Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Great Escape

 It is funny how certain films become well known for just one scene rather than the whole film. Last week I looked at Ursula Andress's iconic bikini scene from Dr .No. When the name Dr. No is mentioned, that bikini scene instantly comes to mind, and it has defined the film for 60 years. Other films have scenes like this to, that not only are iconic, but have come define the film itself. We can think of the cliff jump in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Reagan's head doing 360 in the Exorcist, etc. To the list can be added the famous bike jump in 1963's The Great Escape.

 But unlike many other iconic scenes for me the bike jump in The Great Escape is unfortunate. Spectacular yes, iconic yes, but still unfortunate, because in doing so it has overshadowed the film's sobering story. Namely the escape of 76 men and the subsequent murder of 50 of them. When released in 1963 the film was an instant commercial and critical success. It was one of the highest grossing films of the year, and over the last 50 years its reputation and popularity have only grown. But as much as I  like this film there are one or two things that stick in my craw. They must be evaluated as the flaws do mar a fine film, which for me it is one of two parts.

 The film is of course based on Paul Brickhill's work of the same name. Brickhill was an Australian and wrote three well known books on WW2 that were adapted to film. The other two being ( very famously ) The Dam Busters, and Reach For The Sky, the life of legless pilot Douglas Bader. His books were immensely popular but today are somewhat dated. The Dam Busters is today more popular myth with many of its facts discredited ( I highly recommend John Sweetman's book, The Dambuster's Raid  ). It is no coincidence that Brickill wrote about The Great Escape, as he himself was a prisoner of Stalag Luft 111 which was near Sagan, Lower Silesia. It is now of course Zagan in modern day Poland.

 Whilst Brickill's book has dated somewhat the events it portrays did happen, and The Great Escape was a very real event. The problem with the movie starts once American involvement started. Now I want to make it quite clear right now this isn't an anti-American rant. It is more putting the true slant on the facts as they were distorted in making the film. First off it is an American film being released by United Artists. It was produced and directed by American John Sturges, and adapted by ( Australian born, British raised, naturalized American author, James Clavell ). So even with a smattering of British actors this is very much an American film

 The problem with this is that the Great Escape was essentially a British undertaking. Or more to the point made by RAF personnel. Of course the RAF was extremely cosmopolitan with members from many countries ( New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Rhodesia, South Africa, etc ). But for ease I shall encompass them all as British, under the banner of the RAF. There were American service men in Stalag Luft 111, and some were involved in digging the tunnels, but they were separated from the British personnel before the escape. So in all reality American involvement was very small.

 And this is where the film sticks in my craw. With this being an American made/financed film, about an almost wholly British undertaking, it was never going to be accepted by American audiences. Hence the producers added in an American flavour with the likes of James Garner playing a pilot in the RAF's Eagle squadron ( a factual squadron made up entirely of American pilots ) fair enough, I can accept that. But what doesn't go down so well is having too big a part for Steve McQueen, and in particular the somewhat tasteless, tackless raising of the Stars and Stripes on the 4th of July. This didn't sit well with me because the film is ultimately about the murder of 50 RAF personnel, and this scene somewhat cheapens what should be a more sobering aspect of the film. Just remember the odious cause these guys were fighting against.

 Steven Spielberg did a similar thing in Saving Private Ryan which didn't sit well me either. Sure the Stars and Stripes were flying over an American cemetery but it was a real afront, and slap in the face, to all the other nations who had servicemen fight and die in Normandy. Patriotism is all good and well, but here is a way to do it and a way not too. I'm afraid by putting in the Stars and Stripes it slapped the faces of the British personnel who made up the escape. It is a poor showing for me, and whilst I love the film overall, the almost anti-British sentiment is a bit too galling to take.

 But I do understand the why. America is the world's biggest cinema market and studios need to make their money back. So by putting in some Americana meant getting a British story accepted in America. The British film industry of course just didn't have the studios or the money to make a film on this scale. But even if it did American studios were reluctant to screen British films as they felt American audiences weren't receptive to British accents. This problem goes back decades, and is one the reasons why the likes of Alfred Hitchcock moved to America so he could actually make films. America had the bucks and could control the ship.

 So flag waving aside is The Great Escape any good?? Well after 50 years I think so. I've always immensely enjoyed it as it is a fine example of a big budget, all star cast, that modern cinema can't seem to replicate. The closet example I can think of is Sly Stallone's agonisingly awful The Expendables, which gathered together all those muscled meat heads together. In the Great Escape the biggest names of British and American cinema were brought together, and surprisingly the end result was superb. But unfortunately Steve McQueen and his raging ego rears its head, and another mar of the film presents itself.

 With the actual escape involving no American personnel it is somewhat galling that McQueen constantly held up filming, just so his part could be increased. Today McQueen is undoubtedly what the film is best known for, and it made him a box office attraction. But he constantly plagued filming which casts a pall over the film. It became all about Steve McQueen and not the escapees. This is unfortunate, because the story becomes somewhat diluted and the odiousness what the film is about, diluted with it. The film is half homage, half escapism which for me, more than anything, it must be ultimately be judged on.

