Based on the non-fiction novel by Paul Brickhill, The Great Escape is the story of a legendary prison break during World War II at a Nazi prison camp where a group of different soldiers concoct a break at a high-security prison. Directed by John Sturges and screenplay by W.R. Burnett and James Clavell, the film a dramatic version of the real life prison break at Stalag Luft III where a small number of men do whatever they can to break out of this hellish prison camp. Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, James Donald, Donald Pleasence, and Hannes Messemer. The Great Escape is a riveting and adventurous film from John Sturges.
It is late 1942 as a large number of POWs are sent to the high security Stalag Luft III prison camp as a number of them lead by a mixture of British, America, Polish, and Australian soldiers/officers where that small number concoct an elaborate prison break. It’s a film with a simple premise yet it is more about a group of men trying to understand their environment and how to get out of the prison as well as get out of Germany. The film’s screenplay follows a simple narrative structure as it’s more about the people at the camp and how they meticulously try to get out as well as figure out what is outside of the camp. Notably as they try to do everything secretly under the watchful eye of the prison camp’s commandant Oberst von Luger (Hannes Messemer) who is trying to ensure that nothing goes wrong and the prisoners are treated humanely. Still, he has to deal with the British officer Roger Bartlett aka Big X (Richard Attenborough) who harbors a lot of disdain for the Nazis following his time with the Gestapo as he’s someone who knows about prison breaks as he confides in his superior Captain Ramsey (James Donald) about the plan who chooses to mediate between the prisoners and Kommadant von Luger.
Two of the American prisoners in Flight Lieutenant Bob Hendley aka the Scrounger (James Garner) and Captain Virgil Hilts aka the Cooler King (Steve McQueen) try to concoct their own plans yet they would eventually work with the other prisoners as the latter often breaks out only to come back and put in the isolation confinement. The former doesn’t just try to charm a guard in Werner (Robert Graf) but also befriends Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe aka the Forger (Donald Pleasance) as the latter starts to go blind making Hendley protective of him. Also part of the team include the Polish digger/tunnel maker Danny Welinski aka the Tunnel King (Charles Bronson), his friend Willie Dickes (John Leyton), and the Australian Sedgwick aka the Manufacturer (James Coburn) as they all meticulously plan to build a tunnel system while also trying to find ways to keep it a secret. There are also these situations that Hilts had observed during his own brief escapes as it also concerns locations, blind spots, and other areas that the prisoners have to deal with.
John Sturges’ direction is definitely engaging for the way he creates the atmosphere of the film but also finds an air of hope during a moment of repression and frustration. Shot on location in areas near and around Munich including the Bavarian region in then-West Germany, the film uses the prison location as a character as it is surrounded by forest where there’s Nazis patrolling in areas outside of the prison as it would add to the suspense during its third act. Much of the film’s first and second takes place in the prison camp where it is about the location and where a few blind spots are and where the coolers are placed for the prisoners who overstep their bounds and are sent to the isolation centers. While Sturges uses some wide shots to get a scope of the locations as well as these unique dolly-tracking shots to get a look into the length of the tunnels. Sturges also maintains that air of claustrophobia in the medium shots and close-ups for some of the tunnels as it plays into the struggles that Welinski endures as it pertains into his own secret despite being a great creator of tunnels.
Sturges also plays up the air of suspense as it relates to these prisoners dealing with the idea that they might be caught as it includes a moment where all of the prisoners are having a drink of moonshine some of the prisoners created where one of the planned tunnels is discovered. It would add to the drama as the scene where a small number of prisoners make their escape through the tunnels is an intense moment filled with dread and uncertainty. Yet, it’s outside of the camps that are much more dangerous where no one has to make a noise or be caught by a light. It is a gripping sequence in the film that is followed more by a chilling aftermath once some of these men are out of the camp as they have to watch where they’re going and such. Getting out of the prison is easy in comparison to getting out of Nazi Germany as there are some thrilling and exciting moments including a scene of Hilts escaping on a motorcycle. While its conclusion might seem bleak, there is something hopeful about it considering the work that these men did to break out of prison as it gave them a sense of urgency and a need to be alive as it adds to the human spirit. Overall, Sturges crafts an evocative and exhilarating film about the real-life POW camp escape and the details of the men who planned the escape.
Cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography with its emphasis on dream-like natural lighting for some of the daytime scenes set in the morning as well as its approach to lights for some of the scenes at night including the scenes in the tunnels. Editor Ferris Webster does excellent work with the editing as much of the cutting is straightforward to play into the action and suspense as well as to play into some of the dramatic moments in the film. Art director Fernando Carrere and set decorator Kurt Ripberger do amazing work with the look of the prison camp as well as some of the houses and the cooler as it is play into the claustrophobia and the way the tunnels were designed. The special effects work of A. Paul Pollard does terrific work with some of the action including some of the motorcycle chase for the film’s climax. Sound effects editor Wayne Fury does nice work with the sound in the way gunfire sound as well as some sparse sounds in the tunnel scenes. The film's music by Elmer Bernstein is incredible with some thrilling themes as well as a memorable marching theme as it adds to some of the humor and workmanship of the tunnels as it is a major highlight of the film.
The film’s marvelous ensemble cast as it feature some notable small roles from Ulrich Beiger and Hans Reiser as a couple of Gestapo officials who have it in for Bartlett, Jud Taylor as an American soldier who often keeps Hilts’ baseball glove for safekeeping, Robert Graf as a naïve German soldier in Werner whom Hendley likes to bullshit with but also make him feel important, Nigel Stock as a British officer in Cavendish who is nicknamed the Surveyor for making sure everything is kept secret from the Germans, Angus Lennie as the Scottish soldier Ives who often joins Hilts at the cooler with a desire to get out, David McCallum as a British officer who creates an ingenious way to get rid of dirt, John Leyton as Welinski’s friend Willie Dickes who helps Welinski in digging the tunnels and to help him with Welinski’s issues, and Gordon Jackson as Bartlett’s second-in-command Andy MacDonald who helps plan the escape and ensure that things go right.
Hannes Messemer is superb as Kommadant Oberst von Luger as the camp’s commandant who oversees everything and tries to make sure the prisoners are well-treated as he does give a sympathetic performance of a man just doing his job but also knows he doesn’t want to do anything extreme. James McDonald is fantastic as the British officer Captain Ramsey as the leader of the prisoners who tries to ensure that everyone does their duty and keep everything a secret while having to do some diplomacy with Kommadant von Luger. Donald Pleasance is excellent as the master forger Colin Blythe who strikes a friendship with Hendley as he deals with a growing blindness that makes his a liability as he also does what he can to help everyone out despite his blindness. James Coburn is brilliant as the Australian officer Sedgwick who helps construct some of the wood for the tunnels including the small trains as well as watch out for guards. Charles Bronson is amazing as the Polish officer Danny Welinski as a man who is an expert in creating tunnels yet is dealing with his own issues as he starts to deal with his illness that almost makes him a liability.
Richard Attenborough is incredible as RAF officer Roger Bartlett as a British officer who has already caused trouble with the Gestapo as he leads the charge to plan an escape as he also tries to boost up morale despite some of the darker moments that occur in the film. James Garner is phenomenal as the American RAF officer Bob Hendley who does what he can to get things as he also bullshits his way to get them but also a man who possesses a great sense of warmth to others including Blythe whom he vouches for and helps him escape as it’s one of Garner’s finest roles. Finally, there’s Steve McQueen in a tremendous performance as the American officer Captain Virgil Hilts as a man who likes to push buttons while being someone who can help everyone else as he is also willing to put himself in isolation just for the team as he’s also one of the toughest guys who is willing to do what it takes to outsmart the Nazis even if it means getting caught.
The Great Escape is a magnificent film from John Sturges. Featuring a tremendous ensemble cast, dazzling visuals, Elmer Bernstein’s sumptuous music score, gripping suspense, and a story of determination and wit. It is a film that can be served as a prison break film that everything else has to follow while it is also a testament to the human spirit in war whether it’s those digging the tunnels or those who try to create some kind of peace in the darkest of times. In the end, The Great Escape is an outstanding film from John Sturges.
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