I loved The Great Escape as a teenager and 20something but not lately. Lately it feels too smug and self-satisfied, too much jaunty humor. It’s almost played on a Hogan’s Heroes level. Cast to audience: “We may be portraying POWS but we’re a bunch of cool-attitude 30something actors and we can pretty much do anything we want within reason. (Including making our own potato vodka and throwing a 4th of July party.) It’s like high school, this prison. The German guards and officers are hugely irritated geometry and math teachers. ”Who’s throwing spitballs? Apparently some people in this room want detention!”
The only bad thing that happens during the entire camp portion (or about 65% to 70% of the film) is when one of the three tunnels is discovered by the Germans. That’s it! No other mishaps or mistakes except for the shooting of Angus Lennie‘s Archibald Ives, except in my book that’s a good thing. Because I hate his Brigadoon Scottish accent.
In no particular order…
(1) The German camp commanders are far too lenient with the prisoners, who after all have been put into this super-camp because they’re all disobedient bad apples with a high likelihood of trying to escape.
(2) Why oh why don’t the Germans simply post two guards inside each of the barracks so as to spot any possible digging going on?
(3) I despise Richard Attenborough‘s “Big X” character, such that I always feel a slight pang of pleasure when he gets machine-gunned to death near the end (not that the other 49 other prisoners being killed isn’t a tragedy, but at least Attenborough has been shut up for good).
(4) That scene when McQueen and Ives explain to their superiors how they intend to dig their way out under the fence like moles is completely absurd and not even vaguely funny, and McQueen’s delivery of his dialogue is straight out of The Honeymoon Machine.
(5) Three tunnels (Tom, Dick and Harry) digging round the clock and the prisoners are getting rid of all that dirt (tons and tons of the stuff) with David McCallum‘s dinky little inside-the-pants-leg sock device, the making of which would take weeks if not months in order to outfit all the prisoners?
(6) Scores of prisoners dropping little mounds of soil on the ground all day long, and not once do the Germans happen to notice little dark-brown dirt piles where prisoners are standing?;
(7) McCallum draws fire from German security forces at that train station so as to protect Attenborough and Gordon Jackson. He willingly dies so that Attenborough can get away? Why?
(8) Near the end of the sequence in which Germans are pursuing McQueen on his stolen motorcycle over those beautiful green hills in southern Germany, it seems as if 60 or 70 foot soldiers are after him — does that make any sense?
(9) How the hell could work on the main tunnel be halted 15 or 20 feet short of the woods?
(10) Charles Bronson‘s Danny has distinguished himself as a master tunnel-digger and yet as the Great Escape begins he’s suddenly suffering from creeping claustrophobia?
(11) How could prisoners find an isolated storage room inside the camp that would give them enough privacy to build a still without the Germans spotting it? Not to mention the heating device, boiling pots, copper wire?
Yes, I still enjoy a few elements. The escape sequence itself with the tugging string. James Coburn‘s peaceful bike ride through southern France and down into “Spine”. McQueen’s glorious motorcycle riding + that body block he gives that German soldier when Ives is about to get shot. The scene when Bronson freaks out when the lights go off inside the tunnel during an air raid. The way James Garner inhales his unfiltered cigarettes as he talks to Werner, the gullible German guard. That curiously misty texture in the cinematography during the 4th of July celebration.