Friday, March 13, 2009

MOVIES: #19 The Great Escape

They don't make movies like The Great Escape any more. Almost, too long, at almost three hours. Cinema proprietors hate it when a movie hits two and a half hours these days, because of turnover. But back in 1963, this wasn't even the longest movie to make my list! That's right, in a week I will be talking about a talkie that went past 3:15 on the way to a director's cut in excess of FIVE HOURS! But, for right now, let's talk about Steve McQueen's best movie ever.

McQueen played the Cooler King in The Great Escape. There's plenty of personality in the American who won't quit trying to escape Stalag Luft III during World War II. Unfortunately he keeps getting caught and he, his mitt and a baseball spend a LOT of time in solitary. He gets wiser as the movie goes along and joins the great escape. When he does, we get treated to his motorcycle escapades as he leads the Nazis up hill and dale until he's faced with the iconic image of a long fence he must jump to get away. It's breath-taking.

Of course, McQueen wasn't the only escapee. From the British contingent, we had Richard Attenborough leading the way, with Donald Pleasence (he was the going-blind forger), David McCallum and James Donald. McQueen's fellow Yanks included Charles Bronson and James Garner. The Nazi guards were headed up by the Kommandant, played by Hannes Messemer, who was anything other than a Colonel Klink. Plus dozens of other characters. It was quite the ensemble piece. I particularly liked Bronson rowing down the river to freedom and Garner and Pleasence flying a plane held together by spit, wire and an indomitable spirit.

The movie is basically a three-act play. The first section sets up the conflict between the guards and the rowdy bunch of American and British prisoners. The middle section deals with building the tunnel to freedom. And then we have the final act, devoted to hunting down the escaped prisoners. Some get away. Fifty didn't. And paid the ultimate price for that fact. It's a chilling conclusion to a movie that makes gallows humour all the more poignant.

I saw this about the same time as Hogan's Heroes was on TV. It made for an interesting contrast. You might not have the same experience, having never seen the TV show. Regardless, watch this one. It's a good way to spend three hours learning a little bit about history.

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