Like so many movies on the master Must-See list, The Great Escape is one which I feel like I’ve always been aware of because its influence is felt so far and wide. It’s overtly homaged in a brilliant Simpsons sequence where Maggie and several other babies attempt to escape from objectivist daycare; it’s referred to, fleetingly but meaningfully, in a joke in Reservoir Dogs; and in both spirit and one or two specifics it informs much of The Shawshank Redemption, just to name a few of my personal favorite instances. But I had never seen the film until this month.
Another example of the film’s reputation preceding itself into my consciousness came thanks to my wife. I made a passing comment about The Great Escape once and she clued me in to how ridiculously popular the movie is in England. Not just popular, but part of a beloved tradition of families gathering around the telly at Christmastime to watch its broadcast, much like my family used to do once a year for The Wizard of Oz, but with less general appreciation for a classic and more deeply felt national pride. I love exposing myself to universally acclaimed works of transcendent art but I also (exceedingly, perhaps) love exposing myself to works that inspire obsession.
For a while there, maybe the first half or two-thirds of the movie, I felt like I was getting onto that wavelength of understanding why The Great Escape could be so ensconced in a collective heart the same way that, say, Gone With the Wind serves for Southerners. Most of the main characters are subjects of the U.K., and they bear up all stiff-upper-lipped under the indignities of prison camp and take command of the situation, earn the loyalty of their fellow POWs from the U.S. and even gain grudging respect from the Nazis. It basically positions the Brits (and Scots and Aussies &c.) as the apex heroes of WWII, by having the breakout from Stalag Luft III stand in for the entire conflict. And said breakout is, in historical fact, a story about British officers so fair play to them there. I just couldn’t help but notice, from my Yank perspective, how the Americans had their role to play in the fictionalized drama but it was unquestionably secondary.
I mentioned the Simpsons above (because it’s virtually impossible to talk about pop culture without invoking them) and now I’m going to do it again, by calling attention to what I have long held is the single most awesome joke the series ever pulled off. In an episode that begins on the last day of school, the children at Springfield Elementary watch the clock and count down to their summer vacation, then run like mad for the exits when the bell rings. As they race away from the building, a lone teacher bursts out of the doors, holding an open textbook in one hand, and calls after them, “Wait! I never got to tell you how World War Two ended!” All of the children stop and turn around in expectant silence. The teacher waits a beat and says, “WE WON!” The children cheer and begin chanting “U! S! A! U! S! A!” and incite a riot including tipping over school buses and starting fires. My friends and I enjoy a good “U! S! A!” chant every now and then, and I always believe we are directly quoting this episode when we so indulge.
Point being, jingoism, I get it. And it’s fascinating how that manifests in The Great Escape not only as us versus them, Allies versus Axis, but also in the big-brother/little-brother dynamic within the Allied forces between the U.K. and U.S. My relationship with my country is complicated with love/hate, but I have to admit that during the sequence where James garner and Steve McQueen and … umm … that other guy dress up and reenact the trio from The Spirit of ’76 to dole out moonshine to the other prisoners on the Fourth of July, I got a bit choked up with sentimental pride. (U! S! A!) And that is a relatively minor, and undeniably silly, bit of business in the overall movie. So it’s not difficult to imagine how the heartstrings of a patriotic Briton would be played like a harp by the rest of the film.
Essentially, for that first 50 – 60% I started out talking about, The Great Escape is a classic heist film. The team comes together, a plan to do the impossible is hatched, and an inordinate amount of pleasure is derived in detailing how various little schemes and cons and displays of cleverness and strength will add up to the big score. (So yeah, add things like Ocean’s Eleven to the list of entertainments with The Great Escape in their DNA.) If the movie had ended at the point where the escapees are popping out of the tunnel one after the other like clockwork, undermining the Wermacht through sheer moxie and plucky determination … well, I suppose that would have been Hogan’s Heroes, basically.
The movie doesn’t end there, of course, largely because it’s based on a true story and the desire to tell the complete story and honor the memories of the fallen was strong. (Historically-rooted spoilers a’comin!) The escape was meant to liberate two hundred POWs, but only seventy-some made it out before the camp sentinels shut it down. The vast majority of those escapees were subsequently recaptured, as the plans for actually getting out from behind enemy lines slowly and steadily unraveled, which the latter portions of the movie depict in crushing detail. And fifty of the recaptured were summarily executed. So the story does not exactly have a feel-good happy ending, though I suppose that depends on which side of the “we caused disruptive problems for the enemy and that was worth the price paid” debate which closes things out you come down on.
No question it’s an excellent movie, worth watching for a variety of reasons on multiple levels. I’m just not convinced that I should obtain a permanent copy to watch every Christmas myself; one enjoyable viewing should do for me for quite a while.