Approved. It's a war movie, so there's going to be things related to war movies that might upset some audiences. There are moments that the Nazis live up to their names when it comes to atrocities. Characters we really like die. I suppose that I could say that the movie glorifies alcohol at times. But I remember watching this movie as a kid. Nothing really bothered me, even the scene involving barbed wire. Regardless, the whole thing is considered Approved, and that's close enough for government work.
DIRECTOR: John Sturges
Sometimes, when I watch these movies, I am only thinking about the hook. There are half-a-dozen different hooks I want to play with. The ironic part is that, having half-a-dozen hooks created this very hook, which is a meta-examination on the role of writing a hook. Anyway, I know it's no Stalag 17, Guarinos, but we can all acknowledge that this movie is pretty darned great. This is one of the first movies that I saw that fell under the banner of a true classic. I mean, it might have been tied with the works of Alfred Hitchcock. But I just remember sitting through this almost three hour movie time-and-time again. There's something about the escape film that is fascinating. I keep watching movies like this and Le Trou.
There's something honestly patriotic about the whole thing. Maybe this is the exact kind of valor that I would suck at. The Great Escape starts off with a binary choice: relax and we can all sit out the war in peace with hobbies or escape and make both our lives miserable. I think the one thing that I would be really good at is embracing the comfort of hobbies. Instead, not only is this an entire POW camp that is completely devoted to escape (a logic system that makes little sense to me), but everyone is completely devoted to the cause for escape, pulling every trick they know out. They devise the most insane plan ever for tunnels. It becomes this Ocean's Eleven style breakout where there are so many clever little tricks that these soldiers use to escape. It's just that it is all about the details. A tunnel? Boring. Three tunnels, exciting! Hide some dirt? Boring. Making special dirt smuggling pants? Exciting. There's all these little things that go into these movies and the knowledge that it can all fall apart at the drop of a hat is what really makes these movies worth watching.
I want to talk about the most exciting scene in the movie. Think about it. Okay, the most exciting scene is actually Steve McQueen jumping barbed wire on a motorbike. I didn't want to put an image of Steve McQueen's Cooler King as the image because I think it really pulls away from the core focus that this movie is an ensemble piece. No, I want to look at the most emotional moment in the movie: the moonshine sequence juxtaposed with Ives's death. Again, I know. Stalag 17 did it first. I also own that movie and will hopefully get around to writing about it one day. The movie builds up such a degree of hope by this point in the film. The first tunnel is almost complete. There's a moment of real celebration. Never have emotions been this high and dropped so low so quickly. (Okay, that's probably completely disputable, but I love this scene.) It's in this moment where I find the movie incredibly patriotic. While the film injects a lot of Americans into a story where none were present in reality, the jibes and ribbing that takes place between the British and American soldiers is kind of great. They form their own little nation against a sea of Nazis and it is perfect. They're drinking stuff that should make them go blind and they're having the best time of it all. The murmuring around the camp about the forthcoming escape is inspiring and it all comes crashing down, causing Ives to kill himself. It is these moments, where the perfect plan goes to pot because of a silly mistake is what is oddly cathartic. Ives's death is the death of hope, yet the soldiers power through.
Which is, despite the soundtrack being so optimistic, why this movie is all about tragedy. There's a bright and peppy tone about the movie as a whole. But the film does surround tragedy. In some ways, I can't help but make the connection to The Prisoner. The music is grand and boisterous. The camp is clean. There's all this fun stuff to do. But everything in the movie is almost fighting the tone of the film. These men could subject themselves to a war of comfort. There is plenty there to keep them amused. But the men are constantly facing failure and sadness. For all the swells of crescendo when prisoners try to escape, like jumping into trucks with trees or disguising themselves as Russian workers (it's weird that the Polish guy doesn't know more Russian), they're instantly caught and thrown in the Cooler. I mean, we get Hilts, who doesn't seem to mind being the Cooler King. But for every one Hilts, there are a hundred Iveses.
And that's what makes the tragedy so much more tragic. Danny is this guy who comes across as a strongman the entire film. It is almost a little unbelievable when his neuroses start firing. But that's what makes Danny's story all the more compelling. I think the movie stated that the last tunnel he made was his seventeenth tunnel. He's a tunnel man who is claustrophobic. He's been pushing past his phobia until he's been asked to make the most intense tunnel of his life. There are times that I scoff at Danny, wondering if he's being a little dramatic. But then I think about how I'm not claustrophobic and I still wouldn't do a great job in that tunnel.
The same is true for Colin. There's a little bit of The Twilight Zone, "I finally had time" element going on with Colin's blindness. Out of all the people to lose their sight, it's the guy who finds joy in the visual. He's an artist. He's a forger. His hobby is birdwatching and the film robs him of his vision. Part of me thinks that the movie is implying that his obsession with perfection when it came to forging is what robbed him of his sight. But it does kind of seem to come out of nowhere. The film insists that many of the elements of the movie are true, but I don't know if this scene is dramatized for the sake of Hollywood. But between Ives, Danny, and Colin, there's kind of a lot of tragedy surrounding the movie.
I think it comes from the fact of successfully managing a paradox involving a peppy tone and a dour theme. Early in the film, the CO meets with the German Kommandant. It kind of feels like there's a Hogan's Heroes thing happening (which I will admit to never having have seen). There's a respect between officers, similar to something that would have been in The Grand Illusion. But Roger quickly steps in after this scene and reminds his men, but mostly the audience, that there is no such thing as a good Nazi. As lovable as the Kommandant or Werner come across, they are both supporters of an army that exterminates people it considers lesser. We can make things pretty and optimistic all day, but the film will not let us forget that these people are monsters. The film is dedicated to the fifty men who were executed for escaping the prison camp. The soldiers are plenty aware of what the Nazis are capable of. That's what makes the camp kind of haunting. It would almost be better for the soldiers if the camp was a dump because there wouldn't be a lie about the whole thing. The promise of quiet to placate the troops would be almost a form of brainwashing. "Maybe the Nazis aren't so bad." When the Kommandant leaves at the end, it is with the implication that he will be shot for his failure to prevent an escape.
There's a great Eddie Izzard bit about The Great Escape. The movie decided to really limit how many cultures were in the camp. The film has mostly Brits, three Americans, and Australian, and a Polish recruit. But it kind of has Steve McQueen just be his own thing. (Again, I commented on this.) It is really weird that the Americans are allowed to not get shot to death? I feel like Hilts would be the first to be executed because he keeps on trying to escape. Like, there's no breaks. He tries to escape, gets captured, goes to the Cooler, does it again. How is that fair? Most of those guys weren't even the bigwigs of the escape plan? I mean, Roger I get. He's Mr. X. But a lot of them were just guys. It seems like Hilts survived because no one wanted to upset the Americans.
Side note: How would you feel to be the guy who is caught almost immediately and ruined it for everyone? Boo for that guy.
But this is one of the greats for a reason. I adore this film. Yeah, 3 hours is an ask. But the movie keeps holding up each time I watch it...and now I own it on Criterion.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.