections arrives next.  In choosing Nevada Smith, though, I was swayed by one factor alone: Steve McQueen’s name is currently much smaller than Michael Caine’s on the tag cloud at the bottom right of my page and it just feels wrong.

I didn’t approach Nevada Smith much in the way of expectation.  It hasn’t amassed much of a reputation over the years, I don’t know much of the director Henry Hathaway’s work- aside from True Grit- and I really don’t like the work of Harold Robbins on whose novel this is based.  All this film really had going for it was its cast.  And the fact that it might help me tidy up my tag cloud.

It’s better than I expected, but not by much.  The storyline follows a familiar pattern- Steve McQueen stars as a half-Caucasian/half-native American teenager (despite McQueen being a blond 36 year old at the time) who sees his parents killed in cold blood by three men and vows to track them down and avenge the deaths.  The movie is episodic: he kills the first man (Martin Landau) in a knife fight, learns that the second (Arthur Kennedy) is in a Louisiana prison and gets sentenced himself just to kill him and then escape, and finally he hunts down the ever-reliable Karl Malden for the film’s climactic scene.

Along the way he is taught how to fight and shoot and drink and play cards by a gun salesman he tries and fails to hold up (played by an impressive Brian Keith) and he encounters a couple of love interests and a priest (played by an unconvincing Raf Vallone, he was much better as the lead Mafioso in The Italian Job) and with each of them he uses them and then turns his back on them with no further thought for them.  That is the interesting part of the film and is explored as fully as the genre allowed at that point.  Meanwhile Sergio Leone was breaking down such considerations with the contemporaneous masterpiece ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ and in that context Nevada Smith is exposed as a formulaic genre picture.

It is just a standard western if, I suppose, a little more ambitious than most.  And content to exist within the confines of genre expectations when the opportunity to examine the emptiness of revenge or the brutalisation of man as a means to overcome brutality was there.  And for that wasted opportunity, 5/10.

The Hunter (1980)

January 7, 2009

I love Steve McQueen.  I think that he’s just about my favourite actor ever.  McQueen understood the truth of the saying ‘less is more’ than anyone I’ve ever seen.  And so I’ve avoided seeing this for years.  Knowing that he made it whilst becoming ill, I didn’t want to see him diminished.

McQueen himself knew that he was aging fast and needed a new direction, his coveted project ‘An Enemy of the People’ shows that much (another film I’ve yet to see, but one that I’m intrigued to) but this film shows the way his career would’ve gone and it isn’t pretty.

‘The Hunter’ is a poor movie.  As with many films based on someone’s life story it is episodic and a little too much care is paid to not hurting anyone’s feelings.  The only real villain is a 2-D psychopath who gets as little screen time as is logistically possible.  And so we end up with what seems like a few episodes of ‘The Fall Guy’ strung together to justify some pretty decent stunt work.  It ends in about the most cloying way imaginable.  The soundtrack is laughable.  It looks like a TV movie- I’ve never heard of the director, perhaps that’s what his day job is.  In fact, you could run the film for an hour opening with Eli Wallach and the parents of the kid Bernardo and the only thing you would miss is seeing McQueen fight one of the biggest men you’ve ever seen and get distracted by a train set (kids toys are a constant presence in the film, they were McQueen’s own- as were a couple of the cars).  The film is most notable for a great chase with McQueen in a combine harvester chasing a Trans Am through a cornfield and an even better foot chase ending with McQueen hanging off a the side of a subway train.

Aside from those two set-pieces, the production values are pretty poor and no-one seems to care at all how the movie turns out, but that kind of saves it too.  McQueen is having such a good time sending himself up (his character ‘Papa’ Thorson is a terrible driver who freely admits that he’s “getting too old for this shit”) that the charm of his performance saves the movie.  He is out of shape and struggles during the action scenes but doesn’t get a corset on like William Shatner, he just shows the character as he would have been.

As I said earlier, this shows the way McQueen’s career would have gone.  He couldn’t get serious dramatic work and would’ve ended up parodying himself.  To do this once shows self-awareness and a lack of bullshit- to keep doing it is to become Sylvester Stallone.

Anyway, a poor movie saved by some decent stunts, solid work from Eli Wallach and LeVar Burton and a charming performance by my all-time favourite actor. 5/10

The Cincinatti Kid (1965)

January 4, 2009

Any film where the premise is that Steve McQueen faces off against Edward G. Robinson doesn’t have to try very hard to be gripping, but this one does.  It’s a sports movie and so the usual love interest/bad kid made good stuff is included, but it is peripheral.

The direction and cinematography of the movie (both excellent for me) are focused solely on the poker game conclusion.  All else is background.  Just as the players push everything else out of their mind, during the game so does the director.  And what a finale- McQueen’s ice-cube cool and Robinson’s world-weary confidence are staged against a Greek chorus of watchers “he has the jack!, “no way does he have the jack”.

The only way you can be the man is to beat the man, and beat him fair and square.  The support players (Malden, Rip Torn and Ann-Margret) are all pushing for the kid to cheat, but he takes the only honourable path and faces him fairly.

This is a superior level of sports drama between two absolute masters.  Great stuff 8/10.