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The Great Escape Movie Review

james “the mcqueen garner

1963 – John Sturges –

The Germans have put all the rotten POW eggs in the basket of one camp, but unknowingly they have also assembled a team of artists with every necessary skill to engineer an ingenious mass escape. Director John Sturges and some of the cast from The Magnificent Seven (Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson) reteamed to make this film based on a real World War II escape. The film's great appeal lies in the cast and camaraderie. Watching them work their magic: making uniforms out of blankets, systematically disposing of dirt in the compound, and communicating via a series of taps enables the audience to identify with them as they bond with one another. Richard Attenborough and James Donald are the Brits who mastermind the operation, Charles Bronson the claustrophobic tunnel man, James Garner the con-man scrounger, Donald Pleasence the forger. The heroism revealed in their physical daring is matched by another type of valor that shows up in the uncompromising attachments that form among the men, best seen in Garner's willingness to risk his own escape so as not to leave behind his nearly-blind friend Pleasence. The sympathy created for all the men in the first two-thirds of the film is so strong that the suspense over their final fates becomes almost unbearable.

Steve Rubin's recent documentary about the film, Return to the Great Escape, interviewed many of the principals and verified behind-the-scenes information about what seems to have been a charmed production. The script, after having passed through the hands of eleven writers, still needed work, and changes were being made as filming progressed. Then, Steve McQueen saw a rough cut of six weeks' filming and decided that James Garner's character was better written than his and that Garner was stealing the film. Infuriating Sturges and puzzling professionals like Pleasence who had never encountered such displays of temperament, McQueen walked off the production. As Garner tells it, he and James Coburn rounded up McQueen and talked out the difficulties with him. “Steve wanted to be the hero, but he didn't want to do anything heroic” Garner says today with some amusement. He and Coburn then retold the plot of what is really an ensemble piece to McQueen, emphasizing the bravery of his character and making it seem as if the success of the escape all hinged on him. McQueen returned to this project, but he later turned down the role he was offered in A Bridge Too Far when he saw that it too was an ensemble project rather than a star vehicle for him.

Cast: Steve McQueen (Capt. Virgil Hilts, “The Cooler King”), James Garner (Hendley, “The Scrounger”), Richard Attenborough (Bartlett, “Big X”), James Donald (Ramsey, “The SBO”), Charles Bronson (Danny Velinski, “Tunnel King”), Donald Pleasence (Colin Blythe, “The Forger”), James Coburn (Sedgwick, “Manufacturer”), Hannes Messemer (Von Luger, “The Kommandant”), David McCallum (Ashley-Pitt, “Dispersal”), Gordon Jackson (MacDonald, “Intelligence”), John Leyton (Willie, “Tunnel King”), Angus Lennie (Ives, “The Mole”), Nigel Stock (Cavendish, “The Surveyor”), Robert Graf (Werner, “The Ferret”), Judson Taylor (Goff) Screenwriter: James Clavell, W.R. Burnett Cinematographer: Daniel L. Fapp Composer: Elmer Bernstein Producer: John Sturges for the Mirisch Company; released by United Artists MPAA Rating: PG Running Time: 169 minutes Format: VHS, LV, DVD Awards: Academy Awards, 1963: Nominations: Editing; National Board of Review Awards, 1963: 10 Best Films of the Year Budget: $4M.

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