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Come Back, We Miss You, All's Forgiven
by Jon Schuller

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Let's see, we've seen war movies, crime movies, prison movies, science fiction movies, political movies, historical movies, biographical movies, horror movies, sports movies, disaster movies, travel movies. . . Whew! Have we seen any movies that combine some of these categories? Sure we have because film-makers just never seem to run out of ideas (or money) and there have been some really strange pictures released over the years. Recently there was 2012's Abe Lincoln, Vampire Hunter; 1983's The Keep, a strange film from Michael Mann, briefly described as "Nazis reluctantly seek the help of a Jewish historian to re-imprison a demon they have accidentally released from his fortress prison"; or, Head, (1968) starring The Monkees, which reputedly killed off whatever was left of their careers, was an archetypal movie about the Sixties' hippie generation. There are literally dozens more of these bizarre, outlandish productions and movie audiences never seem to tire of spending their money on them while producers and studios spend (figuratively) millions to make them. My choice right now has taken elements from several categories; one film that did merge action, characters, locales and true events rather well and became a cinema classic almost overnight. Talented, believable actors brought it all to life before the days of computer generated images (C.G.I.). Real episodes from World War II debuted on screen in 1963 as The Great Escape.

There were millions of prisoners of war captured by the major armies fighting in World War II. Many were horribly mis-treated and were never repatriated back to their home countries. Some were forced to march many miles from their capture points to the prison camps and didn't survive the long grueling treks (as British soldiers captured by the Japanese in Southeast Asia or American troops in the Philippines). German soldiers captured by American armies were sent to America and treated well in places like Kansas or Oklahoma. The German armies captured many opposing soldiers, especially in Russia. They treated the Russian troops horrifically, needless to say. Of course when the Red Army counter-attacked it captured thousands of Wehrmacht soldiers and they were never sent back to Germany. The casualties and deaths among prisoners-of war were estimated in the millions.
But there were instances where POWs were treated reasonably well and stories of escapes and escape attempts abounded because the men were in better health, especially if they were officers. Flyers from the Royal Air Force, their Canadian cousins and the United States Army Air Force, when captured, fared a little better than regular soldiers. The Germans decided that these men were much smarter and more civilized than G.I.s or other "grunts."

The Great Escape chronicles what happened when the Germans build a special POW camp in 1944 for flyers who've proven to be troublesome in other camps because of their constant escape attempts. No matter their rank or status it was every prisoner's right to try and escape while risking their lives and harassing the German soldiers searching for them. Based on the book by Paul Brickhill, himself a real POW, it shows how the prisoners planned a mass escape from Stalag Luft III in Zagan, Poland. We see the Wehrmacht housing the worst offenders from the RAF and others in a camp that was to be escape-proof. RAF Group Captain Ramsey is told by the camp's commandant, Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger, any attempts will be dealt with harshly and quickly so don't even consider them. RAF Squadron Leader, Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), is delivered to the camp by the Gestapo as they tell the commandant to put "Big X" under special arrest because Bartlett is the mastermind behind many escape attempts throughout Europe. Von Luger ignores the warning and puts Bartlett in with the other men. Bartlett boldly tells his fellow prisoners that they will attempt the biggest breakout yet from any POW camp by digging not one but three tunnels, "Tom, Dick and Harry", to confound and confuse their German captors. Bartlett meets and discusses his plans with the other important members of the cast:
Steve McQueen as American Capt. Virgil Hilts, "The Cooler King"; James Garner as American Flt. Lt. Anthony Hendley,"The Scrounger"; James Donald as Gp. Capt. Ramsey; Charles Bronson as Flt. Lt. Danny Velinski who digs tunnels; Donald Pleasence as Flt. Lt. Colin Blythe, "The Forger"; James Coburn as Australian Fg. Off. Louis Sedgwick "The Manufacturer"; David McCallum as Lt. Cmdr. Eric Ashley-Pitt and Angus Lennie as Flying Officer Archibald Ives, "The Mole." The men are
amazed at the daring plan and the American Hilts has his own independent plan to escape not wanting to join Bartlett's group escape. Hilts is captured and returned to the "cooler" as punishment. He still has a baseball and glove to pass the time in isolation and drive the guards crazy with the bounce-and-catch noises he makes. Bartlett convinces him that on his next escape he uses his freedom to scout the surrounding countryside and towns for methods of escape for the big one and then allow himself to be re-captured by the Germans. He agrees and follows orders. Hendley, the scrounger, has befriended a German guard and begins a process of collecting food and documents to be used for the escape. Blankets will be turned into civilian clothing as Blythe, the forger, under cover of nature lectures, puts together a group of men to begin the delicate process of forging identification documents for the escapees. Segewick, the manufacturer, makes tools for tunneling and an air pumping system for the tunnelers. Everything that's being done right under the German guards' noses must be kept secret as the tunnels are being dug in three different directions with three different locations inside the camp, like under a stove, in a latrine and under a prisoner's bunk. Of course some ingenious method is needed to take dirt out from the tunnels and spread them around the camp: Ashley-Pitt devices small cloth bags filled with dirt that fit inside the prisoners' pants and are emptied as the prisoners walk around outside. To cover any noises from the tunneling Flt. Lieutenant Cavendish (Nigel Stock) forms a choir rehearsing Christmas carols.

