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Great Escapist

Director Sturges Panned the Scan

August 04, 1996|Glenn Lovell | Glenn Lovell is a Bay Area writer who specializes in film

John Sturges hated what television did to his movies. He especially hated what pan-and-scan cropping did to his Panavision classics, such macho primers as "Bad Day at Black Rock" and "The Magnificent Seven."

Looking at a letterbox laserdisc version of "Black Rock" a few months before he died in 1992, Sturges grumbled, "Pan-and-scan? It drives me nuts. All those weird moves to include whoever's talking."

Hardly what you'd call a sentimentalist, even in his final days, it's hard to believe Sturges wouldn't be pleased by the letterbox edition of his 1963 hit, "The Great Escape." Thanks to MGM/UA's Screen Epics series, VCR owners finally can see the POW classic in all its widescreen glory. ("The Great Escape" has been available for $89.95 from Voyager's Criterion Collection; MGM/UA's two-cassette version is a more affordable $24.98.)

Especially impressive in the full Panavision format are the establishing shots of the German prison camp (built outside Munich), the seamless tracking shots of Charles Bronson burrowing to freedom and, of course, Steve McQueen's sprint across the Bavarian countryside on a commandeered motorcycle.

With the entire picture back on screen, it's easy to understand why Sturges considered the World War II adventure one of his best efforts. Boomers who discovered the three-hour epic as teenagers (and this includes Steven Spielberg) rightly place it beside David Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

"It's amazing how 'The Great Escape' and 'Magnificent Seven' [1960, also with McQueen] are enjoying a renaissance," the 82-year-old producer-director said in his final interview at his hillside home in San Luis Obispo. "There's a whole new generation that's discovering my pictures. I earned $140,000 just last year on video and laser sales because I own, with United Artists, those two films.

"That should tell you something right there: There are not too many films being made today that are that kind of large-scale, big-emotion picture."

Indeed, budgeted at $3.2 million (or roughly $20 million by inflated '90s standards), "The Great Escape" almost didn't get made. It was deemed too costly, too complicated and--here's a surprise--too downbeat.

"When I said I wanted to make 'The Great Escape,' they thought I was crazy. They said, 'What kind of escape is this? Nobody gets away.' "

Taken from Paul Brickhill's account of the largest coordinated breakout in military history, Sturges' film chronicles a mass escape in 1943 from Stalag Luft North, designed to discourage incorrigible moles. Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, James Garner, David McCallum, Donald Pleasence, Bronson and McQueen are among the international actors who tunnel out of the compound. In all, 76 men escape. Fifty are executed by the Gestapo, three make it to freedom and the remainder are returned to prison.

Sturges and co-screenwriter James Clavell (a real-life POW) knew the numbers were immaterial; their story was a rugged, if highly theatrical, metaphor for the kind of we're-all-in-it-together cooperation that won the war.

" 'The Great Escape' was not just an action movie," Sturges stressed. "It's this story of these different nationalities who form an organization to wipe out the Nazis. It's about this uncontrolled, do-it-your-way form of life--our way of life--defeating these dictatorial sons of bitches OK? with their armies."

Though justifiably proud of the big action sequences, such as the climactic motorcycle jumps (done by McQueen's stunt double, not McQueen, as Hollywood lore would have it), Sturges favored the quieter interludes. "The scenes that make it work are like when Blythe [Pleasence] realizes he can't see and he plants a pin to try to convince Hendley [Garner] that he can; and the quarrel between 'Big X' [Attenborough] and Hendley over playing God, deciding who goes and who stays. That's what makes the picture work. It's the emotional involvement."

Coming off his biggest hit--"The Magnificent Seven" (the Western version of Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai")--Sturges, in 1961, could have gotten the Burbank phone directory green-lighted. "You get your way when you're a winner," he said. ("By Love Possessed" and "A Girl Named Tamiko," two ill-advised detours into turgid romance, were mercifully overlooked.)

On location outside Munich, cast and crew were beset by problems, ranging from bad weather to angry conservationists (who insisted all trees removed for the stockade be saved and replanted) to McQueen's insecurity. Intimidated by his mostly stage-trained co-stars and later diagnosed as dyslexic, McQueen felt his role as the baseball-tossing Cooler King wasn't meaty enough. Things deteriorated quickly until Sturges--a lanky veteran with an Oscar nomination and more than 30 films to his credit--handed the actor his walking papers.

Of course all hell broke loose--and McQueen's representatives from the William Morris Agency flew in to handle damage control.

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