I never saw this one before, but based on the poster, I had a good idea of what I was in for. What I didn’t expect was the jaunty Stripes/Private Benjamin music to be played throughout a movie about a group of British, Australian, and American fliers escaping from a Nazi prison camp. The first few minutes of the movie, as the men are being driven to
summer camp the Nazi camp, convinced me that I was about to see a lighthearted, “Springtime for Hitler” type of deal.
And I was not far off. The tone of the movie was entirely too light. If you haven’t seen it, the movie was about soldiers that absolutely did not seem concerned for the cause for the war they were fighting, or express interest in the atrocities that were taking place 370 kilometers away at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They talked in a general way about the Nazis, but the Commandant of Stalag Luft III seemed to be an affable fellow, and didn’t instill any fear of reprisals for the endless escape attempts. The men always had plenty of food, clothing, wood to burn, and the most extreme punishment that we see doled out to the escapees is 20 days in a warm, but boring, room. Multiple escape attempts received a slap on the wrist, and an exasperated eye roll. There seemed to be some sort of “gentlemen’s agreement” that the soldiers were required to attempt escape, and the guards were required to bring them back, no worse for the wear. Until the end, but even then, they didn’t all get killed by the Nazis. Some of them came back, totally unscathed.
I have a real issue with a movie about World War II that makes it seem so not-traumatic. I expect that movies about The Holocaust should impress upon the audience that this was a horrific, scarring, unforgivably cruel experience for everyone who was touched by it. The Great Escape shows the soldiers being held at this camp acting, for the most part, relaxed and not at all bothered by what they have witnessed. I get that they were fliers, and not ground fighters who had to look in the eyes of the people they killed, or to smell the death all around them, but they were just so clean and untouched by the war.
As with Argo, this movie was based on actual events. Also, as with Argo, the American participation in the actual events is hugely overstated. I get it. This is an American war film, so we have to be the heroes. Factually, this was a huge error. But we had all these hunky guys, so we had to be the stars. Steve McQueen insisted on bulking up his part, and added some ridiculous motorcycle jumps during his escape to ensure that the “America…HELL, YEAH!” quality was truly played at maximum volume.
The movie had a stellar cast, but no character development. Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Richard Attenborough… none of their performances made me want to stand up and cheer. The could/should have trimmed an hour out of the movie, made a few tidy editorial cuts to pace it out more evenly so that the only interesting parts weren’t clustered in the last hour. If you think I mean that the movie showed the relentless boredom of prison-work life, and the grueling day in/day out tedium of being a prisoner of war, I don’t. I mean that it was boring. The entire digging, escaping, recapture, plotting, escaping, digging, escaping, recapture was redundant and drug out to the point where I honestly stopped caring about who was going to be alive at the end of the movie.
I do have to point out that two actors in this movie were brilliant, totally engaging, and made this whole exercise worthwhile for me: James Garner and Donald Pleasence. It was so delightful to see these two masters work together to create a real human camaraderie that jumped off the screen. Their characters had a depth and a warmth that was lacking in every other character. Their motivations made sense, if only that they wanted to help each other. Donald Pleasence was so often cast as a villain, so it was great to see him play a kind and gentle spirit, suffering silently with increasing myopic blindness. James Garner, well, he could have just made Polaroid commercials for the rest of his life, and I still would have thought he was incredible. Their affection seemed the most real part of the entire movie. Hooray for two great actors making a good meal out of otherwise lousy potluck!
Overall, I think I would have been better off just watching three hours of “Hogan’s Heroes.” At least that show knew that it was a comedy about German Nazi prison camps. It wasn’t trying to be whatever The Great Escape was attempting. The music would have made sense. Overall, I give the whole escape a solid “Meh.” Not “a pretty good escape.” Definitely not a “great escape.” More of a “Well, that escape certainly happened multiple times.”