This Week in Steve McQueen: The Great Escape (1963)

For my birthday last month, my husband got me two passes to a ten-week/ten-movie Steve McQueen film festival that started last week in Seattle.  “YAHOO!” was my response upon opening the envelope, followed by what can be best described as a “jig.”  Though I’d appreciate it if you didn’t repeat that.

Last Thursday was the start of the series, and while I was sitting in the theater waiting anxiously for the film to roll, I came up with the plan to bring you guys in on the action by reviewing each movie each week in a regular feature I’m going to call “This Week in Steve McQueen.”

If you’ve seen the film yourself, I’d love to have a conversation about it in comments.  Who’s your favorite character?  What’s your favorite scene?  If not, maybe reading what the rest of us have to say will inspire you to take action.  And, incidentally, if you live here in my town, and you like Steve McQueen, make sure you let me know because my husband isn’t going to be able to join me for every film in the series, so I will need a date periodically.  That date can be you!  You!  You right there!  You!  And me!  And Steve McQueen!  Let the magic begin!

Kicking off the series last Thursday was one of my all-time favorite films, Steve McQueen or no, The Great Escape.  This is a movie I’ve seen dozens of times, and it’s one I watch regularly on the small screen at home.   Getting to see it on the big screen, then, was an enormous thrill for me — I could barely sit still all day waiting for 7:30pm to come.  And guess what?  No big surprise:  it was just as awesome as I hoped it would be.  (Though it does, I will confess, seem considerably longer when you’re in a crowded theater that’s about 10 degrees too warm and lacking seriously in leg room — if you end up joining me for The Sand Pebbles, another super-long McQueen film, wear lots of layers).

I’m assuming this is a movie most people have seen, so I won’t go into detail about the story here.  In short, it’s the true story of a group of British and American POWs during WWII, brought together in a German prison camp that’s been specially designed to make it impossible for them to escape.   The brilliant plan, you see, was to get all the POWs who kept escaping together in a single location and lock ’em down permanently.  But, of course, those of us with nieces and nephews know exactly what happens if you put all the troublemakers together in a single room.  Because what happens is trouble.  And trouble is exactly what is wrought upon the Germans, in no short order.

I remember seeing this movie as a little kid and being struck by the violence (nice people get shot — oh, sweet Archie — which is always the worst type of violence in a film, especially when you’re a child), but I never realized it was as hilarious as it is until I was in my 20’s and I rediscovered it.   Nor did I realize how handsome James Garner was until I was in my 20’s and rediscovered HIM, for that matter.  This movie is loaded with some of the most famous actors of the early 60’s:  Garner, McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence (pre-Halloween), James Coburn, and David McCallum (best known these days as “Duckie” on NCIS, by the way).   And put simply, the film is an absolute blast to watch.  It’s exciting, funny, clever, well-acted, well-shot, and wonderfully scored by Elmer Bernstein (I dare you to get that theme out of your head — it’s still stuck in mine five days later).  You can’t really go wrong here.

SO, if you’ve never seen this one, take the night off, rent a copy, and curl up on the couch with The Forger, The Cooler King, The Scrounger, Big X, and The SBO.  It’ll be a night to remember, trust me on that one.  (p.s. The Scrounger’s mine.  Handenzees off!)

And now for a little piece of Steve McQueen trivia:  You know that scene where Hilts strings the wire across the road to stop the soldier on the motorcycle?  He’s ALSO playing the soldier on the motorcycle.  He got to do a lot of riding in the movie, and, in fact, his “escape” by motorbike was his suggestion to director John Sturges.  The original plan had involved having Hilts get on a train.  McQueen?  On a TRAIN?  That’ll be the day. . .

Up next, Baby the Rain Must Fall.  Review next week!

Genre:  Drama, War
Cast:  James Garner, Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, EVERYBODY ELSE ON THE PLANET IN 1963!

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5 Responses to “This Week in Steve McQueen: The Great Escape (1963)”

  1. jo Says:

    I remember seeing this on TV when I was a kid, and absolutely loved it. But I can’t remember anything about the movie at all, other than that I loved it. I really need to see this again.

  2. Firedrake Says:

    Yeah, as I understand it basically all the motorcycle stuff was McQueen saying “hey, I wanna ride a bike”. Purists aren’t fond of the film for this reason, but I think it works.

  3. megwood Says:

    Oh, it totally works, I agree. Yes, it doesn’t go along with the “true story,” but neither do other parts of the film, if you want to get nitpicky. And having just another escapee on the train, borrring. One of the scenes that always stayed with me after seeing it as a child was the scene in which Hilts ends up tangled up in the barbed wire. That’s a great scene! So, yeah, purists, feh. 🙂

  4. Lorraine Says:

    I agree. This is both a great movie and a fun movie. If you like almost any kind of movie, you should enjoy this. But there are also very serious and sad moments. The cast is fantastic. I’m not a Charles Bronson fan but he is great in this. As is everyone else.

    Meg, you are very lucky! If I wasn’t on the other side of the country, I’d ask to be your guest.

  5. Liz Says:

    “The Blob!” “The Blob!” That’s the Steve McQueen movie I think of first! Also, “Papillon” – are either of those on your list? Oh, and also, wasn’t he in “The Towering Inferno?” I’m pretty sure I saw “The Great Escape” years ago, and enjoyed it. But David McCallum is about the only actor I remember from the film. I guess I should probably see it again. Is that the one where one of the guys rigs up some sort of gadget in his pants legs, to get rid of the dirt from the tunnel they’re building? I always thought that was way cool.

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