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The Great Escape (1963)

MGM

Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson.

Rating: NR

Run time: 172 mins

Genre: War

Verdict: Brilliant (see rating system)

Despite taking considerable liberties with the true story of the greatest escape effort by Allied prisoners from Germany during the Second World War, this epic film has deservedly attained classic status.

To "sell" the story to the all important U.S. audience, several big American stars were cast, despite only one American taking part in the real event (a major in the British army). Thus, Steve McQueen's insolent turn as an American airman and his famous bid to escape to Switzerland on a motorcycle made for some exciting cinema, but his character and his exploits were pure fiction.

In fact, many of the characters in the movie were composites of several real prisoners. James Garner, for example portrayed Hendley, an American "scrounger" who could steal just about anything that could be used in the escape, particularly official German passes and ID papers. Garner's character represents one of several resourceful prisoners who did such work.

Where the movie does score with camp survivors and historians is in the realism of camp life and the escape efforts, from digging hazardous tunnels to trying to hide in delivery vehicles leaving the camp. The monotonous routine of men who'd been held captive for months and even years is well portrayed, explaining why they were so desperate to get back to their families. Others were motivated by the desire to cause maximum disruption to their German captors: escapes required intensive searches that tied up soldiers who could have been fighting.

Historical details aside, director John Sturges and his marvellous international cast produced a rip-roaring adventure full of tension, excitement and ultimate tragedy.

Richard Attenborough plays Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, a British escape veteran who winds up in Stalag Luft lll, a maximum security camp for troublesome prisoners. He immediately starts planning the most audacious escape of all - 250 prisoners. Despite setbacks, including tunnels caving in and others being discovered, 76 men manage to flee from a tunnel during an air raid.

But with German troops and the Gestapo on high alert, getting out of German will not prove easy.

(Ultimately, only three POWs got to freedom and the 50 of the recaptured escapees were murdered by the Gestapo. It's not shown in the movie, but many of those Germans involved in the killing of the prisoners were tracked down after the war and executed for committing war crimes).

The Great Escape is a thrilling war film featuring great performances. And Elmer Bernstein's jaunty theme tune will have you whistling long after the screen fades to black.

The 2004 two-disc set is the only one to have of this classic. The earlier single disc is cheap for a reason - it has a lousy picture and poor sound. The remastered high-definition picture and sound of the two-disc set is excellent and so are the extras - two extensive documentaries and five featurettes on the movie and the real story behind it.

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