The Great Great Escape

October 18, 2009 at 11:50 pm (Classics, Movies) (, )

As always, some spoilers below…

One of my earliest memories is of watching The Great Escape with my dad, and being enthralled by it. He had a fascination for WWII movies (well, he was there), and particularly, I think, POW movies, and maybe that is, in part, why I do. And this is one of the best of the best. They played it on last week’s Reel 13, and the fact that I’ve seen it probably ten times in full didn’t stop me from watching it again and being captivated by it again.

The cast is powerhouse, just magnificent. An embarrassment of riches.

The story is fascinating, inspiring – and based on history.

This is a true story. Although the characters are composites of real men, and time and place have been compressed, every detail of the escape is the way it really happened.

The characters are wonderful, human and individual. The resourcefulness and teamwork and ingenuity … all of that is what makes me love this kind of story, and this particular story most of all. Even the Nazis aren’t all painted with the same brush – the kommandant still retained some of his soul despite the uniform.

The story: a brand new prison camp has been built specifically to hold – hopefully – all of the incorrigibles from other camps, the ones who make escape attempt after escape attempt after escape attempt. “All the rotten eggs in one basket”, Colonel von Luger says… And as Bartlett says, there’s madness in their method, because yes, the Germans had learned from all those escape attempts and had designed and built this camp, Stalag Luft 3, to foil everything they could think of… but the airmen they were holding had learned too, and … well, put it this way. In Star Trek (TOS) one thing I never understood was how all those bad guys, time after time, could be so stupid as to put Kirk and Spock together whenever they were captured, usually in the same cell. Expedient, I suppose, but not bright; separately they might have been detained for a little while at least, but together – forget it. Escape was inevitable. Stalag Luft 3 takes that to extremes, putting not just two determined, intelligent, and coordinated men together, but hundreds. All of the innovations of the prison were just a somewhat greater challenge to men who had been too long away from their war, and even longer away from home. The Nazis couldn’t stop these men – they could only delay them a little. The plan: lull the Nazis into complacence, and meanwhile dig: not one, not two, but three simultaneous tunnels, Tom, Dick, and Harry. And it works… mostly…

This is a seminal film; theoretically, everything you need to know about German POW camps seems to be found either here or in the incredible Stalag 17. Air Force and RAF (at this point in the war, RAF) prisoners were under the jurisdiction of the Luftwaffe rather than the SS or the Gestapo, which was a good thing: among airmen there was a certain level of professional understanding and respect. The Gestapo and SS didn’t have much respect for anything or anyone outside the Gestapo and SS. The classic excuse for murdering inconvenient prisoners was “shot while escaping”. And while the Germans weren’t stupid, they were tunnel-visioned, and the Allied forces were ever so much more clever. “It is the duty of every soldier, should he have the misfortune to be captured, to escape”… and these men took their duty very seriously.

The setting is amazing. The camp *looks* new – raw-looking wood, unweathered, noticeable in the huts and the gates especially. It looks – and from what I’ve read is – authentic to the real camp. And once they get out – as Hilts and Goff and Hendley said, “Wow”. Stunning footage of the country, underscoring all the many reasons for escaping. And, for the fifty, I have to say: what a beautiful place to die. The music… That must be one of the greatest movie themes of all time.

Again, the actors… this could have been merely a good story and an exciting action picture. It could have been just a good movie. Part of what makes it a great movie, and elevates it far above your average action picture, is the acting. There are small little touches throughout that accomplish the equivalent of pages of dialogue, and which flesh out characters better than pages of dialogue could, glances and expressions which, to coin a cliché, speak volumes. For example, Hendley’s face when the Germans lock up the windows on that first night… All of them are least a little desperate for freedom; all of them have been held for some time (everyone who mentions a time span seems to have been held for three years or more).

