Note: I originally intended for this piece to be a double feature with Von Ryan's Express, but after watching the movie again (for about the 20th time) and watching all the special features that came with my DVD, I decided to devote the whole entry to just one movie.
There are two kinds of war movies that really get my juices flowing. One is the shoot-em-up, lots of explosions, gritty down-and-dirty soldier action movie, like Patton, The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far or Battle of Britain. The second is one in which prisoners of war deal with the day-to-day life behind the barbed wire and guards of the enemy.
One of the absolute best of the second type is a 1963 movie based on real WWII events called The Great Escape. The Great Escape was based on a book by Paul Brickhill which described the attempts by a group of Allied P.O.W.s being held in a German P.O.W. camp. The Allies, which consisted of mostly English Air Force officers, with a smattering crewmen of other nations, banded together to dig a tunnel from Stalag Luft III.
When published in 1950, it became a sensation, and came to the attention of John Sturges, a very respected director in Hollywood. He had a rough road convincing anyone to film the movie because it was not an overwhelmingly successful escape attempt in the first place. (Only 3 of the prisoners were successful in escape and 50 of the recaptured prisoners were executed by the Gestapo). Many bigwigs in Hollywood turned it down, too, because they thought it was unfilmable. Sturges finally got the go-ahead from the brothers Mirisch, who had found the Mirisch Company a few years earlier and were willing to back it. Based on a budget of $4 million dollars, Sturges and company began production.
The movie, despite the misgivings of people in Hollywood, was a success. It made over $11 million on it's initial investment, not the numbers created by It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (a fellow film from the same year), but still a respectable return. And it continues to be a popular movie even today. It starred an ensemble cast, which included Steve McQueen, James Garner and (Sir) Richard Attenborough above the title, with co-stars such as James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, David McCallum, Jud Taylor, and a host of others.
This will be a rather different style of entry from previous blog entries. Rather than tell you the entire story from start to finish, I decided to focus on each actor and their character individually. Note that these entries will occur in the order that they appear on screen at the beginning, not necessarily how important they are to the movie.
Angus Lennie: as Archibald Ives, "The Mole
Ives is by far the shortest of all members of the camp. He states early on that before the war his job was as a horse jockey. Since he is an airman, it makes one wonder how he got in, since shorter people were generally not accepted into the Air Corps. But that's American standard, so perhaps it was different in the RAF. Ives is known as the "Mole" because of his many escape attempts underground, including a key one he plans with Hilts at the early part of the film. Ives puts on an excellent front for the Nazis, but the truth is he is on the verge of a mental breakdown due to his long incarceration in the P.O.W. system. When the Nazis discover the main tunnel and it looks like his hopes of escape are dashed, he finally does have that breakdown.
For more Lennie: Oh! What a Lovely War, One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing
Steve McQueen: as Virgil Hilts, "The Cooler King"
Hilts is, what von Luger refers to as a "hotshot pilot". This is the quintessential McQueen character, someone who refuses to buckle under, refuses to kowtow to his captors, and has a "never say die" attitude towards his many escape attempts. Never without his baseball and glove, he almost cheerfully welcomes each session in the "cooler" (the isolation chamber which is probably anything but "cool" especially in the summer). Hilts is one of three Americans (although, technically, Hendley was in the RAF before his capture) in the camp. It is noted by the special features section of my DVD that by the time of the actual escape, there were no longer any Americans in the camp; they had all been transferred to a different camp. But this being Hollywood, it was understood that without any American soldiers in the movie, it would not sell well in the U.S. And, in fact, most of the P.O.W.s from the original camp who were still alive gave their assent, saying that without American help in the early stages, the tunnel may not have been built. It's a sure bet no one escaped by using a motorcycle as Hilts does here, but here again concessions were made. McQueen only agreed to do the movie if he could show off his skills on the motorcycle.
For more McQueen: The Blob, Bullitt, Papillon, The Getaway.
James Garner: as Robert Hendley, "the Scrounger"
Garner plays an American, but one who was a flier in the RAF Eagle Squadron, apparently having enlisted there before the Americans entered WWII. He plays a wily and quick-witted ne'er-do-well who uses his charm and cunning to acquire many of the tools and copies of papers that need to be forged for the escapees. He has a couple of great scenes with Robert Graf who plays an enemy soldier, one of the few German soldiers we get to see fleshed out as bonafide characters.
For more Garner: The Rockford Files (TV Series), Support Your Local Gunfighter, Victor/Victoria
Nigel Stock: as Dennis Cavendish, "The Surveyor"
Stock has Cavendish has an important duty for the building of the tunnel, but his main purpose in the movie appears to be providing comedy relief. Some of the funniest parts of the movie involve Cavendish being the butt of the joke in the scene. This is all well and good as many of the movies I have seen Stock in he plaqyed comedic characters.
For more Stock: Young Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes (BBC Series)
David McCallum: as Eric Ashley-Pitt, "Dispersal"
McCallum, probably best known as Illya Kuryakin in the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., her plays a Royal Navy officer who is significant to the story as having found an ingenious way to get rid of the dirt being brought up from the tunnel. Ultimately he sacrifices himself to try to help Bartlett get away after they have made it out of the camp into the railway station nearby during the crucial scenes after the escape attempt.
