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.

AAAArrrrrrrrrrgggggggggghhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!


20 comments:

  1. This is a film I've only seen parts of. I need to see it as a whole to really form a full opinion.

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  2. I haven't seen The Great Escape in a few years, I agree the last third is the strongest part, and the most thrilling. Who can forget Steve McQueen riding that motorcycle?

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    1. The last third is far better than everything leading up to it.

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  3. I've never seen it, and I probably won't. This reminds me of how I felt about Citizen Kane last year. Were parts good? Yes. Was it as great as everyone was saying? No way.

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    1. Yeah, I was pretty underwhelmed. Thank goodness for the finale or I would've hated it.

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  4. Well I'm comforted by the fact that I wasn't one of the ones telling you how great it was because while I surely don't hate it my reaction to it was similar to yours. Great cast, good final portion but wow it took an awfully long time to get there. It was one of the films, along with Bullitt and The Towering Inferno, that put me in the Steve McQueen fan camp though.

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    1. Yeah, this could easily have been a 100 minute film instead of almost 180. I love Bullitt. Great film, that one.

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  5. I'll happily defend the value of this film. Of course, I'm coming from a place of having seen this over and over as a kid, so there are plenty of warm, fuzzy memories attached to it for me.

    I will agree, though, that it's top-heavy. There are aspects of the first two acts that I like, but I agree that it really kicks into high gear once we get to the actual escape. Still, a lot of that set-up is necessary. I'm also not convinced that the Nazis are as bumbling as you make them out to be. Sure, there's the one guard, but the discovery of Tom certainly has serious consequences.

    Also, now that you've seen this, you really need to watch (or rewatch) Chicken Run.

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    1. I have seen Chicken Run. It definitely becomes a better film after having seen this.

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  6. The perfect prison movie for me. Such a classic. Great review as well!

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    1. Won't knock anyone for loving it. Just didn't quite do it for me. Thanks!

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  7. I got the recent Blu-Ray of this for cheap but haven't watched it yet. Was considering it for this year's Blind Spot but put it off. We shall see.

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    1. It is worth a watch. Definitely a good film when it's all said and done. I'm just not buying the all-time great line.

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  8. Don't go to an England football game anytime soon. They play it regularly with a brass band.

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    1. I will certainly keep that in mind. A side note is that one of the guys the main character meets during her hike in Wild whistles it. It was really hard for me to repress that scream.

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  9. Great review! Like you said the last part is the strongest, but I enjoyed as well the slow paced first two hours and I think all the set-up was necessary.

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    1. Sorry, I'm so late getting back to this comment, but thanks! Lots of people disagree with me. That's why it's hailed as a classic.

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