The old Tudor cinema, 1963
Some films go beyond the status of classic or cult and emerge as something else entirely. Amongst that special group, is a film that celebrates its 60th Anniversary this year, while never losing its unique grip on the public’s affection - The Great Escape.
First released in 1963, this much-loved classic POW epic made an immediate impression on audiences that would never be relinquished over the next six decades.
For many people mention of The Great Escape brings back fond memories of regular television screenings during Christmas and Bank Holidays.
However, I became acutely aware of the film’s special qualities and enduring popularity as an impressionable youngster during its initial cinema runs in the 1960s.
My first memory of seeing it was with my dad on Friday, November 29th, 1963 at the old Tudor cinema in Stockbridge. The cinema is now long gone (it was revamped for a time as Johnny’s Prize Bingo - not a fact to be celebrated, to be honest) yet I vividly remember that first occasion of being acquainted with the men behind the barbed wire.
That night when my dad and I walked into the auditorium, we watched James Donald’s stiff-upper lipped Group Captain Ramsay being interviewed about ‘Camp Policy’ by the German Commandant Von Lugar when the film abruptly broke down!
As you would suppose, this was met by loud boos, whistles, and aggressively strong language that echoed across the stalls and balcony, directed at the nervous projectionist who was attempting to get the film up and running again.
Calm was restored when it quickly flickered back to life just as Steve McQueen tossed his baseball over the warning wire to check out the blind spot.
Funny what small details one remembers after all these years!
As one critic shrewdly observed at the time: ‘It, The Great Escape, is simply great escapism’.
Inspired by a true story about a mass breakout. The Great Escape is based on the book by Paul Brickhill, an Australian fighter pilot who was a prisoner at the real Stalag Luft III in modern-day Poland.
The intensely detailed intricacies of the escape plan occupy the first two thirds of the film before it bursts into frantic action as the POWs make their valiant bids for freedom.
Although historical truth must point to the fact that Steve McQueen’s motorbike pursuit whilst being chased by the Nazis through the rolling Bavarian countryside is Hollywood fiction at its finest.
John Sturges was at that time one of Hollywood’s top action directors, with a string of hit films to his name. He was also, arguably, the man responsible for launching Steve McQueen’s stellar career.
McQueen was now front and centre amongst a large ensemble cast playing Hilts the Cooler King - with his baseball and catcher’s mitt completing his striking visual image.
Later, of course, that image was greatly enhanced when he apprehended a German motorbike and careened across the Alpine meadows…
Straight into movie mythology.
So, it’s fair to say, that for the best part of 3 hours the audience is fully engaged as the epic story reaches it’s tragic yet, curiously uplifting, conclusion.
Aside from its many other merits, The Great Escape is as good an example of how to skilfully utilise an all-star cast of different styled actors from both sides of the Atlantic as you could wish for.
It cleverly manages a fine balancing act between cool, charismatic American stars, and stalwart British character actors, all competing for equal screen time in a plot full of tension, suspense, humour and pure adrenaline fuelled adventure. It’s that fusion of talents and storyline, that always makes this film compulsive viewing - regardless of how many times you have seen it.
One thought always occurs to me whenever I watch the film, since director Sturges killed off both James Coburn and Charles Bronson during the climactic scenes of The Magnificent Seven he made up for it by making them two of the three escapees from the camp who survive and reach freedom. Maybe it was just a coincidence, or dictates of the final shooting script, but I wonder if anyone else has pondered that question?
Another inspiring aspect of the film is the truly exciting musical score from Elmer Bernstein, featuring that catchy and instantly recognisable main theme. I remember when I saw the composer himself in concert conducting the RSNO, back in 2002 in Glasgow, a special cheer went up around the concert hall when this theme was performed. It would be an understatement to say it was popular amongst the Scottish audience that night!
One final note: 1f the film Zulu has a special significance for Welsh movie lovers, then The Great Escape easily works the same way for us Scots.
Just glance over the cast and see the likes of Gordon Jackson, James Donald, David McCallum & Angus Lennie playing prominent roles to back that claim up. Not forgetting Musselburgh, Hamilton and “walkin’ doon Argyll Street...” garnering brief mentions within the narrative.
Then you might even want to claim Steve McQueen as an honorary Scot Steve McQueen, that would however be stretching it a bit.
Anyway, Happy 60th Anniversary, and an added “Good Luck” to a great movie! ■
Angus Lennie and Gordon Jackson doing a Scottish reel in The Great Escape