The Great Escape. "We have put all our rotten eggs in one basket," says the commandant of Stalag Luft North to the senior officer of a newly arrived group of Allied officer prisoners, "and we intend to watch that basket very carefully. With your cooperation, we may all sit out the war very comfortably." But every man in the maximum-security camp knows it is an officer's duty to escape and harass the enemy. The Great Escape, based on Paul Brickhill's first-hand account, tells in almost hypnotic detail how a mixed bag of P.W.s work together to pull off one of the most ingenious and highhearted capers in military history.
In their efforts to assemble all their riskiest cases for safekeeping, the Germans had unwittingly hand-picked a team of escape artists. The infectious combination of earnest British perfidy and unscrupulous Yankee brashness lets the Nazis realize that something is going on under their noses, but with all the rowdy hubba-hubba that fills the compound, they do not guess that it is going on under their feet as well. Platoons of men are down in the dark earth burrowing a tunnel toward the surrounding forest. Brains of the operation is Big X (Richard Attenborough), a leader of past breakouts in other camps; among his staff specialists are the Forger (Donald Pleasence) and the Scrounger (James Garner). Steve McQueen plays an American fly boy with a carhop grin who pesters guards and tests their watchfulness.
Every plotter does his part. To hide the sound of a tunnel being chipped through the concrete floor of a bunkhouse washroom, the clink of the pick is synchronized with the banging of the hammer innocently driving a horseshoe-pitching stake outside. Wardrobes of German clothes are run up from blankets and uniforms dyed in coffee or ink; whole wallets full of identity papers are forged; money, emergency rations, maps are scrounged. The tunnel is a marvel of Swiss Family Robinson ingenuity, with electric lights, a little subway running on wooden tracks, a bellows-operated ventilation system. And as the first of the 76 escapers starts through the tunnel, the thongs of suspense are only beginning to tighten.
The use of color photography is unnecessary and jarring, but little else is wrong with this film. With accurate casting, a swift screenplay, and authentic German settings, Producer-Director John Sturges has created classic cinema of action. There is no sermonizing, no soul probing, no sex. The Great Escape is simply great escapism.