The Great Escape (1963 USA)

greatescape6-061315By 1963 audiences were becoming bored with re-living heroic World War Two exploits, Teenage filmgoers were too young to remember it and were tired of seeing their dads’ er…’doings’, (yuck! – sorry) which made their own lives feel smaller & duller. But “The Great Escape” depicted a failed breakout from an inglorious captivity. It managed to combine the expected set pieces of tension and ‘doings’ (yuck again!) with an incipient 60’s individualism.

These guys are collaborating to dig their way out, but then they’re on their own for the home run. Few make it. Nobody incarnated the new spirit more than Hilts the Cooler King, played by Steve McQueen. The film made him a solo star name above the title. He stands out amid an ensemble as he didn’t quite achieve in Sturges’s “Magnificent Seven”. McQueen’s persona was set by ex-POW James Clavell’s dialogue. He’s not the boring, by-the-numbers rebel designed by hacks to make an authority figure such as a cop more palatable to a rebellious teen audience. He’s an instinctive, can’t-help-it individualist. McQueen is not gratuitously insubordinate towards his own superiors in the camp. Neither does he provoke the Germans.

Hilts just can’t help wanting to be beyond the barbed wire, and that makes his brand of rebelliousness less neurotic, more sympathetic to adult viewers than a crybaby, James Dean-type would be. McQueen, then and later (eg “The Towering Inferno”) has the authority of a man who does not define his values by reaction against the consensus. As such, he personifies democracy pitted against dictatorship in total war. He’s voluntarily under orders for the duration, but he fights to be free again, and for ever. Free to leap the wire and leave all confinement behind, far and fast. Meantime, he’s self-contained, happy to play baseball against a blank wall, in no danger of going mad for want of company, like a dictator’s slave.

McQueen’s American cool counterpoints the laid-back qualities of the British. James Donald, Dickie Attenborough and Donald Pleasence are all quietly magnetic, assured presences. No scenery chewers wanted- this is war, too serious for show ponies. Lennie, the man driven mad, disposes of himself. The Anglo-American collaboration in this production is among the smoothest ever. The British movie business was turning into Hollywood, England. No fancy plot tricks were needed to bring Limeys & Yanks together, and the Yanks were the kind Brits admired most: those who didn’t sit on their hands till Pearl Harbour. At the same time, the overall patina is recognizably British stiff-upper-lip, like “The Colditz Story”. There is little psychology and no silly love interest. These cheeky chappies have a task to perform and they get on with it. Director John Sturges was an admirer of the British martial spirit and it shows.

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