Monday, May 16, 2011

Flick of The Day: The Great Escape

Some subjects and events in history have been explored so many times in various guises throughout the history of cinema, that one would imagine that there is nothing more that could be added by yet another film on the topic. The Second World War is surely one such topic, having been a staple of Hollywood from its inception to at least the mid 1960's followed by a mini-revival in the 90's. There are too many fine films on the War to list here but some highlights would include The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, and today's flick of the day, The Great Escape.
From director John Sturges, this is one of the classics of the genre. With an ensemble cast of some of the biggest actors of the day, this is an old school adventure tale of the highest order. The Germans as is their wont have spent a small fortune capturing various allied prisoners of war and irritated at their continuous attempts to escape decides to dump all the bad eggs in one basket, from which there will be no escape. There is the Americans; Steve McQueen as a pilot with a penchant for motorcycle stunts and a bit of a rebel and James Garner as a man who can acquire things inside the prison. The British; led by Richard Attenborough, a gentleman with a steely resolve. An Australian, played by James Coburn and a Pole played by Charles Bronson who excels in digging tunnels. Together they plot an escape by digging three tunnels out of the camp. The film is an action packed adventure culminating in  an attempted mass escape.
Treated with contempt by critics upon its release, it is only in recent years that the film has been reappraised as the classic it is. From the motorcycle stunts attempted by McQueen which had never been seen on the big screen before then to the groundbreaking way in which it manages to handle a fundamentally tragic tale with warmth and a good deal of humour, this was a far superior film to others of its era like The Battle of the Bulge or The Guns of Navarone. It has one of the great ensemble casts in terms of male actors of the era, including a cultural icon in perhaps his most iconic role, Steve McQueen. This is not to mention the fantastic work by less starry names of British cinema like Donald Pleasence and David McCallum. This is a film with an emphasis on action rather than dialogue but there are some memorable quotable lines in there.

Sedgwick: Danny, do you speak Russian? 
Danny: A little, but only one sentence. 
Sedgwick: Well, let me have it, mate. 
Danny: Ya vas lyublyu. 
Sedgwick: Ya ya vas... 
Danny: Lyublyu. 
Sedgwick: Lyubliu? Ya vas lyubliu. Ya vas lyublyu. What's it mean? 
Danny: I love you. 
Sedgwick: Love you. What bloody good is that? 
Danny: I don't know, I wasn't going to use it myself.

Based on a true account from a former POW, the film amends a few details but is largely historically accurate apart from increasing the importance of the American involvement which is no surprise in an American film. If there is one criticism of the film, coming in at nearly 3 hours, it does feel overlong. That said, a rainy afternoon can be easily batted away by catching this on TV. A classic adventure film with a great ensemble cast, this is well worth a look.

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