The Great Escape
demonstrate the great qualities of The Great Escape,
I think that the best approach is to discuss what the film would
have been like had it had been made today. Such a comparison shows
the freshness and originality of this wonderful war/action picture,
and it also sadly points out a type of storytelling that has become
lost in most of today’s standard action pictures.
The Great Escape been made today, the movie would have
featured an all-American cast from every race, color, and creed,
in order to be politically correct and cover every possible base.
Thus, the mainly British cast consisting of great actors such
as Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasence, even though they
are more historically accurate, would have been traded in for
the likes of Will Smith and Bruce Willis. Certainly, there would
be one British character, but he wouldn’t be treated as
respectfully as the American actors are in the original version
(James Garner and Steve McQueen). Rather, he would be played for
laughs, and his actions would be so stereotypically inept that
he would not be able to function without the constant aid and
support of his American allies.
The Great Escape been made today, every German character
in the film would have been evil, mustache-twirling villains.
Because it is a war film, it would simply have to portray every
enemy of the United States as conniving, sadistic bad guys. The
Germans, though clearly on the wrong side, would not have the
touch of humanity that the officers in charge of the Stalag Luft
III prison camp possess. Such qualities make them truly sympathetic
villains who are merely doing their job for a terrifying dictatorship,
but in today’s Great Escape, good Nazis just wouldn’t
be politically correct; after all, anyone who followed Hitler
had to be evil. Thus, all the antagonists would be terrifying—essentially
the same twisted character with different faces.
The Great Escape been made today, the escape would have
taken place no later than twenty minutes into the movie. Today’s
audiences have no time for character development or carefully
constructed, historically accurate scenes detailing the ingenious
methods of flight. All of this would have been omitted, and we
would jump right into the escape itself, removing all suspense
and concern for well-written characters, and instead playing up
the action and excitement. Who cares how the passports were faked,
and who needs the demonstration of the difficult, painful process
of digging out those tunnels? None of this is important. We would
simply want to get to the action as quickly as possible.
The Great Escape been made today, because of the aforementioned
skip to the action-packed escape sequences, most of the characters
would be one-dimensional. Instead of several well-drawn characters
with their own talents and personality quirks, all of the abilities
that these character possess (building tunnels, faking passports,
creating costumes out of curtains, speaking multiple language)
would all be placed upon one man. This man would be the quintessential
American, complete with an American flag bandana and a love for
apple pie. This character would also have lines that consist mainly
of witty one-liners, he would possess supreme fighting skills,
and he would have the ability to karate-chop his way out of any
situation, no matter the number of enemies or the size of their
The Great Escape been made today, the ending would have
been altered from the true story, and main character and his buddies
all would have escaped, but only after a climactic showdown with
the Nazis, in a battle that would result in massive explosions
and lots of dead people. Today’s audiences don’t want
to know that in real life, most of the escapees were captured
and brutally murdered by the Gestapo, despite their many exciting
attempts to get away. Audiences would rather watch a feel-good,
fictitious film in which all the good guys made it out alive,
except perhaps for a few noble men who sacrifice themselves to
save the group (and the main character, of course).
The Great Escape been made today, filmmakers wouldn’t
have been satisfied with a gripping story of male-bonding under
difficult times of war. At least one female character would have
to be inserted, played by a beautiful, highly-prolific actress.
Her character would have dressed up as a man to join the army,
but once she is stuck in the prison camp, her secret is discovered
by the main character and his best friend. As she is attracted
to both of them, a love triangle would probably ensue, including
a sex scene with the main character inside the tunnel, the night
before the escape takes place. Today’s audiences sure would
love that. As for the best friend: See the last paragraph about
the noble men sacrificing themselves to save the main character.
Today’s audiences also love convenience.
The Great Escape been made today, they couldn’t
have kept the story in the confines of the camp. In order to heighten
the emotion of the central character, it would have begun with
a grueling, highly-fictionalized battle on the war front that
led to his capture. Some have called The Great Escape
a superb war film, but it is really not about war at all, as it
offers little insight into the battlefield or scenes of its characters
in combat. Rather, it is an engaging action film based on true
events that shakes its fist at conventions as it tries to tell
its story with as much accuracy as a Hollywood adaptation would
allow (details have been added, of course, such as the motorcycle
chase sequence, but such scenes are at least plausible and exciting).
But because it happens to take place during war time, today’s
The Great Escape would have felt a need to exploit the
fact instead of letting the story of the escape speak for itself.
The Great Escape been made today, a rock and roll soundtrack
would have been utilized, including a “Music Inspired by
the Motion Picture” companion CD. There would be no simple,
catchy tunes that utilize the pleasant but cautious nature found
in the prisoners as they attempt to escape from the camp. Instead,
highly-stylized, rock synthesizer music would be employed, with
long, patriotic French-horn interludes inserted for good measure.
More than likely, the ending credits would include a song from
a contemporary leading pop artist.
nice it is that The Great Escape was made in a time when
such modern day conventions were not the norm. As it stands, what
a wonderful, carefully constructed film this is, filled with inventive
characters, ingenious methods of escape, realistic action scenes,
and true tragedy combined with natural humor—all the elements
that make a great action movie. It also takes it time in establishing
the story, so that when the great escape finally comes, it is
well-earned, and we are able to feel the anticipation and fear
that the characters feel because we have taken their journey with
them. Had The Great Escape been made today, it would
never have gotten my vote for the most exhilarating action movie
of all time. As it stands, it was made in 1963, and certainly
deserves that title.
Richard Attenborough: Big X
Steve McQueen: Hilts
James Garner: Hendley
James Donald: Ramsey
Charles Bronson: The Tunnel King
Donald Pleasence: Blythe
James Coburn: Sedgwick
MGM presents a Mirisch Corporation
film. Directed by John Sturges. Written by James Clavell and W.R.
Burnett, from the book by Paul Brickhill. No M.P.A.A. rating (a
few violent images, but otherwise fine—and recommended—for
kids). Running time: 172 minutes. Original United States theatrical
release date: July 4, 1963.