The Great Escape (1963)

I have two favorite movies, neither of which I’m able to pick one over the other.  I love them both, and all other movies come after it, first is 1960’s The Alamo which I’ve reviewed before and then there’s 1963’s The Great Escape. Introduced to it at a young age when I showed an interest in history, I’ve probably seen it 25 or 30 times straight through, and another 75 or 100 catching bits and pieces. For me, it is that rare perfect movie. Great story, impressive cast, exciting action, and one of the best soundtracks ever. You can’t ask for much more.

In World War II, both the Allies and Axis forces had to deal with how to handle prisoners of wars. In Germany, the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, was placed in charge of these Allied prisoners, placing them in P.O.W. camps all over their occupied territory. These prisoners — as was their sworn duty — tried countless escapes over the length of the war in typically small groups, sometimes getting as many as a dozen out. But one true story set the bar for heroism and courage among the prisoners, the true story of 76 prisoners escaping Stalag Luft III in March 1944. Literally hundreds of prisoners were involved in the effort as the escape even had an impact on D-Day some three months later.

It’s 1943, and a new prison camp has been built. The German Luftwaffe has taken the worst prisoners from all their camps and thrown them in this new camp that features all the security aspects they’ve learned from previous camps.  In this “perfect” camp, the Germans (Hannes Messemer is the commandant) intend to watch these men very carefully. Leading the prisoners is Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), dubbed ‘Big X’ for his leadership at the top of the ‘X Organization,’ a team of prisoners working together to bust out as many captured soldiers as they can. Bartlett has bigger plans though this time around. Instead of just getting two or three prisoners out, he intends to get 250 out of the camp with a large-scale plan that includes three extremely long tunnels under the barbed-wire fence. The plan seems impossible, but the prisoners go to work, slowly working their way toward escape.

Do you know the line ‘They don’t make them like they used to?’ This movie applies. Director John Sturges (one of my favorites and an underrated filmmaker overall) turns in his all-time best film, one that stands at or near the top in the lexicon of World War II movies. It is based in fact, sticking to the details and truths in the story, without getting bogged down.  There is action, humor (never overplayed, just natural humor arising from the situation), and characters you love and are generally rooting for. Composer Elmer Bernstein turns in a score that is one of the greats, especially the main theme, listen HERE. Bernstein’s score both drives the story as needed and keeps it grounded in the quieter, emotional scenes (including one where a tunnel is discovered and its tragic consequences).  Sturges filmed in Germany — as his assistant said, ‘Germany looks like Germany.’ An entire camp was built, an exact duplicate of the actual camp, bringing this 1963 epic up another notch in terms of realism and authenticity.

Sturges’ movies were famous for their male-dominated ensemble casts, but this may be his most impressive. Start with Steve McQueen as Hilts, the motorcycle-riding ‘Cooler King,’ the role that shot him to international stardom. Then there’s James Garner as Hendley, the scrounger, and Attenborough as Bartlett, the prisoner’s top man, a brilliant mind who comes up with this improbable plan. Not bad, huh? Oh yeah, there’s also James Donald as Ramsey, the senior British officer, Charles Bronson and John Leyton as Danny and Willie, the tunnel kings, James Coburn as Sedgwick, the manufacturer, Donald Pleasence as Blythe, the forger, David McCallum as Ashley-Pitt, “dispersal,” and Gordon Jackson as MacDonald, the intelligence officer. Other prisoners include Nigel StockJud Taylor and Angus Lennie in a small but essential part as Ives, Hilt’s progressively wire-happy partner. A more impressive cast could be impossible to assemble.

What is amazing is that even with all those stars — some on the rise, some already established — is that they all register, they all make a lasting impression in a positive way. More on McQueen later, but Attenborough delivers a career-best as Big X, the driven even obsessed leader who wants to take the war back to the Germans, not sitting out the war comfortably as his captors intend. Garner’s Hendley bonds with Pleasence’s Blythe in some of the movie’s most touching scenes, two very different people forming a friendship. Bronson and Leyton as the tunnel kings certainly make an impression, carving three tunnels out of the Earth 30 feet below the surface. Bronson is at his best, a Polish flyer with claustrophobia who hides his fear of small, enclosed spaces and digs. Coburn doesn’t get a ton to do compared to the others, but is his usual, laconic self. There is not a weakness in the cast from top to bottom.

When movie fans think of The Great Escape, they usually go right to Steve McQueen, a rising star who got his crack at the big time here and didn’t disappoint.  His Capt. Virgil Hilts is one of his most iconic roles, the loner, trouble-making American prisoner who attempts escape attempt after attempt.  What’s funny is that his character basically disappears for vast stretches of the movie, only to reappear after a stint in the cooler and steal every scene he is in. This is McQueen at his laid back, scene-stealing best. With all the notable actor’s actors around him, he is the unquestioned star thanks in great part to the finale, a motorcycle chase across Germany with his captors in hot pursuit. It is one of the greatest chases sequences ever, caped with one of the most impressive stunts ever, a 7-foot jump by stunt man Bud Ekins over a high-strung barbed-wire fence. McQueen is my favorite, but this is always his best to me.

