After countless escape attempts, several hundred Allied airmen are sent to a Luftwaffe-controlled prisoner of war camp that is deemed one of the most secure in the country. Each of the prisoners already has his role, from The Scrounger (James Garner) to The Forger (Donald Pleasence) and The Cooler King (Steve McQueen) to the Big X (Richard Attenborough) who controls all escape attempts.
While putting that many ingenious minds in one camp may mean fewer escapes in other camps, the prisoners are quick to hatch a plan to escape the inescapable.
Yes, I know. The staple of Christmas programming on British television since the 1960's, The Great Escape is as quinessentially British as fish and chips, Michael Caine or a top hat and monocle. The theme tune has even been borrowed for the England football team and is played repeatedly until the team loses on penalties. Even though she hadn't seen it, the fact that she at least knew that much was some consolation.
Actually, I must confess I don't remember having seen The Great Escape all the way through. That is to say, I have probably seen all of the film, but just not from start to finish. With 23 Christmas holidays behind me now, I found myself piecing together the various parts as I watched it, on that standard Saturday afternoon in August.
Because I knew that I love The Great Escape, I decided to base this review on her reactions as a newcomer to the film. She's not the biggest fan of war films (or films set around the era), and we were immediately off to a bad start when she noticed the nearly three hour run time. The end of the film might have had to be turned up to drown out the inevitable snoring.
It would be very easy to lose focus on The Great Escape within the first five or ten minutes; none of the headline actors make an immediate foreground appearance. Steve McQueen (who is as famous for The Great Escape almost as much as it is famous for him) spends a vast amount of time in isolation and only really shows up for the second half of the film.
The reluctance to push the protagonists to the front turned out to be a huge benefit to the film. By giving those who have a smaller role in the escape bigger screen time, meant that there were was far more personality to the film. Each character has their own personal battles to fight in their escape, from the obvious handicap of the forger to the lack of resources available to the scrounger and the hidden fear of the tunnel digger.
Again, the sheer number of individuals that the film focuses on gives a sense of realism to the escape that is unrivalled in similar films. We even learn to (rightly) empathise with the Luftwaffe commanders who are clearly just reluctantly following orders from high command. Even after the prisoners escape they are not ignored as the film watches them split from the group and find their own way across the border or die trying. You find yourself cheering each and every one on their quest for Switzerland.
As I said before though, the most telling thing for me is what my girlfriend thought. Her reaction? "Well I didn't fall asleep after 2 hours, 45 minutes so that must make it a five star film, right?"