World War II Marathon: The Great Escape (1963)


Film #18 in the World War II Marathon!

Screenplay By: James Clavell & W.R. Burnett
Directed By: John Sturges

I have written in the past that the World War II setting doesn’t need to be relegated to serious fare. It can be used for comedy, action, any sort of movie you want. The Great Escape takes the action route, but it does teeter towards bottoming out because it tries to imbue over the top scenarios and jovial nature with a serious tone. When The Great Escape turns towards action, it is a good bordering on great action film, but it loses itself in its attempts at comedy and seriousness. It is uneven throughout and never seems to find its stride.

My issue with the comic nature of The Great Escape is in the portrayal of the prison camp. I realize that The Great Escape is based on true accounts from prisoners who did attempt to escape from a German POW camp during the war. The problem comes in the liberal usage of lore over truth, in the rather toned down nature of the prison camp. What made the Nazis so dangerous was that they weren’t inept, they wouldn’t stand by and watch while a group of POW’s cased out the joint. Now, this issue of mine wouldn’t be enough to have any effect on the film, if not for the fact that John Sturges tries to juxtapose a very serious tone with the highly comedic one he establishes in the early going. The Great Escape is not a film that should be serious, it should be an action suspense film with some light comedic undertone, at least it would have worked more for me if that was what I was given.

The final product of The Great Escape is still entertaining. For as uneven as it is, it does feature some well planned out action sequences, beautiful vistas and location cinematography, along with plenty of moments where it is quite fun. That fun isn’t always present, nor is the action always in the proper context, but those moments of fun and action are still there and they do work.

The question for me became whether the fun, more action oriented moments were enough to balance out the tonally out of focus moments. In the end they were and The Great Escape is a film that while needing to be tightened up and shaved of some running time, is still an action film that works in the moments when the action is focused on. I wish it could have been more of an even effort, but I was still somewhat satisfied with the final product, and that’s good enough for me in this case.




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