Wednesday, September 16, 2015
2015 Blind Spot Series: The Great Escape
In case you haven't noticed, I've been hitting the Blind Spots hard, lately. As the story goes, I fell behind and am now frantically trying to catch up. I'm almost there. This installment brings me to a film many consider among the finest ever made, The Great Escape. The story is loosely based on an escape from a Nazi POW camp by British Commonwealth soldiers. Let's repeat the key word from the previous sentence: loosely. In our case, the camp includes soldiers from a number of different nations with our focus mostly on the Americans. Because we Americans made the movie and that's what we do. All of the POWs are guys that have been recaptured by the Nazis after escaping from various camps. They've been bundled together and relocated to a brand spanking new "escape proof" facility. By escape proof I mean it's surrounded by a chain link fence with barbed wire at the top which was watched closely by guards in gun towers all around the perimeter. Naturally, everyone starts trying to figure a way to get out of the place the moment they set foot on its grounds. We follow the men as they make elaborate plans for a mass exodus and take great pains to keep this a secret from their captors.
The Great Escape suffers from the same ailments as many other films that take the time to assemble an all-star cast. This one has a massive roster with Steve McQueen, James Garner, Donald Pleasence, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and on, and on, and on. It struggles mightily to fit them all in and bloats its runtime to just shy of three hours in an effort to give each guy his just due. Unfortunately, the writing isn't really strong enough to achieve this goal. Instead of developing any of these men into well-rounded people, the film delivers a bevy of flat characters, each with a singular skill and purpose, who merely repeat themselves whenever the spotlight swings back to them. We have the tunnel digger (Bronson), the fence-jumper (McQueen), the guy who gets things (Garner), etc. They all stay this way for the entirety of the film. A few things that might pass for character development happen late, but they're really just plot devices used to place additional obstacles in the path of our heroes. Luckily, the film does get excellent work from most of those big-name players. Garner, Pleasence, and Coburn are especially excellent.
The villainous Nazis are not quite up to snuff, either. For much of the film, they are depicted and treated by the POWs as bumbling fools. This gives things a comedic sheen that rests uneasily over the production. At several points leading up to the finale they are as murderous as we would expect them to be. Juxtaposed with all that goes on around these instances, they don't make the Nazis truly menacing. It's just a jarring change of tone from the rest of the film. The jerking back and forth in style from humorous to hard-hitting doesn't gel as needed giving us a weird mixture. It becomes like a really long episode of Hogan's Heroes with a few deleted scenes from Schindler's List sprinkled in.
My final point of contention is with an area of film I don't often mention unless it's really good or really bad: the score. It's intrusive, repetitive, and becomes nauseating. Taken in a short, single listen, the way I've heard Elmer Bernstein's arrangement many times before sitting down to watch TGE, it's a fun little diddy that has managed to become an iconic piece of music. Hearing it roughly 7.4 billion times over the course of a three hour movie is torturous. Doot doot...do doooo do doot doot over and over and over...and over again. No matter what happens in the movie, no matter the mood of the scene, whether it fits or not, there it is. Doot doot...do doooo do doot doot/ I swear any semi-dramatic moment was accompanied by Doot doot...do doooo do doot doot. I was seriously tempted to jam a sharp object in each, but thought better of it. The side effect of me toughing it out is that this little tune invaded my dreams...Doot doot...do doooo do doot doot...and woke me from my sleep. Doot doot...do doooo do doot doot. I was like George Lutz at 3:15 AM, in a cold sweat, ready to kill. That's a reference to another movie, film buffs. Google it.
TGE does eventually shine. This happens when we get to the final act and fully make the switch into action flick mode. The titular escape is played out, not a spoiler, and the tension is suitably cranked up. First, there is the effort to get everyone off camp grounds. This is is followed by the guys going their own way (mostly, sort of) and trying to get to safety. At long last, the Nazis become truly frightening and our beloved POWs don't seem to have the upperhand. Their actions are no longer made with confidence, or anything else that implies they have any idea what their next move should be. Until this point in the proceedings, the good guys basically did whatever they wanted. Their plight lacked sufficient gravity. Once it attains that, the film soars. The scenes during this part of the movie sizzle. The moments showing Steve McQueen racing away from Nazis on a motorcycle are legendary for good reason. The stuff involving other characters is, honestly, just as good. The shame of it is that the rest of the film couldn't maintain that type of intensity.
As I conclude this review, I feel I should apologize. As a youngster, whenever I were so brazen as to call someone a liar, my mother or some other adult made me do this. So here is my heartfelt preemptive strike. I'm sorry. You are all liars. By you, I mean the American film Institute that deemed TGE one of the 100 best films this fine country has ever produced. I also mean all of you who took to imdb.com and rated it high enough to make that sites all-time Top 250. And I'm talking to all of you who told me how great it was. I hate you all. Well, that's not true. I actually love you. I especially love you if you're reading this. I'm just a little sore right now. Is TGE a bad film? Not at all. However, I would only call the last third of it great. The first two thirds are blah.
Doot doot...do doooo do doot doot.