Being guided towards this movie by Quentin Tarantino’s 2002 list for the well respected and amazing Sight and Sound Poll I did not knew what to expect from this movie at all. Easily guessing it was a story of escapism and probably inspiring QT’s Inglourious Basterds at some point, John Sturges’ The Great Escape stars Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, and James Coburn. They portray a group of Allied prisoners specialized in escapism in WWII jailed in an escape proof prison. Based on Historical facts, this setting is a gold mine for writers.
Their leader plans to take out several hundred at once. Just like John Sturges’ other successful film The Magnificent Seven (based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) it is based on a foreign classic film Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. Sturges is a master at remaking the spirit of a working film while Americanising it without losing the entertainment value neither the focal points of the script. In the case of The Great Escape, the final product is far better than The Magnificent Seven and less recognizable from the source material. Another aspect of Sturges is that it is clear that he is not Jean Renoir and that the depth of the message that the Frenchman wanted to spread with his film was a call for peace at the dawn of the Second World War. The humanist voice of Jean Renoir is inimitable and from this angle the American film of Sturges plays more on the fun and the thrilling suspense of the escape story more than the thought and evocation of the disaster that is a war.
A point that links both films together is the excellent performances of the ensemble casts and the evident presence of Erich Von Stroheim, Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay are superb. But Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and the others gave capable and very good performances.
Sure The Great Escape is a more action centered film and the adaptation, or remaking if you prefer, kept the Historical facts of the actual story while “Hollywoodianize” it in the process. The stories of prison breaks are a genre that is proved to be popular and also very efficient as stories. Just watch Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped or Jacques Becker’s Le trou to discover how these films aged well and still hold your breath. However, The Great Escape delivers a superbly intelligent entertainment.