John Sturges The Great Escape

Entertainment is purely great escapism. Film, books, magazines, television, and a whole host of multimedia are simply an escape from reality. Nowhere is this more evident than in my favorite film, John Sturges The Great Escape.

This 1963 epic historical picture is held fondly in the hearts of many, including Quentin Tarantino, who named Escape as one of his top ten favorite movies of all time. Based on the harrowing exploits of World War II servicemen and a 1950 novel by Australian aviator Paul Brickhill, The Great Escape is my favorite film precisely because it features an unique array of characters from a multitude of nations, an intriguing plot, and themes that are universal to all audiences.

The film begins at the end of another endeavor- Allied POWs have, in their escapes, distracted Nazi personnel from other theatres of war. Their captors questionable solution- put all the rotten eggs in one basket in a secluded area, and keeps them under intense guard. The prisoners are arriving at the camp, and are already looking for ways to escape. Here the audience is introduced to the brilliantly casted three main characters of the picture. Steve McQueens Captain Virgil Hilts, an American hotshot pilot and biker with an anti-authority streak (Hes nicknamed the Cooler King), James Garners Bob Hendley, a crafty and well-spoken, but somewhat stoic scrounger, and Richard Attenboroughs Roger Bartlett- Big X. Bartlett is held in contempt by his German captors, as they suspect (correctly) that he is the mastermind of most of the escape attempts. He is told bluntly, Squadron Leader Bartlett, if you escape again, and are captured, you will be shot. In a personal vendetta against the brutal Nazis, Big X takes it upon himself to organize the largest escape every contemplated. He plans to break all two hundred fifty men out of the camp. His coalition of talent includes Lt. Danny Valenski, a claustrophobic Pole who has dug seventeen escape tunnels, Mac, an intelligence officer, and Willy, Dannys best friend. Another fantastic element of the film is the character arcs. Hilts, for example, shows scorn and dismisses the plan as nonsense at first, preferring to escape on his own terms with his Scottish friend, Flying Officer Ives. Most of their efforts are unsuccessful, however, which culminates in Ives cracking- he tries to escape in broad daylight and is gunned down. Eventually, Hilts realizes the importance of the mission, and helps Roger get the information he needs. Meanwhile, the stoic and detached Hendley befriends Collin Blythe- a quiet and gentle forger, and Bartlett becomes consumed by the thrill of escape and the prospect of causing so much harm to the Germans.

After combatting considerable turbulence, the night of the escape comes to pass. Blythe loses most of his sight (progressive myopia, a byproduct of working by candlelight) and, as a result, is told by Roger that he cannot escape, as hed be a hazard to the entire operation. Hendley volunteers to help Blythe escape. The men are dumbfounded when they discover the tunnel is twenty feet short of the surrounding woods, but thanks to an Allied air raid, are able to get seventy-six men out before being discovered. The airmen go their separate ways, forcing the Nazis to waste valuable time and resources in an effort to find the men. Unfortunately, the Gestapo captures most of them with a few exceptions. Danny and Willy escape via ferry to neutral Sweden, and another prisoner makes it to Spain thanks to the aid of the French Resistance. Roger is captured, and along with fifty of his men, is to be taken to a new camp. The Gestapo officer tells the men to stretch their legs. Roger claims that tunnels kept [him] alive and that even though he hadnt escaped, the thrill was worth it. In a heartbreaking turn of events, Gestapo machine guns ruthlessly cut down the fifty defenseless prisoners. The remaining men, including Hendley and Hilts, are returned to the camp alive. In the end, while nearly none of the men escape, they cause much confusion and force the Nazis to allocate heavy resources to look for them, which was Rogers goal all along. When Hendley asks whether it was worth the price, an officer retorts, That depends on your point of view.

The Great Escape is a near flawless example of pure entertainment. Unlike many other pictures, there are no filling scenes- every line, shot, and excerpt are meticulously crafted in a successful attempt to make the audience feel immersed inside the picture. Take the tunneling scenes for example, the cameras close and uncomfortable shots of dimly lit, small corridors give moviegoers a sense of the cost truly endured for the slightest hope of freedom. The length of the picture, as well, allows for the audience to sympathize with each character, and the untimely demise of the men is truly gut wrenching. Sturges composer, Elmer Bernstein, adds to this effect with his masterful score, which is known still by many today. The Great Escape has influenced almost every aspect of pop culture- from Hogans Heroes, to the Simpsons, and rightly so. Its my favorite picture, and a perfect example of Hollywood escapism and classic entertainment.