 The cast as stated is an all star one. So many of the early1960's names are there. McQueen, Bronson, and Coburn of course came off the success of the Magnificent Seven. But again the lack of strength in the British film industry is seen, as the cast had to use more American actors than British due to lack of enough Brits to fill the roles. James Coburn has to play an Australian!! He is a totally unconvincing 'cobber' I'm afraid. Charles Bronson as an American actor is well cast as a Pole though. And Garner's role as an Eagle squadron pilot is well though out and authentic. 

 I like the British cast. Oops Gordon Jackson was a Scot wasn't he??! But the stand out in the film for me is Richard Attenborough. McQueen may have stolen the show, but Attenborough for me is the real deal, as he isn't show ponying like McQueen is. Donald Pleasance reminds us that he could play other characters before he forever became Ernst Blofeld, James Bond's nemesis. David McCallum was another character besides The Man From Uncle, or even Steel! Fortunately for such a big cast the chemistry is there, where you would expect a clash of egos instead. But you can't escape McQueen's presence, and loner role shadow can you? (One of the surprising things about McQueen is that he actually developed a semi- life long friendship with Richard Attenborough, who he rated very highly as an actor ).

 Overall the film is accurate, and shows life in a German POW camp very well. But whilst that rings true the iconic bike chase and jump is total fabrication. The part was written in under pressure from Steve McQueen, just to showcase his bike riding talents. He was an accomplished dirt bike rider, and it does show in his characters escape attempt. Funnily enough even though it is exciting and spectacular, the more sedate escape of James Coburn and Charles Bronson is more realistic.
 Of course when one thinks of The Great Escape that bike jump instantly springs to mind, just as that bikini scene does in Dr. No. Steve McQueen of course didn't perform the stunt even though he wanted to, and was more than capable of doing so. He was disallowed for insurance purposes though and it was performed by McQueen's stuntman and personal friend Bud Ekins. McQueen was disallowed because if injured or killed himself then the rest of the film could have been put in jeopardy. Suffice to say it didn't stop McQueen from writing off his star supplied car during filming!! ( He was to do so repeatedly throughout his career ). The jump itself has been surrounded by myth for many years. Many believed McQueen actually done the stunt even though he never actually said he had done so. It just added a bit of glamour for McQueen and his ego to let the myth linger.

 Some veterans rate the film very highly and praise its authenticity. But they also criticise McQueen's role in glamorizing the events too much. For me, as much as it is an iconic role, the film is marred by McQueen's role hogging, and the unfortunate Stars and stripes scene. The film is supposed to be about an odious event and glamorizing it wasn't really appropriate. To be sure though, it was a film and had to make money, so embellishments had to be made to bring in a paying audience. For me personally it is a film I have to look at in two ways. As a stand alone film that was made for escapism and fun, and the true events behind it all, which led to the murder of 50 men.

 As a 1960's all star cast film this must rate as one of the best. Even today its reputation is solid and it still makes for great viewing. The bike scene is one iconic even though historical nonsense, and filmed just to accommodate a star's ego. As a piece of adventure and escapism it has hardly been bettered. But as an historical piece, the American hijacking and slap in the face Stars and Stripes scene doesn't sit well. It is an unfortunate, somewhat tasteless addition, that really shouldn't have been added in, just as a simple courtesy to those RAF personnel murdered by the Gestapo. Ultimately that is what the film should be remembered for, and not Steve McQueen and his rendition of Yankee Doodle Dandy and a bike chase.

A film of two parts. Historical purists like myself will find the American additions somewhat galling. But as a stand alone film it is still a great piece of cinema that has stood the test of time. The fact it is still incredibly popular and well known is testament enough. In the process it made a star out of Steve McQueen, and introduced one of cinema's most enduringly iconic scenes.

Click here for a synopsis and more:
And click here for a very authoritative site on that jump!:

 Besides Paul Brickill's book there are several others that are newer and more scholarly than his. I recommend these three as a starter:

 The Great Escape - Tim Caroll.

 The Tunnel King : The True Story Of Wally Flooding - Barbara Hehner.

The Longest Tunnel - Alan Burgess.

Site of the tunnel today. Notice how short the exit is of the treeline ( 30 yrds ).


  1. Really in depth review, a view items I was unaware of especially McQueen who I was never a big fan of anyway, my most memorable part is when poor Gordon Jackson is trapped by the Gestapo before boarding the bus.

  2. Yeah believe it or not Jackson's tricky Gestapo capture is the scene that has always stuck in my mind. I suppose it is because he had previously berated a fellow prisoner on not falling for the very trick he did.
    Mc Queen could be a real pain and always thought of himself as the biggest thing on any film set.