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.

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First wives. Now widows. What comes next?

The title of Steve McQueen’s latest film is more telling than it may seem at first: these women are widows, but before that they were wives. First and foremost they were seen by others, or saw themselves, as the plus ones to their husbands: the competent leader, the strong man, the guy who brings home the money. And this, the notion that their lives are tied to their husbands even after the latter have lost their lives, persists. First and foremost Veronica (Viola Davis), whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson) led a robbery gone fatally wrong for all the men involved, finds out that she is being held accountable for the millions of dollars Harry stole, even if she had no part in his criminal career – and she in turn seeks out Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), the other bereaved widows whose husbands died in the van shot to pieces by a SWAT team, to twist their arms into helping her. The only way they can free themselves from their dead husbands is to take on the roles of their husbands and to do that proverbial last job.

Widows

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Serial captivity

One of my favourite films, and most definitely one of my favourite cinematic comfort foods, is John Sturges’ 1963 POW classic, The Great Escape. It’s one of the films I remember watching with the rest of my family at an early age, and one of the few that (at least in my increasingly unreliable memory) we all enjoyed. There’s something about the methodical heroics of the prisoners working on an escape plan, in a situation where passivity means safety but also surrender, that still very much appeals to me.

GreatEscape5

Could such a story work in a weekly format? That was my main question when a while ago I got the ’70s BBC series Colditz as a present. Wouldn’t it get boring to watch the same characters trying to escape in more or less ingenious ways, knowing that most of them would have to end up where they started off, prisoners of the Wehrmacht or the Luftwaffe?

Colditz is dated in a number of ways: much of it has that flat, badly lit look that BBC drama of the time had. The acting, while generally good, is also very much recognisable as the sort of acting TV drama had at the time. There are none of the action setpieces that The Great Escape had. In short, I didn’t get started on the series with particularly high expectations, in part exactly because of my liking for Sturges’ film.

What I didn’t expect was that these apparent limitations of the series were also some of its greatest strengths. The Great Escape is an exciting movie, but it’s very much an action movie. There is drama in the film, and it’s effective too, but it’s designed as escapism (no pun intended). The grind of being behind bars day in, day out is depicted, but a series is better at doing justice to the repetition, the routine and even monotony that comes with the situation.

Colditz

Colditz‘ strengths go beyond this, though. It forgoes many of the clichés; its Germans aren’t Nazi bogeymen, they’re permitted to be three-dimensional characters with actual personalities. The English characters, too, grow beyond their first impression – and as much as I like The Great Escape, the film works with archetypes and charming performances rather than with nuanced characterisation. The writers draw interesting ideas and situations out of a very limited premise. Could Colditz have remained interesting for more than two seasons and two dozen episodes? Perhaps not, but for its run it remained engaging, and it definitely left me wanting more. About ten years ago there was a remake, reboot or whatever re- is the rage these days, but I don’t see what could be substantially improved about the series. For all its ’70s BBC lighting and what may seem like slightly wooden acting these days, Colditz has stood the test of time and stands up well – as well as Dickie Attenborough, Gordon Jackson and Steve McQueen digging their way out of Stalag Luft III.

P.S.: It seems that this YouTube channel has all the episodes available. I don’t know about the legality of this, but they’ve been online for a year, so it seems the BBC is okay with this. The individual episodes are mostly stand-alones, and I can very much recommend “Tweedledum”, one of the strongest in the first season.

Great Expectations

I’ve seen both of the main winners at this year’s Academy Awards, Gravity and 12 Years A Slave – and I came away from both of them feeling just a bit underwhelmed. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be one of those “Why the Oscars suck!” posts, not least because I don’t really feel particularly invested in them to begin with. What I want to talk about instead is this: expectations.

With 12 Years A Slave, I went in expecting to be as much bowled over as I was with Hunger and Shame. I was stunned when I caught Hunger on TV a couple of years ago; his visual language and his storytelling, combined with Fassbender’s amazing performance (is the guy ever any less than very good?), struck me as something I’d never seen. Shame built on this, engaging me both emotionally and intellectually in a way that’s rare in films. 12 Years A Slave is by no means a bad film, in fact it’s very good, a beautiful example of moviemaking craft on all fronts – but it didn’t stun me. It felt less unique than McQueen’s previous films.

