Friday, July 4, 2014

4th of July Favorite: The Great Escape

Independence Day.  What does it mean to you?  A Roland Emmerich alien invasion film?  BBQ's and baseball games?  Fireworks?  Or thinking back to 1765 when the 13 Colonies decided they'd had enough of the British Empire's absentee ruling?  Rejecting monarchy and aristocracy in favor of liberalism and republicanism, The Colonies set out to change their fate and separate from the British Empire.  Combat troops were deployed to the US in a bid to reestablish control, leading to the American Revolutionary War that lasted from 1775-1783.  In July of 1776, Congress finalized the Declaration of Independence and the independent United States of America was born.  Here we are a few years later where you'll see plenty of American flags, picnics and displays of patriotism if you're fortunate enough to have the day off.  For those in the service industry and Military, keep on keeping things running smoothly.  With so much history directed at our independence, it really irked me when the royal wedding took over the world a few years ago.  Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on what?  Pomp and artificial majesty?  What exactly does the Royal Family do for its country?  Didn't the citizens of 1776 give up their lives so you could be free from royal rule but there we were, celebrating a now hollow monarchy?  I dunno, I just don't get certain things.

Anyways, relaxing over a long weekend after an 11 day work week, I celebrated part of July 4th with a viewing of 1963's World War II POW Camp classic and arguably my favorite film of all time, The Great Escape.  I've managed to see the John Sturges flick twice on the big screen since moving to Los Angeles thanks to The American Cinematheque's Egyptian and Aero Theatres.  Basically, I frigging love this movie.  Really quick: the German Luftwaffe (aerial division) create Stalag Luft III, a giant, new age prisoner of war camp housing only captured officers and built in a remote area where escape by tunneling would be difficult with barracks built off the ground and sandy, weak soil easily noticed and difficulty hidden.  The X Organization commits itself to performing their duty as prisoners to harass, confound and confuse the enemy in order to have more troops and resources dedicated to watching them instead of fighting on the front lines.  A motley prisoner crew of English, American, Australian and more band together to attempt a large scale escape that will have German troops scattered all over the country trying to round them up.

The major American characters, Hilts and Hendley are played by superstar in the making Steve McQueen and oh so handsome in his white turtleneck TV star James Garner.  In what could be the most macho or manliest cast of all time, joining McQueen and Garner are Richard Attenborough (Jurassic Park), James Donald (Bridge on the River Kwai), Charles Bronson (The Magnificent Seven), Donald Plesance (Halloween), James Coburn (Our Man Flint) David McCallum (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and many more.  They're not 80's macho or manly in the Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Sonny Landham, Jesse Ventua mold from Predator.  Instead, they're men who are physical, capable, intelligent, responsible and driven.  The Americans are particularly funny in a smart ass kind of way and from the very moment we're introduced to our cast, they're all scheming and itching to get out.  Each character has a particular skill or trait such as scrounging, dispersal, tunneling, forging, diversions and tailor.  McQueen is good at getting into trouble and riding motorcycles.  As we watch our guys plot their escape through clever, dangerous and amusing ways, the message of the film becomes clear: fight the man, at all times, at all costs.  The enemies of freedom must be opposed no matter what and the movie's depiction of real life events and the escape's execution in the face of a small probability of success shows the guts of our previous generations.  And at it's core, it's just about a bunch of cool guys getting shit done, no matter the odds.  And making moonshine out of potatoes to celebrate Independence Day.

Directed by vaunted yet seemingly forgotten "tough guy" director John Sturges, The Great Escape is a 3 hour ride that rarely lets up.  There's thrills, smarts and heart all the way through.  Watching it on the big screen last year, I realized I actually enjoyed the build up of the escape a little more than the actual action and chase filled finale where our crew is scattered across the enemy laden territory, trying to get out of Dodge via planes, trains, buses and bicycles.  The planning of the escape, the ingenuity of their techniques, puts a smile on your face while firing up your brain.  Based on the book by Paul Brickhill with a screenplay by future Shogun writer James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, The Great Escape was a hit upon release, grossing nearly $12 million dollars on a $4 million budget, good enough for #17 on the year's highest earning list.  Come Oscar time the film was nominated for Best Editing.  The film cemented McQueen as a bonafide box office star and he would go on a tear of hits that included The Cincinnati Kid, Nevada Smith, The Sand Pebbles, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt.  Director Sturges already had several hits and an Oscar nomination for Best Director under his belt but would never find the same level of success.  Ice Station Zebra was still in his future, an ensemble cold-war spy thriller that reached #1 at the box office it's 2nd week of release.  And of course Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Coburn, Charles Bronson and company all went on to have lasting, movie star careers.

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