Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Greatest War Movies No 3, The Great Escape

It is on every Christmas. Its theme tune is famous. It is a classic piece of British cinema. But that is not why I have chosen The Great Escape as my third greatest was movie of all time. I have chosen it because The Great Escape brilliantly tells the true story of the mass break out in 1944 of allied airmen from the Prisoner of War camp Stalag Luft III in East Germany. Although the characters in the movie are fictional, the general story line is accurate including the final statistic of 76 escaped, 3 made it home, 74 were recaptured, 50 of whom were executed by the Gestapo. The film also constantly reiterates the point that the objective of the escape was in many ways achieved. At a time when the German armed forced were stretched to the extreme, and anticipating an allied invasion of the Atlantic wall, more troops were required to hunt down 76 highly skilled allied officers that were dispersing through out Germany. In other words, it caused chaos behind enemy lines, a mere 3 months before D day.

The story is a remarkable one that is fascinating by itself. But in truth, it is the Hollywood dramatization of it and the magnificent performances by the exceptional cast that make it such a great movie. They are as follows.

Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Bix X) played by Richard Attenborough. The principal organiser of the escape Attenborough is arguably the best thing about the movie. His character epitomizes the British doggedness that we associate with the second World War. His best scene is during the escape itself when things start to go wrong. Every time I watch it, the tension is unbearable. Like all great movies The Great Escape has a sad ending. I think sad endings leave a longer lasting impression on the audience no matter what the type of movie. Attenborough's character Bartlett symbolises this. In the movie he is one of the 50 captured officers executed by the Gestapo.

Captain Virgil Hilts played by Steve McQueen. The scenes with McQueen trying to jump the Swiss border on a captured German motorbike (Top Picture) whilst being pursued by scores of German soldiers, are probably the most iconic images of the movie. It was entirely fictional but it was a truly memorable piece of cinema. The fact that he came so close to making it only adds to the drama of it. McQueen's character also shows in a humorous way the cultural differences and social awkwardness that existed between the British and American servicemen.

The most heart warming and wrenching story in the movie involves American Lieutenant Bob Hendley (James Garner) and his British bunk mate Lieutenant Colin Blythe Played by the great Donald Pleasance. Garner'scharacter is the scrounger, whose job it is to obtain useful documents among other things by extorting them from the prison guards. Pleasance's character is the forger, a former air reconnaissance photographer whose job it is to forge documents that the escapees will need to travel through Germany. The two men develop an unlikely friendship. When Blythe's eyesight begins to fail, Hendley takes him under his wing, over the objections of Bartlett who sees it as an unnecessary risk. The two escape together but it ends in tragedy when after steeling a plane which crashes, Blythe is shot while fleeing. Hedley is returned to the camp.

Then there is big Danny played by Charles Bronson. Danny is a Polish officer who escaped to Britain "when Warsaw fell" to fly with the RAF. Danny, nick named the tunnel king is the main digger of the tunnels. An immensely strong man he is the most valuable person in the tunnel. But it soon turns out that he has been fighting claustrophobia and has come very close to cracking before his friend Willy played by John Leyton intervenes to prevent him from losing his cool. Danny soon becomes a favourite of the audience and when he and willy make it all the way home, it is the happiest moment of an otherwise tragic story line.

One of my favourite characters is Sedgwick, played by the late great James Coburn. Sedwick is an Australian officer who is deeply involved in the planning of the escape. He is one f the few who make it all the way by steeling a bike before hiding on a train to France. In France he makes contact with the French resistance who help him into Spain and safety. His story is closely based on that of actual escapee, Dutch man Bram van der Stok. As I have said what makes this movie great is the characters. The audience grows very attached to each of them. Other great characters include Ashley Pitt played by David McCallum who is in charge of dispersing displaced earth and MacDonald (Gordon Jackson) who is intelligence chief. Nobody who has seen the film will ever forget MacDonald's "Good Luck" "Thank You" blunder.

The Great Escape has plenty of cliches. It is such a family movie that I know some people will object to it being on this list. But as I have said before it is my list. And I cannot leave it off. It is brilliant on so many levels. War movies have changed in recent decades, but the dialogue, casting and drama of the The Great Escape will never be matched.


Gary said...

As usual I find myself in complete agreement with you. I do not know where on my list of favorites "The Great Escape" would go, but near the top certainly. -And for all of the reasons you pointed out plus one more. I liked the portrayal of the conflict between the German "professi0onal soldiers" (i.e., the Commandant) and the more purely evil Gestapo. It is a little stereo-typical perhaps, but still accurate and entertaining....

Paul said...

Bet No2 is the Dambusters!

Ted Leddy said...


Good observation. The commandant of the camp in the movie was based on the true character Friedrich Wilhelm, whom the men generally respected. He allowed POW's who died in captivity to be buried with full military honors, including one Jewish airman.

In the movie the commandant is at constant loggerheads with the Gestapo. I don't know if this is true but it is quite possible.


You will have to wait and see, but I will be getting increasingly old school.

luciser said...

a classic piece of British cinema

kikio said...

The Great Escape" would go, but near the top certainly

Anonymous said...

PBS did a special a few years ago about trying to locate the tunnels, especially, I believe, one that the Germans had never located. It became quite apparent on this PBS episode that the commandant and his associates DID NOT LIKE the Gestapo and were appalled by the murder of the prisoners. I understand that he treated his captives as men of honor and allowed a special service for the escapees who had been murdered.