A daring grasp at freedom sees a band of unlikely comrades put together a plan to escape a prisoner of war camp. The Great Escape offers up dastardly Germans, heroic heroes draped in red, white and blue, and a collection of characters who in any other circumstance would be butting heads with one another. A rather cliché look at the war, but forgivable in a time of such upheaval. Hollywood cash-ins on the tragedies of life are inevitable. The tidal wave of films set during the Second World War soon began drawing bigger names, and larger budgets. The Great Escape is likely one of the more consistent and narratively compelling of these war films, especially those released a mere twenty years after the end of such a harrowing war.
John Sturges’ competent hands behind the camera make for clear, character-driven moments. He’d go on to do this with greater success in Bad Day at Black Rock. His focus on a group of vastly different individuals serves him well here, an array of unique performances to work with and assemble into something that’ll make for memorable, fun viewing. James Garner and Richard Attenborough in particular are strikingly grand, of course playing second fiddle to Steve McQueen’s charming role as Hilts doesn’t allow them to shine quite like they should. This trio do provide some strong moments, both together on-screen and as individuals attempting to out-perform one another.
As remarkable a performance McQueen gives here, his character uses strong supporting cast members as leverage rather often. His role relies on the team surrounding him, which is only as interesting as its weakest member. Some moments will struggle to entirely convince their audience, feeling more happenstance than anything. Donald Pleasance, as grand an actor he was, has a slew of scenes here that’ll grind the film to a halt. The drawn-out process of his character and the fate he meets is rather banal when compared to the motorbike action or espionage found in later pockets of the film. Such a shame we don’t get there fast enough.
With an iconic soundtrack rumbling through the makeshift tunnels and battered prison camp, The Great Escape thrives as it adapts its surroundings and setting to the very best of its abilities. Sturges and McQueen complement one another strongly, but the film does suffer from the inevitable problems that come with contemporary views. The pacing is a bit off, a chunk of forgettable characters makes the rounds with dialogue and performances there solely to give us a bit of foreshadowing or information, and it does start to come to pieces toward the end. Still a tremendous watch, though, The Great Escape will always cling to its iconic set pieces, and rightly so.