The Great Escape (1963)

Genres - War  |   Sub-Genres - Ensemble Film, Escape Film, POW Drama, War Adventure  |   Run Time - 172 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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John Sturges' The Great Escape could easily be the most under-appreciated movie of its genre and decade, which may seem a strange thing to say about a movie that is one of the most popular World War II adventure films ever made. It not only defined the screen personae of Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough and much of the rest of the cast, but along with The Magnificent Seven represented a high-water mark in Sturges' career. Yet, despite that and the millions of dollars it earned at the box office, The Great Escape didn't command much respect until years after its release. Critics lumped the film together with such mammoth World War II productions as The Longest Day, The Guns of Navarone and Battle of the Bulge and overlooked its unique status as a fundamentally tragic movie that still managed to appeal to audiences in an upbeat manner. Beneath the fact-based heroics, the humor of many of the portrayals and Elmer Bernstein's rich, rousing score lay the elements of a classic tragedy. While ordinary viewers responded to the driving dramatic forces among the characters -- Bartlett's obsession, Hilts's self-absorption and cynicism, Hedley's practical approach to survival and the mission -- critics and scholars viewed the movie as an artless, empty blockbuster. They were looking for self-conscious subtlety and obvious artistic touches in a story that required only a straightforward, unpretentious telling. The Great Escape expresses its depth and drama through action rather than ponderous dialogue, and in that sense, was probably too true to its subject for its own good, at least in terms of achieving critical respect. Only in recent years have film historians grudgingly confronted the fact that The Great Escape's audience has broadened since its release, and reappraised its unique qualities.