A series of moments: the young guard who is Hilts’s constant escort to the cooler cell. He’s the picture of the Aryan nation, fair and square-jawed, and surely under that helmet is a shock of golden hair. We never know, because we never see it or his eyes; the helmet never comes off, and so too he is the faceless representative of evil… but he has a human side. One of my favorite moments in any film is the first time he locks Hilts up (about half an hour following Hilts’s arrival): he puts him in the cell, closes the door, pauses, and opens the door again – and Hilts’s hand sticks out to return the key he swiped. It’s almost the only time we see this young guard, escorting Hilts, and it’s a remarkable little performance. The second time he makes the trip (iirc), he starts to walk away, and then pauses and looks back when he hears the baseball start bouncing against the wall. The third time, he stands in the doorway watching as Hilts, drained and a little shattered, slides down the wall to sit on the floor. In another of those significant glances, Hilts’s eyes flick up to note the guard still there, and the tough guy façade reasserts itself: *bounce-ka-thump* *bounce-ka-thump* *bounce-ka-thump* What the guard is thinking, who knows; his face is blank. Whether this is a lack of acting, or a lack of emotion on the character’s part, or a mask disguising fascination or amazement or disgust or confusion at the crazy American who can’t seem to stay out of that cell for more than a couple of days running – again, who knows. I like to think it’s a sneaking admiration.

Another: during Hilts’s first meeting with Bartlett, Ramsey, and MacDonald, as Hilts happily explains his and Ives’s idea for their blitz, the reactions are lovely, as is his smile when he finishes explaining how he and Ives plan to breathe.

Another: Blythe paces off five steps, places a pin on the floor, and returns to where he was. He shakes out his shoulders, visibly makes himself relax, and rehearses taking four natural steps forward to bend down and pick the pin up again.

Speaking of Blythe … What a great character. Out for a joyride, and got shot down. A gifted artist, skilled with anything from a pencil (or a piece of chalk) to a camera, he’s the character I identify with. “I’m afraid this tea’s pathetic. Must have used these wretched leaves about twenty times. It’s not that I mind so much. Tea without milk is so uncivilized.” Except I’m not that artistically skilled (as witness my lack of artistic production), and I only wish I was that good at chess. I have not only his brand of luck, but also his eyes: blue and largely useless. My glasses go on first thing in the morning and don’t come off till I’m about to turn out the light, but I know from the few horrible times I’ve broken a pair: it’s bloody hard to function with progressive myopia. We’re not blind, Blythe and I; we’re ridiculously near-sighted. As he said, close-to is fine – and his close-to is about what mine is, inches from the tip of the nose – but further away… “You’re just a blur.” I’m not sure he wouldn’t have seen the leg Bartlett stuck out; again, nearsighted isn’t blind. And it’s quite possible to get about without being able to see clearly – Donald Pleasence played blind brilliantly, but maybe a little too brilliantly. Maybe not – I can make it around my house at need, but I might have to try wandering around a tunnel I’d never been in before I can say for sure. Still. Blythe is, in his own word, splendid: he is going to get out, by trickery if he has to, and is crushed when Barlett tells him it didn’t work. (I do wonder how Bartlett found out; he says he was only just told. By whom? MacDonald, who found out Hilts and Ives were planning a blitz before they ever even left the cooler?)

The situation with Blythe gives James Garner’s Hendley a chance to shine. He’d already established himself as a brilliant scrounger, thief, and blackmailer – leading to a deep curiosity about what he did for a living as a civilian, and whether he’ll be able to go back to it easily when the war’s over. His handling of poor Werner the Ferret is masterful “I had 20.” I love this type of character: you’re imprisoned in the middle of nowhere, and you need a 35 millimeter camera with a 2.8 lens and a plane shutter – sorry, a focal plane shutter? No problem. Enough wood to shore up a 335-foot tunnel or two? No problem. Where did it come from? Don’t ask. And then comes the situation with Blythe, his roomie, with whom he’s become tight. He’s become fond of the odd, quiet little British man with his “splendid!” and his chess and his tea, and they’ve obviously done a lot of talking – they have planned their escape route and where it will take them. When it comes to a point where Blythe shouldn’t go – and Roger *was* right, he shouldn’t – Hendley can’t bear it, the look on Blythe’s face and the crushing of his hope, and volunteers to become his seeing eye dog. I’m very glad they didn’t make Blythe’s “blindness” the cause of the failure of their escape; he didn’t see the soldiers, and so he did not escape, but it was nothing to do with him that they didn’t make it. “Colin’s not a blind man as long as he’s with me – and he’s *going* with me.”

