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A breakout summer feat

'The Great Escape' pulled off a sunny blend of cleverness and character, seriousness and humor. It's too bad modern blockbusters don't emulate it.

June 06, 2003|Michael Sragow | Baltimore Sun

When the World War II POW adventure "The Great Escape" opened 40 years ago this summer, the title was controversial among my schoolyard pals. "You call that a great escape? Fifty guys get killed and only three escape and the rest return to the POW camp." Once we saw the picture, there was no argument -- without even trying, it taught us all a lesson about purpose and sacrifice.

Ever since the film became a hit, the phrase "great escape" has been easy to find, whether in travel sections or feature stories about jailbreaks, rescues or Houdini-like feats. ("The Great Escape Artist," reads one recent New Yorker cover flap.) Its ubiquity is a continuing tribute not just to a catch phrase, but also to a movie that continues to generate affection for its balance of seriousness, humor, fantasy and history. The filmmakers rigorously composed fictional characters from groups of real men, and, with one outrageous exception, rooted their strategies and fates in actual events that occurred in and around the prison camp known as Stalag Luft III.

In my own 30-odd years as a critic, I've first viewed many now-classic movies during the summer, including my favorite of all time, "The Wild Bunch," in 1969. But for a movie that in some peculiar way registers as a summer movie, the peak is still "The Great Escape." It is an escape and it is great: It renders vividly and fully an experience that encompasses a panorama of emotions -- fear, audacity, loyalty, panic, giddiness, intransigence and fortitude.

What makes it a summer movie, at least for me? Its physicality, to be sure. I was never a jock, but as a kid, the summer was the season to spend all day in a swimming pool, paddling myself merrily into exhaustion. A movie like "The Great Escape," which sets a kaleidoscope of characters whirling in a constant state of exertion, put me into the same sort of clearheaded yet euphoric state as those endless laps.

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Ace excavators

For much of the film, British and American prisoners steadily tunnel in three groups under the camp the film calls Stalag Luft Nord (built for the production in the pines outside Munich). They overcome obstacles and outwit their jailers to execute a bold plan to spring an unprecedented number of men -- ultimately, not the 250 they hope for, but 76. They excavate 10 yards into the ground beneath their barracks, then extract hundreds of feet of sand, propping up walls along the roughed-out paths; they put together rope-drawn trolleys to move on wooden tracks, and siphon off the camp's electricity to power underground lights.

You hold your breath as a cast including Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence and David McCallum do all this and more without special effects, and with a commitment so full-bodied you can never tell them from their stuntmen.

Because the action is so persuasive, and stays on a human scale, it evokes a radically different response from today's dizzying, anything-goes, digital-effects extravaganzas. As the men finish one task before moving to another, the movie releases endorphins, like a good hike or run, as well as jolts of adrenaline. Today's blockbusters use one pile-driving effect after another to produce the relentless cyborg sensations of computer games. "The Great Escape" offers instead the sustained tension and release of sports.

What James Agee wrote of director John Huston's work in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" applies to director John Sturges' work here: "There is a wonderful flow of fresh air, light, vigor, and liberty through every shot, and a fine athlete's litheness and absolute control and flexibility in every succession and series of shots."

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Real freedom fighters

Much of "The Great Escape" is set during the summer. Its comic high point comes when three Yanks -- McQueen, Garner and Jud Taylor -- dress up as the Spirit of '76 and celebrate the Fourth of July. (The reference to the number 76 acquires more poignancy later on.) They serve moonshine to the British POWs, who vastly outnumber them, with toasts of "Up the Rebels" and "Down the British." The movie literally isn't sunny; the weather clouds up on Independence Day. But the film has a sunny soulfulness. It honors indomitable men who feel in their bones the need to fight for freedom.

Their military rationale is sound: It is the duty of all imprisoned officers to escape from or harass their captors and provoke the enemy's high command to divert manpower from the battlefront. The Nazis have rounded up the most notorious Allied escape artists, putting "all the rotten eggs in one basket" and making the "basket" seem impregnable to kill the POWs' spirit. But from the moment the Germans march them into a prison camp deep in forest country (the woods serve as a second barricade), these POWs act as if breaking out has become as natural as drawing breath and as reviving as a blast of pure oxygen.

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