Gravity

Gravity, too, is an exquisitely crafted film. It’s been criticised for being (allegedly) thematically shallow, all spectacle and no substance – which I don’t agree with. No, my beef with Gravity is this: I watched the trailer on a large screen in HD, and it pulled me in, evoking a real dread of floating in outer space, untethered, with nothing there but stars that are trillions of miles away. It’s not that the film itself didn’t summon this dread, but it didn’t build on it: basically the thing I liked best about the film was already there in the trailer. More so, actually, because it was distilled into two minutes. It doesn’t help that I’m not a big Sandra Bullock fan, finding her bland rather than relatable, but mainly my disappointment was similar to what I felt after 12 Years A Slave. I was disappointed, not because the films were bad, but because they didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, meet my expectations.

In some ways I think those expectations weren’t entirely fair, if fairness indeed comes into the matter. If I hadn’t seen and been so receptive for that particular Gravity trailer, the actual film might have wowed me more thoroughly. If I hadn’t been stunned by Hunger and Shame, I might not have expected 12 Years A Slave to be stunning in that particular way, and this in turn might have allowed me to appreciate it more for what it was rather than being disappointed at what it wasn’t. Then again, without the trailer I might not have gone to see Gravity to begin with; I might not have gone to see 12 Years A Slave at the cinema just because of Chiwetel Ejiofor (no doubt a great actor, but I don’t go to the cinema just because of a particular actor).

12 Years A Slave

How many films could I have appreciated more if it hadn’t been for very specific expectations? And how do you manage your expectations anyway? I’m not sure I could, or would want to, watch a trailer and go, “Yeah, fantastic trailer, but I’m sure the film won’t live up to it. I’ll go and see it, but ho hum…” I want to be enthusiastic about things, I want to have that feeling of anticipation – and when such expectations aren’t just met but surpassed, it feels amazing. If anything, the problem may not be how much I expect but how specific my expectations are.

Anyway: sometimes when I rewatch films that underwhelmed me the first time, I enjoy them all the more the second time around. I’m sure that in a couple of years’ time Film Four will show 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, just in time for Cuaron and McQueen’s latest works – and if I go to see them expecting to be just a bit disappointed and underwhelmed, perhaps I’ll come away enjoying them all the more.

Back to the Roots

I have a confession to make: I was underwhelmed by 12 Years A Slave.

Don’t get me wrong, the film is extremely well made. It’s beautifully shot, the acting is impeccable, and I would go as far as to say that Steve McQueen’s latest may just be the best, most accomplished slave narrative on film. My problem with it is that I was entirely bowled over by his earlier two works, Hunger and Shame. Especially the former of these took me completely by surprise, its style amplifying its story to an almost unbearable extent, and Shame, while perhaps not being quite as immediately striking (no shit mandalas in this one, for one), was similarly effective. 12 Years A Slave deals with what I’d consider a historically more major issue, but the film didn’t surprise me. In fact, it felt weirdly predictable.

12 Years A Slave

Not every film has to be surprising, and I can’t think of anything that 12 Years A Slave does wrong, but I came out of the film thinking that I’d basically seen a more cinematic, nearly perfectly executed version of the early episodes of Roots. There’s absolutely room for such a film, but McQueen being the director made me expect something, well, more, or perhaps rather something different. I expected something more unique – and I want to stress that this is my problem more than the film’s. However, I came away thinking that McQueen could have done more with what’s unique about the story he’s working with.

The big difference to other slave narratives is that the film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup, was born free in the USA and abducted into slavery. This is touched on in 12 Years A Slave: Northup, as played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, holds himself differently from his fellow slaves, he sees himself as separate from them for a long time. His situation, from his perspective, is immediately wrong to him in ways that the other slaves’ situation might not be in his eyes. This is alluded to occasionally throughout the film – but it is of much less interest to the film McQueen has made than the shared reality of what being a slave must have been like. There is clearly a purpose in depicting this universal reality, but I couldn’t help wanting more of what made Northup’s story different as much as what made it universal.

Does 12 Years A Slave deserve the accolades it gets? Absolutely. It is, as I have mentioned, a beautifully made, engaging film. It just isn’t the surprising, unique work that I expected from McQueen.

Little lust, less caution

It’s time for some superlatives: to my mind, Michael Fassbender is one of the most exciting actors of his generation, and Steve “Not that one!” McQueen is one of the visually most accomplished directors making films these days. Not many people could make fecal mandalas on prison walls intriguingly beautiful, but McQueen managed this with a deceptively effortless grace in Hunger, his film about Bobby Sands’ death. Not coincidentally, the other main strength of Hunger was Michael Fassbender’s electric performance.

