One of everybody’s favourite war films, director John Sturges’s 1963 classic is is one of the most famous and popular prison escape films of all time. The bold plan is that several hundred prisoners should escape all at the same time. A tribute to old-fashioned heroism and bravery, the much loved movie is a guaranteed inspirational spirit-lifter.
Of course you know the story, because the film is on TV all the time. In 1943, Allied prisoners in Germany build three escape tunnels for a mass escape from the Nazis’ maximum security compound Stalag Luft III North, oddly the same prisoner of war camp where the escape in The Wooden Horse was being engineered simultaneously.
A marvellous roster of Sixties international stars is assembled to play the quirky characters planning the spectacular breakout from the German PoW camp. Playing Hilts the Cooler King, Steve McQueen makes his escape the most thrilling of all. His ride on a stolen Nazi motorbike certainly supplies the film’s most exciting and memorable sequence.
The famous 60ft-jump over the fence stunt was actually performed by McQueen’s buddy, Bud Ekins, then manager of an LA motorbike shop, who started a new career as McQueen’s stand-in. Otherwise McQueen did his own riding, all added at his suggestion.
But many other tense situations and great moments are staged throughout the movie. And the film is packed with fine portrayals, including Donald Pleasence at his best as Blythe, the semi-blind forger, James Garner as Hendley the Scrounger, Richard Attenborough as Big X Bartlett, Charles Bronson as Danny the Tunnel King and James Coburn as Sedgwick the Manufacturer.
Also important to the cast are David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, Nigel Stock and James Donald. It is such a cool, cool cast, though McQueen is certainly king of the cool.
The comedic jokey tone of the first half effectively gives way to the perilous high adventure mood of the second. Director John Sturges shoots the movie in an intense, urgent style in a forest location in Germany, where the camp was reconstructed.
There is a fine, distinguished screenplay by James Clavell and W R Burnett, based on a true story by Paul Brickhill, the author of The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky. Brickhill was shot down over Tunisia in 1943, taken to Stalag Luft III and assisted in escape work.
John Leyton who plays Willie the Tunnel King was a former pop star, who rocketed to fame and number one in the UK with Johnny Remember Me in 1961.
Sequel: The Great Escape II: The Untold Story in 1988 with Donald Pleasence as a cast survivor from the original movie.
James Garner, best known for his charming, wry anti-heroes in TV’s The Rockford Files and Maverick died on 19 July 2014, aged 86. He recovered from a quintuple heart bypass in 1998 but suffered a stroke in 2008.
His cinema roles include The Thrill of It All (1963), Move Over, Darling (1963), The Great Escape (1963), The Americanization of Emily (1964), Grand Prix (1966), Support Your Local Sheriff!(1969), Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), Sunset, Victor/Victoria (1982), Murphy’s Romance (1985) which earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, Tank, Twilight, Maverick (1994), My Fellow Americans (1996), Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and The Notebook.
He received an Emmy nomination for best actor in Maverick in 1959 and won an Emmy as private investigator Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files in 1977.
© Derek Winnert 2013 Classic Movie Review 201
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