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Looking to Get Into Classic Movies? Try ‘The Great Escape’
This 1963 masterpiece is the perfect gateway film into the classics.
Watching classic movies can be daunting. Oftentimes it can feel like there’s a lot of knowledge outside of the text required to fully appreciate the film — like watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916) and not knowing it’s the first film to use underwater photography.
You likely have friends that are hesitant to watch any movie recommended to them prior to 1970. Or maybe you’re that friend who asks for a movie recommendation and winces when someone recommends a classic you’ve never seen. Maybe you keep telling yourself you’re going to get around to seeing those ‘must see’ films and want to know more about film history, but you never sit down to watch that movie you told yourself you would.
We’ve all been in that position. And watching classic films can be a little daunting with the sheer number of recommendations and ‘must sees’ out there. There’s different trends, experiments, styles, technological hindrances and innovations that are all products of their time. But there’s plenty of films that stand the test of time and are digestible for all audiences today. I think the perfect example of this and the perfect gateway into classic movies is The Great Escape (1963).
The Great Escape — released July 4th, 1963 — is a film from director John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, Bad Day at Black Rock). The film is based on the true story of Allied prisoners of war who plan for several hundred of their number to escape from a German camp in WWII by digging tunnels beneath the camp. And I know what you’re thinking. It’s not another gruesome story of the torture and conditions of German concentration camps. The Great Escape is almost completely void of all gore and violence — which has spawned some critics saying the conditions at the camp were not accurate, though many of the cast members themselves were POWs and helped contribute to the movie’s historical accuracy.
Director John Sturges claimed:
“It’s true it was caused by the war, and it’s true that it’s about men who were prisoners of war, but the film is a story of courage.”
The Great Escape is also about the collective optimism, heroism and camaraderie of the Allied soldiers and their shared goals of going home and disrupting German forces by any means necessary. The film’s brilliant script by James Clavell and W.R Burnett — based on the novel by Paul Brickhill — is elevated by an iconic score by Elmer Bernstein and a magnificent international cast consisting of Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson. These heroic tales try to make us see ourselves in the protagonist, but by design, Sturges makes the audience see a little bit of themselves in each character. No one character dominates the screen time despite McQueen being top billing. Like me, I think you’ll find yourself taking a keen liking to James Garner’s performance as Hedley ‘The Scrounger’ as he takes Blythe (Donald Pleasance) under his wing due to his increasing blindness.
Sturges utilizes master shots to keep all subjects in frame, visually showing the Allied soldiers as a collective unit and bringing the audience along with each emotional moment of the gradually increasing camaraderie. The film never slogs with fluid pacing that keeps the audience fully engaged for its nearly three hour runtime. Each triumphant moment and accomplishment the characters have is met with an equally devastating defeat. You want so desperately for them to overcome their decreasing odds of escaping and even smaller odds of making it home, but you’re never sure if it’s going to happen.
Sturges showcases these hollow victories by juxtaposing cuts of our heroes celebrating and the Germans foiling more and more of their plans. Like this beautiful scene for example — where German soldiers discover one of the tunnels while our heroes celebrate American independence while drinking home-brewed moonshine:
Each setback and failure the characters experience and the optimism they maintain in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds is a treat to watch.
The film doesn’t rely on genre conventions or genre tropes of its time like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Sunset Blvd. — though both are tremendous films, the entry can be difficult for those unfamiliar with the origins and/or history of noir cinema and the silent film era.
The Great Escape’s climactic practical stunts of Steve McQueen’s motorcycle chase — which was written into the script in order to show off his love of motorcycle’s and his motorcycle skills — is nothing short of amazing. The entire third act is mesmerizing with gut wrenching tension, beautiful cinematography, laugh out loud hilarity, tear-jerking goodbyes, depressing tragedies and triumphant uplifting victories that will stick in your heads for days after watching. Afterwards, like me — you may likely find yourself frantically searching for the next classic to watch to recapture that feeling once the credits began to roll.
Sturges tells a marvelous story covering a handful of themes, motifs and messages perfectly conveyed in three hours with not a second wasted nor in need of more.
Every aspect of The Great Escape stands the test of time. It doesn’t feel like a movie from another generation or a movie that ‘is good for its time.’ Every aspect of The Great Escape is superbly executed by both those in front and behind the camera, making it an easily accessible and entrancing movie akin to the modern day blockbuster.
The Great Escape is one of very few flawless films. It’s everything you’d want in a movie and the perfect film to send you down a rabbit hole searching for other classics that capture the same gratification.