With a final run-time of 2 hours and 53 minutes, Sturges’ true story doesn’t have to rush along at a lightning pace…but does anyway. The first 105 minutes or so focus exclusively on the escape attempt, putting all the little details together that need to happen. The first and biggest of course is the digging of the tunnels, 30 feet down and over 300 feet straight out. A track is built to transport prisoners/diggers, and wooden boards are needed to shore up the entire length of the tunnel. Up above, forgers create documents, tailors make clothes, Intelligence gathers information, all part of an elaborate system of security and watchmen to make sure nothing is discovered by their ever-vigilant German guards. It would have been easy for this movie to get bogged down in these details, but The Great Escape revels in them, making the mundane and possibly boring, exciting at a breakneck pace.

It is a movie called ‘The Great Escape’ though, and it is at its most exciting once the prisoners do escape, 76 of them in the dead of night spread out all over the German countryside. The escape attempt covers the last hour of the movie, an incredible extended sequence that is hard to top. It is almost entirely dialogue free, Bernstein’s score playing over the action the whole way. Finally free of their camp, the prisoners make their efforts to hopefully reach freedom, some by train, some by bikes, others by planes, and in Hilts’ case, a stolen German motorcycle.  Sturges was an action master, and this may be his tour de force sequence.

I could go on and on with this movie, and I’ve already sort of done so. My head is full of little tidbits of information that I’ve picked up over the course of repeated viewings.  Above all else through the drama, the facts, and the action is that Sturges gets the tone right from Paul Brickhill’s source novel, and most importantly, the true story it is based on. These men did the impossible in an impossible situation. Knowing their chances of escape back to freedom were slim, they plodded on when they could have just as easily quit. If you didn’t know and just read the details — check out the Wikipedia entry HERE for more details — you would say there’s no way this happened, but somehow, some way, it did. The ending hits you square in the stomach as it should, but the movie ends on a positive note; McQueen’s Hilts once again in the cooler, bouncing his baseball off the wall.  You may capture him again, but you’ll never stop him from trying.

A perfect movie, one of the best around, and one of my two favorite movies.

The Great Escape <—trailer (1963): ****/****

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Bad Day at Black Rock

bad_day_at_black_rockDirector John Sturges helmed two of my all-time favorite movies, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven and 1963’s The Great Escape. He specialized in tough guy movies, and in 1955 directed an interesting mash-up that features elements of several different genres, including film noir, mystery and western. How could that not work? Here’s 1955’s Bad Day at Black Rock.

It’s late in 1945 in the isolated western town of Black Rock. After four years of not stopping, a train stops at the station and one man steps off. His name is Macreedy (Spencer Tracy). He’s outfitted in a black suit and black hat and is carrying a suitcase, but no one has ever seen him before. No one in town has ever even heard of him. Polite and mannerly, he drifts around the one-street town, instantly arousing suspicion to his intentions. A local rancher, Reno Smith (Robert Ryan), owns the town, intimidating anyone who gets in his way. Smith and his men are concerned about what Macreedy is up to but they can’t figure it out. What is he looking for exactly in Black Rock?

What a great movie. Clocking in at a brisk 81 minutes, this is a movie without a wasted moment. It does effortlessly combine film noir, mystery and western archetypes in a way you wouldn’t expect. You think the story is going one way and then WHAM we’re going a different way. There is a minimalist style to it, but all these separate pieces meld together perfectly. Definitely a must-see movie.

Leading the way is Spencer Tracy as our mysterious lead, John J. Macreedy. He enters town with an unannounced mission, a smile on his face and some questions he’d like answered. An established Hollywood legend by 1955 (and then some), Tracy makes it look easy. Met with interference, stone faces and roadblocks everywhere he turns, he seamlessly moves along down another avenue. It’s only late when he’s pushed too far that he finally pushes back. His eventual confrontation provides one of the movie’s great moments, a genuine shock as he handles the situation. Maybe the biggest compliment you can give an actor is it doesn’t seem like they’re trying too hard. Tracy is a prime example, stealing scenes without us even realizing he’s doing it.

Typically directing guy’s guys types of movies, Sturges does not disappoint here. Ryan is the steely-eyed Smith, the town owner who knows more than he’s letting on. His scenes with Tracy crackle, intimidation just seeping through all his lines. His henchmen of sorts are pre-star Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin, equally intimidating and ominous. The rest of the townspeople include Walter Brennan as the doctor, Dean Jagger as the washed-up sheriff, Anne Francis as Smith’s girl and the garage owner, John Ericson as the hotel owner (and Francis’ sister), Russell Collins as the telegraph operator and Walter Sande as Sam, the bartender. Some good characters all delivering with key supporting parts.

