The Great Escape (1963) Review

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The Great Escape (1963)

Directed by John Sturge

Steve McQueen
James Garner
Richard Attenborough
James Donald
Charles Bronson
Donald Pleasence
James Coburn

Music by Elmer Bernstein

Running time: 172 minutes

Plot Synopsis: (via Wikipedia):
The Great Escape is a 1963 American film about an escape by Allied prisoners of war from a German POW camp during World War II. The film is based on the book of the same name by Paul Brickhill, a non-fiction account of the mass escape from Stalag Luft III in Sagan, in the province of Lower Silesia, Nazi Germany. The characters are based on real men, in some cases composites of several men.

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My Opinion:

This is the 23rd (and probably final for this year) movie I watched for my IMDB Top 250 Challenge. 23 in a year – I’m slacking! Just too many new movies to watch as well.

As I’ve said before, I’m least looking forward to all the westerns & war movies in the Top 250. But then I watched The Bridge On The River Kwai and it ended up being one of my favorite films I’ve watched this year (Review HERE). So I figured I’d give The Great Escape a chance as well. I’m glad I did – it’s brilliant!

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I didn’t know quite what to expect and I have to admit that I’ve never seen Steve McQueen in anything before this. I was surprised that he’s not exactly the main star of this – this is filled with lots of great actors who all share some equally big roles. I know he’s considered super cool and all that but I’ll stick with sexy Paul Newman as my favorite cool guy in old films for now. McQueen’s character is great in this, though – I should give more of his films a watch. ALL the characters are great in this film, which I think is what makes The Great Escape such a widely loved classic.

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I loved how they all had such different personalities in this film and they were all so well developed & the acting was superb. It’s one of those movies where you really feel like you know the characters by the end and this is probably the most important thing to me in a film. If you can’t connect with the characters, what’s the point? And they each have their own “specialty” when it comes to preparing their big escape. Brilliant! It’s hard to pick a favorite character in this as they’re all so good in different ways. Richard Attenborough has one of the most important roles as the brains behind organizing the whole escape and he’s very serious and it was weird watching him as I’ve only ever known him looking like he does in Jurassic Park (I know I know – I have no culture).

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Back to Steve McQueen: His character is cool & cheeky and maintains this great optimistic attitude in terrible conditions. He’s the guy who annoys his captors with his constant escape attempts. He’s called “the cooler king” as he spends most of his time locked away from the other prisoners after he keeps getting re-captured. He does his own thing & the only negative was that we don’t get to see him interact with the other characters much as he’s so often locked away. He develops a great friendship with another prisoner, though, who is also locked up next to him and this was my second favorite relationship in the film. There are several different relationships going on and, again, I’m sure everyone has their own personal favorite.

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I’m sure some guys go for the “tunnel kings”, the two guys in charge of digging the escape tunnels. Charles Bronson plays one of the tunnel kings. I have a little crush on Senior British Officer, Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald). I was excited to see him in this as I loved him in The Bridge On The River Kwai and he gets an even bigger role in this one. I loved how he supports & looks after his men and stands up for them by saying “it is their duty to try to escape” when he’s told by the German commandant of the camp that “there will be no escapes from this camp”.

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I’m leaving so many characters out but I’ll be here all day if I go into each of them in detail. The final ones I’ll mention form my favorite relationship in the movie: James Garner as “the scrounger” who finds ways of getting people the tools & other things they need and Donald Pleasence as “the forger” in charge of getting the forged documents ready for when the prisoners have escaped. Donald Pleasence was my favorite character in this film full of SO many likeable characters (even though I kept thinking he looked a bit like Phil Collins).

