(1963) dir. John Sturges
I suppose if you are the director of such classic favorites at The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape, whether you’re considered one of America’s auteurs or not is kind of beside the point. Maybe if you were sitting with Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard, or someone of note in the studies of cinema, something more either political or revolutionary might be the thing that you lacked to be considered one of American cinema’s “greats,” but when those two films are the films that we’re talking about, we just need to recognize the multitude of tiers of greatness.
Populist cinema has its heroes. In fact, they either make a ton of money or get a lot of Academy Awards or both. The question of artistic intent isn’t really leveled at them in the same ways that one might look at someone like John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock. At the same time, this whole thing is a crock if you really think about it. Cinematic joy and pleasure is in some ways contraposed to its more active intellectual activators, but it’s also the be-all, end-all of populism.
Growing up with a distaste for War films, I never had seen The Great Escape. But after seeing The Magnificent Seven a few years back, I was sold on John Sturges, on his big, epic adventures with sprawling casts and big time fun. It’s kind of surprising that it actually took me this long to getting around to seeing the former.
Packed with a brilliant cast including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasance, James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and a litany of others, the film is in many ways quite the partner film of The Magnificent Seven.
Based on a true story, though highly modified, it tells the tale of an escape from a Nazi prison during WWII, a prison built to hold the most experienced escapees from the British and American militaries, officers whose sworn duties were to try to escape or wreak as much havoc as possible.
With an iconic soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein, whose similarly iconic music for The Magnificent Seven helped carry the uniqueness and specialness of that film, again offer the heightened mythos in The Great Escape.
It’s populist, iconic cinema, totally enjoyable and fun, though perhaps not as much as The Magnificent Seven for me. Perhaps it’s the ideology of the “good fight” against a villain of “true evil”, a forum for nationalism that lacks irony. The film itself is such good fun, and tempered with its levels of success and bitterness of defeat…it’s almost really enthralling. But the pluckiness of the Brits and the “indominatable” nature of the American human spirit (as so wonderfully embodied by Steve McQueen) is a cliche, probably a cliche the day it was made, doubtlessly a cliche that many can happily buy into, but still a cliche, still a motif, still as system of belief that is ultimately best at least in question, at least pondered, rather than offered at a level of complete and utter truthfulness.
Still, it’s fun, brilliant, entertaining stuff, the kind of thing you’d have to be of some serious fogeyness to poopoo utterly.
It’s fun. Largely.