Combustible Celluloid
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With: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn
Written by: W.R. Burnett, James Clavell, based on the book by Paul Brickhill
Directed by: John Sturges
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 172
Date: 06/19/1963

The Great Escape (1963)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Don't Fence Me In

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director John Sturges (1910-92) was known for his manly action pictures and for his beautiful use of the widescreen frame. Unfortunately, he was also known for inflating and expanding his pictures until they resembled giant self-important works of art, even if they were still nothing more than manly action pictures. His best film is still the small, unpretentious Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), but his fans prefer The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. Those two films offer the chance to enjoy a rugged action picture without feeling guilty. They're both so epic in scope and so high-minded in spirit that they can't be just a waste of time, can they?

The Great Escape is a good, solid action picture, despite its enormous length and lofty intentions. Set in a WWII German prison camp, a group of British and American soldiers plan an elaborate and epic escape attempt. Not just half a dozen, but 250 men will get out. Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) designs the plan, which involves digging three tunnels at once. Danny (Charles Bronson) is the chief digger, despite his lifelong claustrophobia.

Sedgwick (James Coburn, also in Charade with Audrey Hepburn the same year) is the "manufacturer," who invents a way to keep air flowing through the tunnels. Hendley (James Garner) is the "scrounger," whose job is to get a hold of things like picks and shovels as well as ID badges and documents. His roommate is Blythe (Donald Pleasence) a forger who prepares the fake documents. Finally, we have Hilts (Steve McQueen), who spends most of the film in the cooler, bouncing his baseball against the wall (an action that was cleverly spoofed in 2000's Chicken Run).

With its luxurious three hours, the film deliberately details all the ins and outs, the successes and pitfalls of the plan. We learn how the diggers get rid of the excess dirt. We learn where the wood comes from to brace the tunnels. We see how a "scrounger" makes friends with -- and double-crosses -- the guards to get what he wants from the outside. It's not unlike Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956) in that regard, except that Bresson only had one prisoner to deal with in the confines of his 96-minute film.

The escape itself occurs in the middle of the film, and it's gripping for as long as it lasts. But then Sturges spends the final hour following the escapees and detailing how they get caught; it's this last third that kills the momentum, and the fun. Elmer Bernstein's exemplary score helps a great deal. He lays on the dread when Sturges forgets about it, and ramps up the suspense when necessary.

Of course, the point of the movie for most people is that it's based on a true story and that it's dedicated to the fifty men who died during the original escape. But let's not forget that the film is, above all, a great deal of fun, and -- in itself -- a kind of escape.

MGM/UA re-released it in 2004 on a new double-disc Special Edition, The DVD's second disc spends a great deal of time going over these details so that we can feel our time was well spent. A commentary track -- apparently recorded some time ago for the laserdisc release -- includes chat by the late James Coburn and Donald Pleasence as well as a much older interview with Sturges. In 2020, the Criterion Collection gave the movie the golden touch with a fine Blu-ray edition. It includes the aforementioned commentary track, plus another archival one featuring Sturges and Bernstein. There are several archival behind-the-scenes featurettes, a trailer, a new interview with film critic Michael Sragow, and a liner notes essay by film critic Sheila O'Malley.

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