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This review is getting too long and all I’ve done is talked about some of the main characters but this film really does have one of the greatest casts and most memorable & likeable characters I’ve seen in a very long time. The story itself? Brilliant, of course. It’s about a massive escape attempt from a POW camp so it’s very tense & exciting and even though it’s a very famous movie I honestly had no clue how it was going to end as I’ve managed to avoid all spoilers for this. What I was surprised at was the “light” mood it managed to maintain throughout most of the movie. The prisoners have such positive attitudes and some have a great sense of humor and, of course, there’s the uplifting score with one of the all-time catchiest theme tunes EVER that I couldn’t help but whistle for days afterward. Considering the subject matter, it doesn’t go all “gritty” like modern war movies. Films were so different in the old days and feel so much more “epic” than what we get nowadays. Why is that??

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I’ve been rambling on for ages & everyone has probably stopped reading by now so I’ll wrap this up. The Bridge On The River Kwai remains slightly ahead in my opinion – I think it’s a better film overall with some of the best acting I’ve ever seen thanks to Alec Guinness but The Great Escape, with its overall lighter tone and immensely enjoyable characters, is a very close second favorite war movie for me. Both films had the ability to leave me dumbfounded and just sitting there staring at a blank screen in silence for several minutes after they ended while I let what I’d just witnessed sink in. Such powerful films & mind-blowing endings – I find that very few movies in this day & age leave me feeling quite the same way. Brilliant stuff. I highly recommend The Great Escape (and The Bridge On The River Kwai) to anyone, like me, who is unsure of watching “war movies”.

My Rating: 8.5/10

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Why are there so few great theme songs for movies these days?

55 thoughts on “The Great Escape (1963) Review

  1. LOL. What a great review. It’s a good sign, isn’t it, when you can go on and on about a film and feel like you’ve only touched the surface. Awesome job! It’s one of my favorite classics, too, for all the reasons you site.

    • Thanks. πŸ™‚ The good thing about this IMDB thingy that I’m doing is that it’s forcing me to finally watch classics like this. Don’t know why it’s so hard to make myself watch these movies – I’m very rarely disappointed. πŸ™‚

  2. I’ve seen The Great Escape so many times and have a a favourite character each time. Love how different the American and British are, it makes it really fun.

    Glad you enjoyed it and iI really really need to see Bridge on the River Kwai!

    • Yay! I hope you do! πŸ™‚ I can see now why it’s so loved by so many people. Hope you like it too! That’s funny – I was just headed to your blog because I’m SO behind on blog reading thanks to work being crazy busy & of course the whole Xmas thing. I must have missed at least two Film Fridays! 😦

    • Thanks. And, yeah – so glad I watched both this & Kwai. πŸ™‚ This will probably be the final review of a “classic” until the new year, though. Then I’m hoping to have more time to get back on the IMDB project a bit more!

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  4. Love this movie too! I laughed at the Jurassic Park comment… lol You know the old man from the movie. I always used to confuse him with the guy who did the Trials of Life videos in the 90s… or am I the only who remembers this? haha

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  12. Really enjoyed The Great Escape, despite certain historical inaccuracies. An ensemble cast with brilliant performances from everyone. As you said, we really become invested in the characters’ fortunes. We don’t often come across war movies which are driven by the characters rather than the plot. My favourite is James Donald. Handsome and charismatic with magnetic screen presence, couldn’t take my eyes off him. It was only when I was this that I realized he was Major Clipton in The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is another perennial favourite.

    • Sorry – almost missed this comment. Glad to hear from a fan of this film! πŸ™‚ It’s such a brilliant film – I’m so glad I finally got around to watching it. Agreed that it’s the characters that make this so good. I avoided some β€œwar” movies for far too long but then ended up loving them. The Bridge On The River Kwai was another that I only watched after starting this blog and ended up loving. You’ve made me want to rewatch them both now. πŸ™‚

      • The Great Escape and Kwai stand out from other war films because they’re about individuals rather than the war. By narrowing the focus, they allow us to see the human side of the characters and this makes us emphathise with them. Both had me glued from start to finish. Definitely the most watchable war films of all time. Patton and Saving Private Ryan were very good, too but nothing beats these two.

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  15. do u still love this film? I’m doing a minute by minute podcast of it and would love to have u take part as a guest if ur interested. I can email u more details if u want.

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