“Over this range, then 20 more minutes and we’ve got it made,” Hendley (James Garner) calls over to Blythe (Donald Pleasance), whose wide, sightless eyes stare blankly through the windshield of Nazi plane the two have just stolen. The camera cuts to a view of the Swiss Alps, the last barrier between the two escaped prisoners of war and freedom. Every cog of their escape plan had been churning in their favor until Hendley spoke those fateful words, and as soon as they fall from his lips, the audience knows that they won’t make it. Indeed, within the next two minutes their plane crashes, Blythe is killed by German troops, and Hendley is recaptured. This unforgiving yet realistic cycle of success and setback is the edge that makes The Great Escape (1963) worthy of the real World War II prison break it was based on. Director John Sturges doesn’t treat the film’s audience to a hyperbolized version of the 1944 breakout from German POW camp Stalag Luft III; however, he occasionally surrenders to the allure of allowing Hollywood glamor fill any gaps in the film. The result is a raw, suspenseful trimmed with manufactured drama.
A present-day viewer will approach The Great Escape with anticipation and enthusiasm (it has been canonized in cinematic history, after all); unfortunately, one of the first emotions The Great Escape evokes is confusion. It’s almost impossible to equate the film’s set- a prison camp that looks more like a glorified chicken coop- with the merciless German containment facility that was impossible to be broken out of. However, distractions from these initial doubts arrive quickly in the form of the new inmates, whose escape attempts begin instantaneously. Often comically ingenious, the immediate efforts to evade further imprisonment afford a warped sense of in medias res to the film, as if the audience is observing the prisoners in the midst of a typical daily routine. However, the plans for the true escape went on to disappoint further. The de facto leader of the prisoners, Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), spearheads the plan to tunnel out of Nazi control. This approach seems too simple to be worthy of these crafty, determined men, but the audience must remember that The Great Escape isn’t a film that in the veins of Mission Impossible, and that it is a true story from the bowels of World War II history.
As the film goes on, the audience watches as the prisoners, an eclectic collection of curiously talented men, turn their barracks into a facsimile for a covert colony of forgery, reconnaissance, theft, and, of course, constant tunnelling. As their escape route grows, the personalities of the characters mature along with it, along with the audience’s attachment to them. However, as the men burrow closer and closer to freedom, the film begins to actively thwart their plans. To keep the stakes and the intrigue high, the script adds a suspenseful series of scenes where the Nazi forces discover the nearly-completed tunnel. The resulting feeling of failure and hopelessness completely consumes one prisoner, Ives ‘The Mole’ (Angus Lennie), and leads to his suicide. Although the discovery of the tunnel is historically accurate and necessary to the smooth pacing of the film, the addition of Ives’s death is a clear example of the intervention of Hollywood’s excessive lust for drama. It fits into the emotional makeup of the discovery scenes and closes the circle of Ives’s story, but isn’t necessary. By haphazardly tacking on the conclusion of Ives’s subplot, the film almost trivializes it by attaching it carelessly to another moment of heartbreak.
Arguably, one of the most enticing elements of The Great Escape is its ensemble cast, among them the iconic Steve McQueen. However, the film doesn't do his legacy justice, and it seemed to be aware of that. After leaving McQueen’s character, Hilts ‘The Cooler King,’ offscreen for much of the film’s first act, the writers knew they had to redeem his lackluster introduction quickly. They attempted to do so with a late motorcycle chase that had McQueen leading Nazis around in circles and over grassy hills, and which seemingly appeared out of nowhere and didn’t do anything to advance the plot. While these scenes may have slaked the lust McQueen’s fans had for a legendary action sequence, they left earnest viewers puzzled at its relevance. This was another instance where reality didn’t satisfy the needs of a blockbuster so Hollywood filled in, but its presence is obvious and the film thematically rejects it, it as a body would a transplanted organ. However, his absence early on in the film offers a refreshing break from the usually overpowering presence of McQueen. His temporary relegation to a supporting actor allows the rest of the cast to establish themselves as the real heroes of the story and not be overshadowed the firebrand personality of both McQueen and his character.
In the end, there’s only so much criticism one can lay on such a film as The Great Escape, and there’s only so much one can say about the screen presence of a great actor such as Steve McQueen. The Great Escape’s lengthy tribute to the determination, creativity, and gall of World War II POWs was well paced, powerful, entertaining, and extremely deserving of the prestigious distinction it holds in film history.