The Great Escape (1963) – Film review by Andrea Carnevali

The Great Escape ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Allied prisoners of war plan for several hundred of their number to escape from a German camp during World War II. The Great Escape is being screened at Chiswick Cinema on Sunday 30 July as part of the retrospective season celebrating the films of Richard Attenborough.

I’ll keep it short, mainly because it seems pretty pointless to stand here telling you what a timeless classic this film is, but once in a while it’s good to state the obvious.

And what a perfect excuse to revisit this masterpiece than a new special screening for its 60th anniversary, this Sunday (30 July) at The Chiswick Cinema at 4pm, introduced by Michael Attenborough?

It will serve as a reminder that this film is so much more than Steve McQueen jumping on his motorbike to the notes of Elmer Bernstein, in one the most iconic pieces of music in cinema history.

Directed by John Sturges, The Great Escape is not just possibly the greatest war film ever made (yet without a single battle), but it also has one of the greatest cast ever assembled: Steven McQueen (as cool as ever), James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn… just to mention a few.

It is a long film, of course. It has to be, to fit all those people in. But even though it  is close to three hours (peanuts by today’s standards) it’s actually incredibly well-paced, considering when it was made and it masterfully builds to the nail-biting last act.

If you have not seen it in while, you might have forgotten how funny the first part actually is (all the failed escape attempts in the opening act for example), and how dark it all slowly turns, all the way down to that very last dedication to the 50 men who were essentially murdered by the Nazis. The Great Escape manages to be a exciting action film, a defiant testament to war and a poignant tribute to those who did not make it, without ever being cheesy, silly, heavy-handed or preachy.

Its sharp and seemingly simple script works beautifully, laying down all the details and the mechanics of the escape in the first half, while at the same time building the relationships among all the characters in the film, so that actually we end up caring about every single one of them, as they attempt to escape.

And yes of course, they are all men. Indeed, there is not a single woman in sight. One wonders if they could get away with it today…

Captivating, stirring, thrilling, tense as hell and still wonderfully entertaining sixty years after it was made.