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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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.

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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.

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Colditz‘ strengths go beyond this, though. It forgoes many of the clich├ęs; 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.

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.)