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USA 1963
Directed by
John Sturges
172 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars

The Great Escape

Although an opening title proudly announces that every detail of the about-to-be depicted POW escape is exactly how it happened, nothing about this film is remotely credible – a full wardrobe department for 250 prisoners, multiple forged documents for same, a shed's worth of hardware, not to mention three 300 ft tunnels - and not a sign of German suspicion. Even when one tunnel is discovered, the operation continues apace. Standards of cinematic realism undoubtedly have changed since 1963 and whilst one can assumes that an escape really did happen, but that it happened anything like it is shown here beggars belief.

The Boys Own Adventure style of Sturges’s film is immediately announced in the opening credits with a jaunty theme by Elmer Bernstein. Indeed, Bernstein's insistently programmatic score is rarely absent from the film. Based on a book by British airman, Paul Brickhill, the film tells the story of a daring plan by a group of plucky British fly-boys to stage a mass escape from a maximum-security German prison camp during World War II. 

An ensemble cast of name British and American actors including Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, Charles Bronson, James Coburn (having a crack at an Australian accent and failing comprehensively), James Garner and Steve McQueen play the cocky POWs who are going to show Fritz what it means to try and keep them under lock and key.  At times the swaggering defiance and League Of Gentlemen-style British probity approaches the laughable in what is an almost literally juvenile depiction of Allied heroism and dummkopf German stupidity.

Although the actual tunneling scenes are well handled and McQueen's classic motorbike scene provides a memorable moment, by and large The Great Escape is simplistic and sanitized, typifying the malaise of marquee productions of the era (compare, for instance, David Lean's The Bridge On The River Kwai), a victim of its evident artifice. To its credit it shows that the escape wasn't really that great although the idea that somehow it contributed to the war effort seems a long bow to draw.




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