They never specified if Ramsey, “The SBO”, played by James Donald, didn’t participate in the escape proper because of his rank, or because of his leg. He’s another well-drawn character, almost, *almost* willing to consider the kommandant’s order to stay quiet and tend to a garden and do calisthenics and not contemplate trying to escape. Not quite – not very seriously – but I think the thought occurs to him. He knows the risks. He knows the horrible danger. And … The kommandant is a relatively decent type, and if things go seriously wrong for him, not only will he be removed but the camp – and maybe general oversight of all air forces POW’s – be put under control of the SS or Gestapo. That would be bad. I think several of them, including Ramsey, regretted the necessity of destroying Von Luger.

Hannes Messemer played Von Luger; it’s a remarkable WWII film that lets you feel a little sympathy for a Nazi, but when he was escorted out of the camp at the end there was a feeling of dread. For the inmates, there’s the pang of better-the-devil-you-know; Von Luger was straightforward and fairly reasonable. He kinda forgot to return the “heil Hitlers” from the Gestapo and SS officers – that’s huge. He didn’t want to be there – in one scene with Hilts he did a gorgeous job of conveying just how bitter he was that he wasn’t flying (due, apparently, to an injury). And he took the concept of the brotherhood of the air seriously. Yes, these men under his charge were enemy officers – but they were officers, and they were airmen, and he felt more of a bond with them than with the Gestapo or SS. Which didn’t mean he was going to be easy on anyone – but he also wasn’t going to abuse his position. And there’s the other half of the pang – God alone knows what’s going to happen to Von Luger. Russian Front, probably, and much as that was made a joke in “Hogan’s Heroes”, it was a very seriously terrible prospect.

Richard Attenborough’s Roger Bartlett…Again, wow. He was in the hands of the Gestapo for three months prior to being dumped in Stalag 3; they knew he might be the ringleader, but couldn’t prove it, and couldn’t get it out of him. There’s no doubt they tried very hard. One wonders at what point he got that scar below his eye. He’s not wire-happy like Ives, not yet – but he’s not so very far off. Again, I’d love to know what he was in civilian life… He’s very British, mild-mannered, round-faced and sleepy-eyed and mild-looking – and the brains and impelling force behind many, many escapes. Quietly brilliant and compelling, commanding … and even knowing that every soldier within a 50-mile radius had his face memorized there was no way he could have sat out that escape.

Archibald “The Mole” Ives, played by Angus Lennie, has always been my favorite character. There are the obvious reasons he would have appealed to the young me: he’s Scots, a jockey, and funny and cute as the dickens. He’s remained a character who hurts my heart because of the cocky bantam-rooster swagger that hides quaking terrified vulnerability. And I can never, ever watch his last scene.

Willie “Tunnel King” (John Leyton) – is just beautiful. Again, great character – Danny’s co-tunnel king and partner in crime and just about everything else, he’s smart, strong, loyal – and looks amazing even covered in half a tunnel’s worth of dirt.

His comrade Danny (Charles Bronson) is another one who hides a deep fear. He’s claustrophobic, but digs because he needs to get out. Charles Bronson blows me away in this movie. The Bronson I’m most familiar with is the “Death Wish” Bronson, the older Tough Guy who wasn’t known primarily for his acting ability – about a step above Jean-Claude Van Damme, maybe. The star of movies I’d need to be paid to watch. But Danny … Danny’s remarkable. Bronson is convincing as a Pole – then again, he was apparently born to Polish/Lithuanian parents – and as a man who escaped the fall of Warsaw to go fly for England, who digs because he needs freedom. One thing I always think when I see him in his sweater with the big red patch basted on the front is how very much he needs looking after. One scene that stays with me is when he tries to make a solo break for it, and Willie, trying to stop him, belts him – Danny, heavy iron wire clippers in hand, cocks back his arm as if to hit him. And stops.  “Don’t do that,” he says, very quietly. Beautiful.

