Jarrod Emerson’s Tribute to Richard Attenborough

Part 2: THE GREAT ESCAPE  (1963)

Based on the personal experience of WWII Veteran, Paul Brickhill, The Great Escape follows a group of POWs imprisoned in Stalag Luft III.  Equipped with a barbed-wire fence, towers, and a full staff of armed guards, it has been declared Germany’s most secure prison camp.  However, behind closed doors the prisoners are collaborating on something big.  Under the leadership of a previously escaped POW, the occupants orchestrate an unprecedented mass escape of more than 250 men!

Admittedly this is my first viewing Of The Great Escape, which I will concede upfront is a “great” film.  But what makes it so?  Its basis on reality?  The top-notch all-star cast (most of whom are, sadly, no longer with us)?  The surprisingly character-driven screenplay?  Is it Elmer Bernstein’s rousing musical score?  Or could it be the breathtaking Bavarian locations?  If you haven’t guessed by now, the answer is a resounding ALL OF THE ABOVE!  Even though I’d previously known of The Great Escape, I had always thought of it as a Steve McQueen picture.  In truth, he’s only one part of an amazing ensemble of character actors including James Garner, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, David McCallum, and of course, Richard Attenborough.  Each shines in a distinctive, well-defined role.

Leading the effort himself is Attenborough, as the tenacious British Air Force Squadron leader Roger Bartlett.  Dubbed “Big X” for his many previous high-profile escaped attempts and one of the camp’s newest arrivals, Bartlett faces execution should he try to escape again.  But with so many repeat offenders under one roof, the temptation to lead them to freedom is something he cannot ignore.  Attenborough nails the role with many fiery speeches, as well as more subdued moments.  The highly organized Bartlett recruits and assigns each prisoner their own unique role in the escape plot, which includes digging three separate tunnels nicknamed “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”.   Like any born leader, Bartlett constantly faces tough decisions.  However, he is unafraid to risk his life in the name of freedom and always succeeds at rallying his troops.

You might be asking yourself by now, “Hey, what about the rest of the prisoners?”  Remember – this is a three hour movie.  While you would think that two hours of planning an escape doesn’t sound exciting, director John Sturges and his screenwriters know better, thoroughly fleshing out each of Bartlett’s team.  For example, Steve McQueen’s rogue American POW Virgil Hilts is initially reluctant to join the effort.  Nicknamed the “Cooler King” and a classic anti-hero, Hilts has a record 18 escape attempts, each one resulting in a lengthy, isolated stay in the camp’s cooler.  However, after a rather tragic turn, Hilts goes from lone wolf to joiner.  We become well acquainted with the other members of the team, as they excel in their tasks which range from scrounging, to digging, to obtaining false documents.  Phenomenal character development is on display here as the men struggle with personal problems, endure unexpected complications, and forge friendships.  With the first two-thirds of the film being character-based, the last third is suspense on a large scale.  While frequently labeled a “war film”, The Great Escape is best described as a story about a group of very different men, all united in a fight for freedom.  This is an epic film, featuring Richard Attenborough in one of his finest performances.

© Jarrod Emerson (12/10/16) FF2 Media

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