The day for escape has come, the remaining tunnel is finished but, too late, falls twenty feet short of the woods which would have provided cover as the prisoners exit under cover of darkness. Many of the men do escape but are rounded up and captured. Hendley and Blythe steal an airplane to fly to Switzerland but the plane crashes; Blythe is shot and Hendley is captured. As Bartlett and Macdonald are about to board a local bus a Gestapo agent says "Good luck" and Bartlett, the master planner, replies in English and is captured. Many other of the POWs are put on three trucks and driven down three separate roads. The one truck, with Bartlett, MacDonald, Cavendish and Haynes aboard, stops and
the guards tell the men to get out and stretch their legs. They are gunned down by the guards and left to die. Two of the original escapees steal a boat and make it to a ship. Sedgwick grabs a bicycle and pedals his way to a train and eventually gets to Spain and the Resistance.

The most exciting escape scene is the one in which Steve McQueen steals a motorcycle, jumps a line of barbed wire at the Swiss border then attempts to jump the second line and gets tangled up in it. He is recaptured and returned to the "cooler", getting his baseball and glove on his way inside. The sound of his pitch-and-catch inside the cell closes the movie.

Many of the episodes dramatized in the film were based on real events and real prisoner-of-war stories. But several other scenes were added for box office appeal and added excitement, like the McQueen motorcycle escape. Americans did play roles in the building of the tunnels but in the real life story the British and Canadian prisoners were the major participants. Steve McQueen's star status was cemented in his role as Hilts. Richard Attenborough gained recognition in America resulting from his role in the movie. James Garner had been wounded in the Korean War where he actually was a"scrounger." Donald Pleasance had served in the RAF and been captured by the Germans for a year. He would be featured in many other movies over the years, one being the James Bond You Only Live Twice (1967) role as the arch villain, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The Great Escape has been used as the basis for references in other movies or even plots. It was well-received at its premier and became the highest grossing film in 1963.

For action and great story-telling, without becoming maudlin or melodramatic, The Great Escape tells its tale in up-front terms and gives the audience a real taste of life in a POW camp. In 1953 the movie, Stalag 17, came out, based on the real life experiences of soldiers dramatized in a successful 1951 Broadway play. That film, although laced with some humor, was a realistic, black-and-white portrayal of how badly POWs were treated in World War II. They too will attempt an escape in that film. Combining different movie elements into one film is a staple for movie-makers as we continue to see new projects - fifty years later - coming out every year, some good, some unmentionable.

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Mike Thomas
Sep 19, 2013 12:09 PM
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Good Analysis of a Classic Film
Good Column

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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