This may seem an odd choice for the first entry in this series. Until a couple of days ago I had thought I would write about some high-class work that would fall into the general category of Art Film made by an Artist, probably something by Bergman. But for some reason I’ve been thinking about this one, and it occurred to me that it would be good to start off with what you might call a movie-movie—a Hollywood movie existing not because of an artist’s vision but to provide “product”, as it used to be called and for all I know still is, for the “entertainment industry” to sell. And it worked very well: it took in over $11,000,000 (over $85,000,000 in today’s money), which put it in the top 20 for the year, 1963. (I’m not sure what period of time that amount covers—I suppose it’s the duration of the initial release.)
Which is not to say that there was no artist at work: the director, John Sturges, has a lasting reputation, and the writing, acting, and general production are of high quality. Should we qualify “art” with “popular”? I don’t know. Does it really matter? Not much. Suffice to say that after more than fifty years The Great Escape remains an appealing and powerful work. A friend of mine once said that movie-making, at least in the Hollywood model, required so many people with so many different motives, so many of whom had no interest in anything but commercial considerations, that a really good movie seemed almost a miracle. Well, it happened in this case.
The Great Escape has a fundamentally simple plot: a group of Allied soldiers (American, British, Canadian, Australian) in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II attempt to escape by digging a tunnel. It’s based on real events, though according to the Wikipedia entry, to which I will not link because it summarizes the plot, the film makes the Americans the main players, while in reality most of the participants were British and Canadian. I suppose the American film-makers did this to appeal to the American audience.
I expect many people reading this have seen it, but for the sake of those who have not, I won’t say much more about the plot. I will include the trailer, which gives away a good bit, including one scene that I wish they had saved for the movie itself.
One might see it only as a good action-adventure film, but I think it’s more than that, a powerful study in courage. I saw it when I was 14 or 15, and I’m pretty sure I went back to see it at least one more time after the first. It made an enormous impression on me. A few years ago I wanted to see what I would think of it now and got the DVD from Netflix. I’m no longer 14 or 15, and I’m less impressionable and more critical. I know now what I probably sensed even then, that it is not entirely realistic—I mean, apart from the modifications made to the real story for the sake of drama, it is not a truly realistic picture of what the prisoners and the camp must really have been like. But I still think it’s excellent for its time, and excellent in a dramatic way despite its lack of realism.
The actors include some names that were big in Hollywood at the time or would become big—Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson. British names you’d recognize are Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasance. And though Gordon Jackson’s name might not be as familiar, anyone who ever watched the old Upstairs Downstairs TV series will recognize the face and voice of Mr. Hudson. The Americans may have more charisma than pure acting ability—James Coburn’s attempt at an Australian accent doesn’t work—but the charisma is enough. The cinematography is excellent for its time, as you can see from the trailer. And that was something else that impressed me as a teenager, something about the scenery and the cities. I couldn’t quite figure out what it was, and still can’t, really, but it had something to do with a vision of Europe, something almost like nostalgia, although of course I had never seen it at the time. A few years later I did go there, and I still feel nostalgia for what I saw and experienced then.
This movie is also appropriate for this week, by the way, as it's the first week of my retirement from regularly scheduled paid employment. With only a few breaks of a year or less, I've been doing that since 1970. It feels great.