The Great Escape (1963)

I was in a store the other day (for the female readers, imagine a Bath & Body Works 50 times bigger than normal, but instead of body spray and lotions, the smell of electronics permeates the air!), and playing on the many televisions was a preview for some Nicolas Cage movie (I don’t know for sure, but I think they’re all the same movie, just different titles). Most of the movie seems to consist of Mr. Cage walking away from explosions in slow motion, and of course, not looking back.

I bring that up, because if you saw The Great Escape years ago, the highlight of the movie is Steve McQueen trying to escape pursuit by German soldiers, and his subsequent jump over a 12 foot barb-wire fence. If this scene were re-made in a modern day Nicholas Cage movie, undoubtedly the motorcycle would be in flames, it would be making a 100 foot jump through a flame engulfing mushroom cloud, with a couple of heat-seeking missiles close behind. His passenger would be a model-turned-actress. This would all be in super-slow motion. Mr. Cage would have a bored look on his face, and he would not look back.

Now, from the ridiculous to the sublime: The Great Escape tells the true story of mass escape from a German WWII P.O.W. camp. While the characters are based on composites, the details of the escape are true. How to make a 2 ½ hour movie about a group of men digging a 200 foot long tunnel, not just interesting, but engrossing, is what this film shows us.

In the 2 ½ hours, the director John Sturges not only highlights the details of the escape, but gives us a dozen or so fully fleshed-out characters. They have emotions, fears, hopes, and what happens to them individually becomes an integral part of the film.

The acting is superb. Interestingly, Donald Pleasence, was actually shot down in the war and spent time in a POW camp. Several other actors were also prisoners of war, and Charles Bronson worked in a coal mine as a youth and developed claustrophobia, which his character also has.

The soundtrack itself has become iconic, and look for the scene at in the last minutes, where the music hits the perfect chord when McQueen’s character catches a baseball glove and ball tossed to him. Fantastic blending of music and film.

Ultimately, movies of this era succeed, albeit with stunts and situations that some would consider lame by today’s CGI (computer generated imagery) standards, precisely for the reason that they are NOT done with CGI. While we wouldn’t WANT to be in these situations, we can feel what it would be like to be surrounded by nothing but dirt and darkness. For those of us that remember what it was like to ride a bike over a bump with the hopes of getting “air time”, we can feel McQueen’s character’s desperate jump. The overuse of CGI technology can disconnect us from truly imagining what those situations feel like.

And yes, during McQueen’s chase, he often looks back. Even the King of Cool needs to know what’s going on.


2 thoughts on “The Great Escape (1963)

  1. Only now have I seen the genius of your posts, Mike. “The Great Escape” comes before your post about your move to Miami. Amazing how the unconscious works!

    Well done, Mike! Keep that unconscious mind at work. May Miami prove to be the Great Escape of your dreams.

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