The Great Escape is a staple of Bank Holiday television and is regularly voted one of the top three films that families like watching together, along with The Sound of Music and It’s a Wonderful Life. Its most-famous components are Elmer Bernstein’s main-title theme, beloved of English footie fans, and the sequence of Steve McQueen jumping his motorbike over barbed-wire fences on the Swiss border. Seeing the movie again after a long period on a big screen with a live orchestra conducted by the composer’s son Peter reminded me that there is a lot more to the film than just those elements.
The premise is simple. In the final phase of World War Two the Germans decide to round up all of those serial escapees into one super POW camp – Stalag Luft 111 – which only motivates those prisoners to plan the largest and most audacious escape in history. The nearly three-hour-long film charts the methodology of escape in detail and is different from previous POW movies such as The Wooden Horse (1950) in that it is in colour and in Panavision.
John Sturges as director marshals a large cast of major Hollywood stars and a gallery of archetypal British character-actors to create an ensemble piece where each gets a chance to shine. Even teen-heartthrob of the time John Leyton contributes a creditable cameo as a tunneller. Steve McQueen defined his screen persona as rebellious, defiant Hilts the Cooler King and also won the Best Actor Award at the 1963 Moscow Film Festival. James Garner is Hendley the Scrounger with an immaculate white roll-neck jumper and equally immaculate comic timing. Charles Bronson is the Tunnel King with claustrophobia. Richard Attenborough gives an obsessive quality to the British mastermind Bartlett and James Coburn’s atrocious Australian accent is a joy in itself. Donald Pleasance, who had been a POW, is very affecting as Blythe the forger who is slowly losing his sight and knows he will be a liability to the escape. Perhaps most surprisingly, Hannes Messemer as the Camp Commandant is sympathetically portrayed in his civility to prisoners and his dislike of the SS and Gestapo. He even gets the film’s most famous line, uttered to Hilts, “It looks , after all, as if you will see Berlin before I do.”
Sturges gives an unusual look for a film of this genre made at that time. He uses the wide-angle lens very skilfully and, despite the confined surroundings, there are relatively few close-ups and little sense of constriction. Frequently he frames the action so that several characters are seen working together in shots that emphasise camaraderie and the tunnelling sequences are given a sense of lateral movement. For the prison-yard scenes the background extras fill the screen and give a sense of scale. The film is carefully structured. The opening hour is surprisingly comic as the conspirators often outwit their captors, whereas the final half-hour is masterfully sustained with considerable tension as the various escapees try to find their way to freedom via train, rowboat, bicycle, motorbike and hitch- hiking. Sturges cross-cuts between the various storylines superbly and Ferris Webster’s editing deservedly won an Oscar. Sturges noticeably leaves space for music to do its job so that the story can be furthered without recourse to dialogue.
Heard live one becomes aware that there is much more to Elmer Bernstein’s score than just the jaunty intro. Each character has a motif – Hilts has snappy percussion and light-hearted woodwinds, Blythe a serene string-theme. Individual sequences are effectively scored to create atmosphere as with the shots of the camp at night where lower strings and harp create a dark and brooding atmosphere which nevertheless hints at the prisoners' furtive activity beneath. Digging the tunnel is highlighted by a strings and brass theme with accompanying snare drums. Tension is ratcheted up with heavy brass and timpani for the final sequence and there is a touching pastorale as two prisoners make a successful escape by sea. It’s useful to note that the March itself is jaunty and defiant rather than triumphalist and that Bernstein could always deftly sketch-in comic moments. He did after all do very effective scores for Airplane (1980) and Three Amigos (1986).
Peter Bernstein was a dedicated and diligent conductor. The BBC Concert Orchestra could have offered more animation in the first half but woke up in the second to provide a rousing conclusion. Even a lengthy and annoying delay due to loss of image at the start of the escape sequence did not dent enjoyment and the End Titles had an enthusiastic audience clapping along. It is the ultimate escapist escape movie.