Like A Bridge Too Far
, it wasn't that successful at the time. That's the price you pay for sticking too close to the truth and thus giving us a World War Two movie in which our boys don't win.
As it happens, both films are closely based on a non-fiction book about real events. In this case, the original book tells the story of the mass escape of British and Commonwealth airmen from Stalag Luft III. Its author wasn't actually an escapee, but he was a PoW there and he's writing about what he saw and heard. As a record of historical events, it's not bad. Ex-PoWs from Stalag Luft III have called the film's version of camp life authentic, in details like the way the tunnels were dug, or else a man going stir crazy, trying to climb the fence and getting machinegunned. Admittedly the movie-makers streamlined one or two details, but that's to be expected and in any case they admit it up front in a title caption. They've made the Americans more important than they were in real life (i.e. hardly at all), but that's pretty much obligatory given the fact that they've brought in a few Hollywood stars. McQueen had his part rewritten to be bigger and only signed on condition that he'd get to do action scenes on his motorbike, but that's fine. He's Steve McQueen and hence by definition right about everything. If you have a chance of casting McQueen in your movie, you don't need to think about it. You say "yes", or alternatively "yes sir".
It diverges a bit more from reality in the last 45 minutes, but oddly enough that's the bit that's making the fewest compromises for the audience. That's where they diverge from the template of a World War Two adventure film. Until then, it's solid entertainment. A sprawling cast of cool characters defy the Nazis with dodgy scams, which proves to be almost endlessly watchable. This film didn't need to be this long, but it supports its length much better than you'd expect given its fairly straightforward story. However what happens once they've broken out feels almost like a let-down. Things unwind when you'd expect to be heading for a dramatic climax, but I can forgive that because it's true. I approve of reminders that life doesn't always correspond with movie logic. In the end not many escapees managed to stay alive and at liberty, but their breakout still gave the Germans a major headache, forcing them to replace the Luftwaffe in charge of the camp with the Gestapo and double the number of guards posted there. This was in March 1944, so the war was far from over at this point and by making life hard for their captors, you could say that these men made a meaningful contribution to the war effort.
So it's tweaked, yes, but it's still a decent account of what happened. What makes it great is one of the great selling points of this kind of war movie... a huge and wonderful cast. We have:
1. The mighty and godlike Steve McQueen, who not only performed almost all his own motorcycle stunts but even donned a Nazi uniform to swell the ranks of the Germans giving chase. There's a scene where McQueen stretches a wire across a road. The German he nearly decapitates is played by McQueen too. Oh, and in case anyone's in doubt, I revere him entirely due to his acting and here of course he's got his usual screen presence. Even in a cast like this, he stands out.
2. James Garner, who apparently based his character upon himself during his days with the US military in Korea. He's a "scrounger", i.e. the guy who can steal, blackmail or negotiate pretty much anything. You can believe it, too. He seems to have been more of a TV actor than the other American stars working on this, but that doesn't mean he's not excellent.
3. Richard Attenborough, who's a lot less cute than he is these days. They've given him a scarred eye as a tribute to Roger Bushell, the British officer upon whom his character was based. As it happened, Attenborough had really been an RAF pilot in the war.
4. Donald Pleasence, who of course is a joy. He's a delicate, slightly creepy eccentric who doesn't look as if he belongs in the camp at all and ends up a fascinating relationship with Garner. I revere Pleasence almost as much as I do McQueen. Furthermore during the war he'd not only been an RAF pilot, but had been shot down, made a prisoner of war and tortured by the Germans. He ended up advising the production on historical accuracy and technical details, although the director John Sturges at first goofed by telling him to keep his "opinions" to himself and had to be informed by another cast member of Pleasence's war record.
5. Charles Bronson, doing what we'll call a Polish accent. What's extraordinary about this is that not only does his role require him to act, but he could even be said to be doing so. Bronson acting! I never thought I'd see the day. He too was bringing his personal experiences to the film, having been a coal miner before he was an actor, and so could give advice on how his character should dig his tunnels. Furthermore his character is claustrophobic... and as a result of having been a miner, Bronson really was.
6. James Coburn, perpetrating tones that I believe were meant to sound Australian. But he's James Coburn and hence also cool.
7. A bunch of supporting actors who weren't movie stars at all, but leading men on British TV. You've got David McCallum before he became a Man from UNCLE, looking more like a Nazi than the Nazis. There's a distressingly large role for Nigel Stock (aka. the BBC's Dr Watson), but fortunately it's not stretching him. However most exciting for me is the one and only William Russell! This cast just gets better and better. Yes, it's Ian Chesterton himself fighting Germans, in the year he started on Doctor Who! It's a tiny role, but he's absolutely solid in it.
8. Hannes Messemer as Kommandant Oberst von Luger. I'd never heard of him, but I'm mentioning him anyway because I wanted to talk about his character. This Kommandant's a nice guy. I liked him. However apparently his arrest at the end isn't merely for being the man in charge during the escape. The Gestapo actually nailed him for black-market operations, which came to light during their investigations into the escape. Oh, and during the war Messemer (the actor) had also been a PoW... but of the Russians. Yikes.
It's by no means a downer, though. There's humour, of the kind that comes naturally when you're being authentic. There are some seriously big guys in this film, all of them determined to do very bad things to nobble the Germans. They're so incorrigible that they're funny. I laughed aloud at the hymn-singing, for instance, with its accompaniment of metal implements being beaten. The Americans' home-made booze is funny too, while even when they're on the run on a train you've got to admire the brass neck of Richard Attenborough getting two Nazi officers to take their feet off the seats. Besides, it's impossible to feel bad at a film that begins and ends with Elmer Bernstein's outrageously iconic theme. It's amazing. The film ends with what's to all intents and purposes defeat... yet out comes that jaunty theme and suddenly you're almost whistling.
Apparently this film is a staple of British TV, especially over Christmas. I can't think why I hadn't seen it before, but I hadn't. It's not one of the few masterpieces of war cinema, but it's still an impressively confident, boisterous film that's both fun and more authentic than many. Its theme music is brilliant and I could have spent all day watching that cast. There are six actors here who could make me buy a film just to watch their work, or maybe seven if you count McQueen as double.