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Breaking out of the big house is an act of warfare in The Great Escape

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The excellent Starred Up has us thinking back on other exemplary prison dramas.

The Great Escape (1963)

The prisoners of war seen in The Great Escape have a little more freedom than a lot of inmates, movie-world-wise and otherwise. Though they’re kept in a prison camp in Nazi Germany, they’re allowed to make their way around the grounds during the day and afforded some degree of privacy in the evening. Colonel Von Luger (Hannes Messemer) may vow that no one will escape from his camp, but he also bristles when Nazi leadership insists that new prisoner Roger “Big X” Bartlett (Richard Attenborough, in one of his signature roles) be separated from the rest of them—and ignores the orders.


Big X is supposed to be isolated, because of his leadership in previous escapes; naturally, when locked up with a variety of other slippery characters (all of the prisoners seem to enter the movie sizing the place up), he plots a bigger, even more ambitious exit strategy. He uses everything at his disposal, even other escape attempts. Hilts (Steve McQueen), for example, isn’t so sure about the master plan, but his own shenanigans provide cover, because the guards would get suspicious if someone wasn’t repeatedly caught trying to get out. Early in the film, escape is framed not as an act of survival, but rather as an extension of warfare: It is the prisoners’ responsibility as soldiers to break out and divert as many enemy resources as possible in the process.

The inmates are likable and compelling—they’re played by the likes of McQueen, Attenborough, James Garner, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson, among others—but they’re recognized more for their jobs than their personalities: “The Scrounger,” “The Manufacturer,” “The Forger,” “Intelligence,” and so on. As such, The Great Escape favors procedural matters like the art of camouflaging displaced dirt and the cartography of the prison’s immediate surroundings. The formal logistics of the movie are fun, in an orderly and methodical sort of way.


But if director John Sturges somewhat downplays personal hardships in favor of process and duty, that focus also imposes order on this lengthy true story. (“Every detail of the escape is the way it really happened,” the opening titles insist). Sturges takes advantage of his widescreen aspect ratio; despite the confined surroundings, the movie uses very few close-ups, and often frames multiple prisoners together in shots that emphasize their hard-working camaraderie. In prison yard scenes, the background teems with extras. Appropriately, the movie eventually fans out beyond the prison setting, and its scope becomes even clearer as Sturges follows the escapees making their ways toward various borders. The prison itself doesn’t loom especially large, because the soldiers’ escape isn’t limited to tunneling under fences and making a break for the forest. They’re true prisoners of war.

Availability: The Great Escape is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix or your local video store. It’s also available to rent or purchase through the major digital services.