Fassbender and McQueen seem to bring out the best in each other, since their 2011 film Shame is yet another movie with amazing visuals and a brave central performance that serves the film’s story perfectly. On paper it sounds like festival fodder: Shame depicts a sex addict’s descent into his personal hell after his sister, with a whole set of issues of her own when it comes to relationships, comes to stay with him. Yet in the hands of its director and star, and with the more-than-capable help of Carey Mulligan, Shame doesn’t feel like it’s pandering to a particular audience, doing its own thing instead, and to great effect.

Shame

If there’s a list of films featuring depressing sex, Shame is definitely in the top 5 (other candidates would be 28 Grams and Blue Valentine – a threesome between those three movies would probably create the sad sex singularity that effectively ends the world because no one would ever procreate naturally again). Strangely, though, for all the joylessness of Brandon’s sexual misadventures, there’s a genuine joy to watching a film as confidently handled, visually entrancing and perfectly acted as this.

P.S.: Some reviewers and bloggers accused Shame of homophobia, as during his climactic (no pun intended) long night’s journey into hell he gets a temporary fix by getting a blowjob in the underworld of a dungeon-like gay club, the argument being that McQueen depicts gay sex as the absolute lowest point in Brandon’s odyssey towards some sort of happiness. To my mind, those reviewers ignore that while the encounter is demeaning and joyless, the same is true for practically each of Brandon’s sexual encounters. The scene is followed by an extended threesome with two (female) prostitutes, which is arguably more aligned with generic male fantasy, yet this menage à trois is presented as no less demeaning, nor any more enjoyable. There is nothing in the blowjob scene to suggest that it’s to be read as worse for the character than what happens before or after it. If McQueen had wanted to show gay sex as the worst option for a sex-addicted straight man, surely a director as in control of his material as him would have found a more effective way of showing this, wouldn’t he?

East meets West, multipy by seven

Seven Samurai is probably the Kurosawa film that is most immediately enjoyable by Western audiences. The Japanese director has rarely been as culturally specific in his work as some of his compatriot film makers, finding inspiration in Hollywood westerns, and what is probably his best known film requires little in the way of cultural knowledge from audiences mostly ignorant of Japanese culture and history. (Hey, everything I know about Japan I learnt from Richard Chamberlain and Shogun!)

Which didn’t stop Hollywood director John Sturges from making a Western (in both senses of the word) remake of the film, The Magnificent Seven. Samurai (or, more accurately, ronin) become gunslingers, Japanese villagers become Mexican peasants, but the film remains largely unchanged in its broad strokes. It is perhaps more immediately iconic to Western audiences, featuring stars such as Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn (the film feels like a The Great Escape (p)reunion at times, also sharing director and composer with the POW classic), but in terms of changes it is relatively restrained.

There are perhaps three major differences, though. The first of these is the leader of the bandits, portrayed by Eli Wallach. He has no counterpart in Kurosawa’s film and serves as an intriguing counterpoint to the gunslingers, a charismatic “There but for the grace of God” commentary on the heroes. The second, stronger change, is how the youngest, most inexperienced of the samurai and Toshiro Mifune’s peasant posing as a samurai, perhaps the actor and director’s most indelible creation, are conflated into one character in Sturges’ film, a mere boy of a gunslinger played by Horst Buchholz. While combining the two characters into one may work in theory, Buchholz is no Mifune; he manages the fanboyish kid who goes all googly-eyed over the larger-than-life heroes much better than the bumbling, cheeky but eventually most tragic character of the seven.

The change that weighs most in my mind, though, is this: in Kurosawa’s film, we believe that the time of the samurai, of sword fights and strictly regulated chivalry has come to and end. The ronintake the job of protecting the villagers because there isn’t anything else for them. As skilled as they are at what they do, they’re essentially relics of a bygone age.Brynner, Coburn, Bronson and especially McQueen are first and foremost stars. They give lip service to the passing of an era, but Brynner’s lines – “Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.” – ring false coming from him, the self-awareness sounds phony. The Magnificent Seven is magnificently entertaining and, but it doesn’t pull off the sadness that accompanied the rollicking adventure in Kurosawa’s original.

But boy, how does Steve McQueen manage to have the worst haircuts and still be so eminently sexy? Add him to the list topped by Alexander Skarsgard. (Don’t know what I mean? Watch Generation Kill with a staunchly heterosexual male, get him drunk and then ask him what he thinks of Skarsgard.)