I find it kind of funny that Steve McQueen is billed as and considered the star. Of course he as Hilts is a primary focus – but not *the* primary focus; I think more of Attenborough as Roger Bartlett as the star. The American part in the escape was inflated from its actual historical role, partly to snag McQueen and partly because, well, it’s an American movie… Americans on the whole are, let’s face it, pretty ethnocentric. Getting Steve McQueen in this movie was a brilliant idea, though, whatever it took – he’s brilliant. I love to watch him – but he doesn’t strike me as an actor I’d have ever wanted to meet (as if); the Reel 13 host, Neal Gabler, said SM walked off the set because he thought his part wasn’t heroic enough, and had to be talked back into it by James Garner and James Coburn. (Thanks, Jameses: good work.) The attitude was a bit much, I think – no, it wasn’t the most heroic role in the movie; he was out to get himself, and Ives for a while, out, and only decided to help the larger escape plan when Ives snapped. But it led in part to the motorcycle chase, which was fairly awesome. It doesn’t in any way feel like something that was grafted on to make the star happy.

Another favorite face in this cast is, of course, Gordon Jackson, here as Sandy MacDonald, the very efficient Intelligence officer – otherwise known as Mr. Hudson of “Upstairs, Downstairs”. In any other film, he would have been a standout; here, he was part of a large and brilliant ensemble. As was James Coburn, Sedgwick “Manufacturer”… perhaps a little more “stock” than some of the others, but wonderful regardless. The unflappable Aussie with his steamer trunk (which after all wasn’t the problem piece of luggage in the escape). And David McCallum, also known as Illya Kuryakin in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” (yet something else I need to Netflix), the so-blond Ashley-Pitt “Dispersal” … I wonder that they didn’t find him something to dull the golden gleam of his head. It was a bit hard to miss. He lost his nerve terribly during the end of the escape – but turned it into a virtue. I’m overusing the word, but – beautifully played. I’m a little surprised they didn’t do anything further with Cavendish, the Surveyor (played by Nigel Stock); after all, it was his measurements that led to the partial failure of the escape, I believe. But as someone pointed out in the heat of the moment, it didn’t really matter how it happened – it happened, and had to be dealt with. They weren’t exactly working with high-end instrumentation.

(I couldn’t think of Illya Kuryakin’s last name, and looked it up, which led me to imdb, which led me to a 1996 movie David McCallum was in called Privateer 2: The Darkening – which turns out to have been written by Diane Duane, one of my favorite writers. And yet ANOTHER thing to Netflix, if it’s available …Which it may not be, as it seems to be some strange hybrid of movie and game…?)

As I said above, the teamwork and camaraderie, the “band of brothers” quality, the unquestioning devotion to the cause of a) getting out, and barring that at least of b) confounding the enemy… I love this film. It feels like a labor of love.

That was last week’s Reel 13. This week’s was The Pink Panther. It’s funny about some of these films that are reputed to be Classic Comedies… they’re just not all that funny… This, and Young Frankenstein, M*A*S*H, a few others… I made it to the end of YF, and was gently amused, but PP and M*A*S*H lost my interest. M*A*S*H was unfunny, strident, and ugly – the characters weren’t anything I wanted to spend any time with (reminded me a little of “Seinfeld” in that), and I could only watch (as far as I managed to get) and be grateful they made so many changes for the tv series. To be fair, it may be because many films since PP have mined the same vein of humor, so that while PP in its time was unique and brilliant it now seems old hat … nah. I don’t think so. It just seemed like a mess to me, with a few shining moments. Very few.

And next week will be Astaire and Rogers (and Irving Berlin) – Top Hat. Yay. I’ve seen it half a dozen times; it’s not my favorite A&R – but I never pass up a chance to watch Edward Everett Horton. I adore that man.

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2 Comments

  1. charlie said,

    The guard who escorted always McQueen to the cooler was a man by the name of Trevor Wood who became a solicitor in London at BLP. He was about 6′ 4″ tall.

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