For more McCallum: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (TV Series), NCIS (TV Series)
James Coburn: as Louis Sedgewick, "The Manufacturer"
Although Coburn was an American actor added as a draw to American audiences, here he plays a New Zealander. He is a likable character who insists on carting a suitcase with him every where he goes. You never get to see what's in the "steamer trunk", as others in the movie call it, but it is hinted that he had a whole camping gear set up inside it, scenes of which never got filmed due to time and budget constraints. Coburn and Bronson have one of the best tete-a-tetes in the movie, IMO. Early in the movie Bronson and Coburn are trying to pose as Russian prisoners in order to walk out of the camp. Sedgewick asks Danny if he speaks Russian:
Velinski: Yes, but only one phrase.
Sedgewick: Well, let's have it.
Velinski: Ya vas lyublu.
Sedgewick: (repeating) ya vas lyublu, ya vas lyublu. What's it mean?
Velinski: "I love you."
Sedgewick: I love you...what bloody good is that?
Velinski: I don't know. I wasn't going to use it myself.
For more Coburn: The Magnificent Seven , In Like Flint, Cross of Iron, Affliction.
Charles Bronson: as Danny Velinski, "The Tunnel King"
Velinski is a Polish refugee who escaped Nazi held Poland and went to England to join up in the fight against the Nazis. He is the main "tunnel king", but suffers from claustrophobia, which is not revealed until the second half of the movie. Bronson's character is by far the most intriguing of the characters aside from Hilts. He and Dickes are the ones most often seen when scenes of the tunnel being dug are shown. Along with Dickes, Velinski is one of the three characters who are shown to have been successful in the escape.
For more Bronson: Death Wish, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, The Mechanic.
John Leyton: as William Dickes, "The Tunnel King"
Dickes, a buddy to Velinski, the other tunnel king, really doesn't have that much of a meaty part in the film compared to the rest of the cast. His main pupose in the film, it appears, is to keep Velinski focused and help keep him from himself and his ghosts involving his claustrophobia. At one point he has to talk Velinski out of trying to escape through the wire (which is sure to get him killed) and join in the tunnel escape occuring the next day. Dickes' character is also one of the three prisoners who succeeds in the escape attempt.
more Leyton: Krakatoa, East of Java, Von Ryan's Express, Was also a singing sensation in the UK.
James Donald: as Capt. Ramsey, Senior Officer
Ramsey is the authority figure of the piece. The authority within the camp that is. He serves as the final say in any judgments that need to be made concerning how the main escape is being planned, as well as any extra-curricular escape attempts (see above). Because of his limp, more than anything else, I would guess, he is not one of the prisoners who are lined up to attempt the big escape.
For more Donald: Lust for Life, Cast a Giant Shadow
Gordon Jackson: as Andrew MacDonald, "Intelligence"
MacDonald is, in essence, 2nd in-command behind Bartlett in the digging of the tunnel. He is in almost every scene when Bartlett finally appears on the scene, and is in charge of developing the system by which the camp can be alerted whenever the guards are near so they can prevent the tunnels from being discovered. As a Scotsman, he is also a boon companion to Ives. You don't see much of the character in the movie, but his influence remains, due to his planning of the "system of stooges" as her calls it. And he also makes a good presence when on screen.
For more Jackson: Jackson was in a lot of movies before and after this, but never as much of a presence as here.
Hannes Messemer: as von Luger, the Kommandant
von Luger is the head of the P.O.W. camp. It is very interesting to watch Messemer essay the character. Often he seems rather exasperated, wanting dearly to have things go smoothly, despite the fact that he has a bunch of hardened escapees trying to make a run for it at every turn. You get the feeling that von Luger does not side with the ruthless Nazi that the image of cinema has given us over the years, and that he would be much happier relaxing with a pipe and a schnapps at his villa in the Rhine valley than having to exert his officer status at the camp. Of all the German officers in this film, his is the most sympathetic, making much more a shame to watch him as he has to reveal to Captain Ramsey the truth about 50 of his fellow P.O.W.s.
For more Messemer: If you speak or understand German, be my guest...
Donald Pleasence: as Colin Blythe, "The Forger"
Blythe is the most unoffensive person you'd ever want to meet. A good natured fellow, he would prefer to be bird watching. He went out for a joy ride, and got shot down and has been a P.O.W. ever since. His job is creating forged documents for all the escapees. He goes blind towards the end seriously threatening his place in the line for being one of the escapees.
For more Pleasence: Halloween (I, II, IV and, V), You Only Live Twice, THX 1138.
Richard Attenborough: Roger Bartlett, "Big X"
Bartlett, code named "Big X", is the planner of the escape tunnels. Attenborough plays him with a passion to create havoc, although he states it is not for revenge for what they have done to him. Bartlett, course, is one of the escapees in the film. He has one hell of a time trying to evade capture, but his face is recognizable by every Gestapo agent he has ever met, and so as a result is re-captured, not albeit without some entertaining suspenseful scenes of his pursuit and attempts to avoid familiar faces.
For more Attenborough: The Sand Pebbles, A Bridge Too Far, Jurassic Park . Gandhi (director)
Even though I've given away the ending (and it's not like you probably couldn't figure it out on your own) I think I've left enough out to make it well worth checking out this movie. Each character is wonderfully well played, even many of the Germans. (BTW, the production company cast mostly real Germans for the major German parts, some of which had actually been on the other side during the war. The special features on my DVD says many of them were gung-ho about doing it as a catharsis for the remaining guilt they felt as being enemy soldiers).
Well that's all for this time, folks. Be sure to show your passes to the guards at the gates as you leave.