An additional member of the cast is the on-location shooting in Lone Pine, California and the nearby Alabama Hills. The little one-street town features five or six small, rickety buildings with one main road splitting the town. Mountains hover in the distance over the town, a train zipping through once a day but never stopping. Sturges films the streets scenes low, both the cast and the mountains seemingly looking down at the camera. You feel the isolation and loneliness, a town seemingly separated from the rest of the world. That uneasy feeling of being trapped plays a key feature as Macreedy continues to ask questions. Has he dug himself too deep? A sun-drenched, uncomfortable setting for a story that takes place in a period of just 24 hours.

A classic that doesn’t always get its due. A must-see.

(1955): ****/****

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

gunfight_at_the_o-k-_corral_film_posterAmerican history in the wild west has a handful of instantly recognizable, oft-told stories that the film industry has visited time and time again. Just some include Custer’s Last Stand, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, the Alamo, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and maybe most famous, Wyatt Earp‘s involvement in one of history’s most famous gunfights. Here’s 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

It’s the late 1870s and Marshal Wyatt Earp (Burt Lancaster) is on the trail of several outlaws who he can’t quite catch up with. In Texas, Earp meets Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas), a dentist turned gambler who’s dying of tuberculosis. The two become unlikely friends of sorts, each saving the other’s life in a do-or-die situation. Both men seem to be drawn to danger — for different reasons — but always seem to get through unscathed. That luck may be running out as circumstances drive both Earp and Holliday west to the mining town of Tombstone in the Arizona territory where a gang of rustlers, cowboys and gunfighters are a constant threat. All roads lead to a little two-bit corral where everything will be settled.

There aren’t too many directors better suited for a guy’s guy movie like this than John Sturges who would go on to direct The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape in the coming years (among many other action-oriented, male-heavy casts). Sturges (and screenwriter Leon Uris) does a fair job bringing to life one of the American west’s most well-known stories. It is a big film that looks gorgeous, especially the sweeping plains and desert shots. Composer Dmitri Tiomkin turns in a familiar-sounding score that suits the historical story well. Some cool location shooting in Old Tucson especially stands out, especially the actual shootout in the finale.

What surfaces again and again in O.K. Corral westerns is the friendship and the bond between noted peace officer Wyatt Earp and dying gambler Doc Holliday. By far, the performances from Lancaster and Douglas are the best parts of ‘Gunfight.’ Lancaster as Earp — sans mustache — is steadfast, stubborn, loyal and an incredibly capable man who lives by his word. Dying of tuberculosis, Douglas’s Holliday is living one day at a time in hard-drinking fashion. Through their many differences, the two men find they also have many similarities. Their chemistry is smooth sailing throughout. Douglas is an intense scene-stealer as Holliday, even if the character isn’t too much like the real-life dentist-turned-gambler.

The lead performances are solid, but still not enough to rescue a western that has glacial pacing early. At 122 minutes, ‘Gunfight’ is slow to say the least. It takes 73 minutes for Wyatt and Doc to even reach Tombstone. Getting there is an episodic story that has some potential but typically gets bogged down too much. Go figure, there’s unnecessary love interests, Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet), Doc’s girlfriend with who he has a less than stable relationship, and Laura Denbow (Rhonda Fleming), a beautiful gambler who catches Wyatt’s eye. Taking the movie as a whole, there’s little historical truth to anything. Yes, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were in Tombstone, there was a gunfight at the O.K. Corral…and yeah, that’s about it.

One of Sturges’ specialties as a director was leading the way for male-dominated casts, like Great Escape and Mag7 among others. The star power isn’t huge here, but western fans will appreciate the depth of familiar faces you’ll see. John Ireland plays quick-on-the-draw gunfighter Johnny Ringo while baddie Lyle Bettger plays the slimy Ike Clanton. Also look for Dennis Hopper, Frank Faylen, and Jack Elam as other members of the Clanton gang. The underused Earp brothers include DeForest Kelly, Martin Milner and John Hudson. There’s also supporting parts for Earl Holliman, Ted de Corsia, Whit Bissell, Kenneth Tobey, Lee Van Cleef and Olive Carey.

Now how about that titular gunfight? In a movie that’s generally light on action and gunplay in general, the showdown at the O.K. Corral runs about 5 minutes — about 4 minutes and 30 seconds longer than the real gunfight — and packs quite a punch. Again, the history is garbage relative to the real event, but as a cinematic gunfight, it is pretty exciting. A mixed bag in the end with a fair share of positives and negatives mixed in one bag. Western fans will definitely get some enjoyment out of it, if for nothing else than the casting of Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

Also worth checking out? The very catchy, whistle-worthy theme song sung by Frankie Laine which you can listen to HERE. Listen to the soundtrack itself HERE.

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957): ** 1/2 /****