The Rear-View Mirror: The Great Escape (1963)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

My mother’s favourite movie genre was war movies, in particular old, English ones. My uncle would send us Betamax tapes with titles such as Battle of Britain, Sink the Bismarck!, Reach for the Sky or The Longest Day scribbled on the side, films about (usually) heroic Brits fighting Jerry. I was never all that much into those, but there’s one that I remember loving from the first time I saw it, and that’s The Great Escape.

It’s an absolute blast of a film with snappy writing and hugely enjoyable performances by a varied, star-studded casts, but in no small part my love for The Great Escape stems from it being the kind of war movie that an eight-year-old wannabe pacifist could enjoy. (I was the kid who, when playing Soldiers or Cowboys and Indians, would always want to be a medic.) It wasn’t about brave heroes killing the hell out of bad Germans, it was about an intrepid band of prisoners trying to escape a POW camp through cleverness, persistence and sheer chutzpah. It was about men from different countries and with vastly different personalities having to work together to outwit their captors. It was one of the only war movies where my mum wouldn’t complain about the American characters and Hollywood’s inability to make war realistic rather than bombastic.

Which isn’t entirely true: The Great Escape has its share of Hollywood bombast, in particular in some of the later scenes with Steve McQueen’s Virgil “The Cooler King” Hilts trying to jump the German-Swiss border fence with a motorcycle. At the same time, the film knows how to modulate its intensity and volume, and there’s a surprising amount of nuance in the characterisation, as the protagonists all have fears, doubts and flaws, though the cast also brings the kind of charisma to the table that these days is rare outside of an Ocean’s Eleven film. The director John Sturges had some experience with star-studded ensemble movies, having directed The Magnificent Seven a few years earlier, but he more topped this with The Great Escape.

The film has so many great storylines and iconic moments, it’s impossible to choose a favourite one. The playful first-day escape attempts as the POWs test the boundaries of their new wardens. The growing friendship between James Garner’s Hendley and Donald Pleasence’s Blythe, the camp forger slowly going blind. The rivalries between the British and the American POWs giving way to friendship and respect, and the ironic needling from the Scottish and Irish contingent. The ingenuity of the enterprise as any- and everything not nailed down in the camp is repurposed in the building of the tunnels, as the noises from tunneling are covered by the camp choir and soil removed from the tunnel is disposed of in brilliantly simple ways. The surprise Fourth of July celebration organised by the Americans, and the tension and resulting tragedy as the German guards discover the main tunnel during the raucous festivities. The titular escape itself, as 76 of the POWs get away during an air-raid blackout and then attempt to make it out of Germany alive, mostly ending up in the hands of the Gestapo. And, of course, Hilts in solitary confinement, again and again, keeping himself busy and sane by bouncing his baseball against the wall and catching it.

All in all, The Great Escape is one of the rare films that manages to be iconic and intimate at the same time, that gives us heroes to cheer for but makes them human at the same time. And I haven’t even mentioned Elmer Bernstein’s unforgettable theme tune. The Great Escape has been parodied many times, from The Simpsons to Aardman Animations’ Chicken Run, but at the same time it has proven resistant to parody. There are more important films, more daring and innovative ones, in particular in a decade that produced many of the all-time greats, but in spite of this The Great Escape will always be one of my favourites. I know few films that are as perfect an example of the kind of film they set out to be.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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