Break out your tunnel gear because it’s time for another installment of Classic Movie Monday, where I sift through Netflix’s Classic section so you aren’t stuck watching Wolfcop. This week I watched a film that I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I had never seen before—The Great Escape.
The film, which is based on a true story, is about a high security WWII prisoner of war camp in Nazi Germany, made especially for POWs who have escaped camps before. The Nazi camp soon welcomes the likes of Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, and even Charles fucking Bronson. I can definitely see why he went all vigilante crazy in the Death Wish movies after watching this film.
The Great Escape opens up on a bit of a challenge. The “Kommandant”, or Head-Nazi-In-Charge, explains to each of the prisoners that escaping this prison will be impossible, and that they should just give up and live relatively comfortably. He provides them with gardens and gives them a great deal of freedom for a prison camp. I’m just saying, if I had to be a prisoner in WWII, I really would not have minded this camp.
The prisoners, who are largely British or natives of Commonwealth countries, immediately try to escape. They steal uniforms and try to walk out with peasants who delivered food, they hide in heaps of trash, and even steal keys off of Nazi guards. Each time, the Kommandant is there to catch them in the act and banish them to “The Cooler”, or solitary confinement.
It’s not until one of our heroes, Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), starts to rally the troops do we see any feasible attempt at escape. Pretty soon a key cast of characters emerge and begin to dig an elaborate tunnel under the camp and into the woods. Charles Bronson, playing Danny the “tunnel king”, spends most of the movie laying on his back digging a perfect tunnel in his underwear. And if there are any young Bronson fans reading this yes you do see a bit of his butt through the underwear and yes it’s very nice.
With help from Hilts (McQueen), Hendley (Garner), Blythe (Donald Pleasence), and countless others, the team is able to produce German uniforms using scrap material, forge travel documents, and gather all the necessary intel to make that titular great escape. It’s pretty damn impressive what these men are able to accomplish from a prison camp. I can’t even sew a skirt correctly and these men make convincing uniforms out of wool blankets and burlap sacks. Did I mention this all really happened? Insane.
In between tunnel digging and paper forging we get glimpses of daily life in the camp. Theres a particularly fun scene where the Americans (Garner and McQueen) make some moonshine to celebrate the 4th of July and get everyone in the camp roaring drunk.
I really don’t want to give anything away, but it’s a nearly 3 hour movie so you can guess that the escape is not as immediate or even as great as you could hope. Even in the most depressing scenes that famous score keeps you hopeful that everyone will make it home safely and the Nazis won’t be their typical Nazi selves.
I really liked this film but it was not what I expected. It’s definitely a commitment at 172 minutes, so I recommend walking your dogs before you sit down to watch it. The cast is incredible and you’ll be whistling the tune for the next couple of days.
Here’s some trivia to etch on your cell wall:
- At one point in the film Steve McQueen’s character strings a wire across a road to unseat a German motorcyclist. McQueen performed the stunt himself, playing the Nazi who his character ends up knocking off his motorcycle.
- Charles Bronson was a coal miner before he became an actor and used his experience in the mines to help make the tunnel scenes more realistic.
- Several cast members were actual POWs during WWII, Donald Pleasence was held in a German camp, Hannes Messemer in a Russian camp, and Tile Kiwe and Hans Reiser were prisoners of the Americans.
- Steve McQueen held up production because he demanded his character be given more to do.
- Although the film is based on a historical event, all the characters in the film are fictional.