The John Sturges classic celebrates its 60th anniversary today.
Released on August 1, 1963 in France, The great Escape became the biggest success of that year: with 8.7 million admissions, it doubled Lawrence of Arabia, La Cuisine au beurre, James Bond against Dr. No, The Cheetah, Les Tontons flingueurs… This film following the spectacular, and true, escape of prisoners of war in 1942 has gained such popularity that it has subsequently inspired works as diverse as Chicken Run, Toy Story 3, Stranger Things Or Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.
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With Settlement of scores at OK Corral And The Magnificent Seven, The great Escape is the best-known film by John Sturges, a solid filmmaker from the post-golden age of Hollywood who perfectly knew how to deal with the new demands of the studios to counter the growing influence of television: action, wide open spaces, stars. It was he who, at the dawn of the 1960s, launched the fashion for gang films with The Magnificent Seven whose recipe was simple: mix established and rising stars within a choral intrigue making them shine in turn according to their roles and skills.
For The great Escape, three years later, he reunited with Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn whom he immersed in a German prison camp in the midst of leading British actors, including Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence and David McCallum. The other American, James Garner, completed a homogeneous distribution, ready to play as a team. It is nevertheless said that Charles Bronson would not have liked the fact that Steve McQueen wanted to pull the cover to him. The latter indeed saw in the role of captain Virgil Hilts the opportunity to establish his popularity and status. He thus campaigned to add the famous final motorcycle chase sequence which did not correspond to the facts – the story is inspired by a real spectacular escape. Unlined (except for the motorcycle jump plan), Steve McQueen was so identified with his character, nicknamed “The Cooler King”that he kept the nickname of “King of cool”. The legend was on.
60 years later, The great Escape remains an action movie model. The mythical sequences follow one another. The baseball thrown into a dead spot, the earth evacuated via pierced socks, Pleasence’s ruse to hide his blindness, Bronson lying on his trolley in the tunnel, Bronson’s own bouts of claustrophobia, the scattering of escapees in the surrounding countryside and their concealment strategies…
We do not feel the three hours of film passing. The efficiency is such that it masks without difficulty the facilities of a scenario whose offhand tone contrasts with the harshness of the events described. We have fun with the pranks of McQueen and his sidekick Angus Lennie; we smile at the tender complicity between Garner and Pleasence. Bronson forces on his side his “disease” while the presence of James Coburn is inexplicably reduced – one does not suddenly understand that he is shown as one of the rare survivors of the escape. Come on, let’s not sulk our pleasure and let’s see again The great Escape for the tenth time.
Steven Spielberg is working on a new film around the character of Bullitt