Throw a bunch of American, British, and Commonwealth Air Force officers into a German prisoner of war camp and what do you get? You get hundreds of guys who want to get back to fighting and family and home. THE GREAT ESCAPE, based on the true story of a major British escape from a German prisoner of war camp serves as a kind of survey course on that escape. Yes, it’s a glossed-over version of events, but it’s such a terrific watch, you don’t really care.
“Ya vas lyublyu.”
The all-star cast of American and British actors get a chance to fight the good fight while looking cool. Part World War II movie/part drama/part procedural, THE GREAT ESCAPE shows us the steps leading up to the break-out along with the escape itself and its aftermath.
Left: Richard Attenborough as Big X outlines his escape plan.
Right: the real Big X, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, Royal Air Force
We watch as the men survey the camp, dig the tunnels, and gather tools, clothes, and identity papers for their time on the lam. Big X (Richard Attenborough), the leader of the escape committee, assigns James Garner to scrounge materials. He has Steve McQueen go over the wall and get caught purposely so he can map the countryside. He gets engineers and manufacturers David McCallum and James Coburn to design the tunnels and pumps to keep the men safe while digging.
“Enough hot air for you, Roger.”
He asks Donald Pleasence (a P.O.W. in Germany during the war), and his crew to forge permits and train tickets.
Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) uses art class as a cover for his forgers.
He puts Charles Bronson and John Leyton in charge of the tunnels and has Gordon Jackson drill the men on procedure and the German language so they don’t get tripped up by the locals. It’s a fascinating process that allows us to meet each character and get to know him. Director, John Sturges captures the many moods of these men. The funny ruses the men arrange to fool their captors along with their anxiety about being locked up all come across well.
“You’re twenty feet short.”
Sturges is not a flamboyant or arty director, but he is able to move from a moonshine-fueled July 4th celebration to a poignant act of desperation seamlessly. The classic Elmer Bernstein score doesn’t hurt. Like John Williams, Bernstein can express lightness and frivolity, tense action, and heartbreaking sadness all within the same musical passage.
From high to low in moments.
Paul Brickhill, an Australian prisoner at Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Germany, now part of Poland, where the real escape took place, wrote the book based on his own experience.
Australian author and fighter pilot, Paul Brickhill
The screenplay by W.R. Burnett and James Clavell, also a P.O.W. in WWII, is economical and sharp. We like these men. We’re elated when it looks like some will make it, and heartbroken when we realize many won’t. It’s an entertaining film with heart. Oh yes, Steve McQueen jumps a motorcycle over a barbed-wire fence.
You wish you were this cool.
In the film, Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald), the Senior British Officer, listens to the Kommandant (Hannes Messemer, a German P.O.W. in a Russian camp in WWII), as he warns the SBO about attempting to escape. He replies, “Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.”
According to Paul Brickhill, five million Germans spent time (often weeks) looking for the seventy-six escaped prisoners. They eventually recaptured seventy-three. Of those, the Gestapo executed fifty. While the number of Germans searching for the men may be an exaggeration, that’s still a whole lot of troops NOT out bombing London. Take that, Hitler!
Harry, the tunnel 76 men used to escape Stalag Luft III.
Dedicated to the fifty.
After the war, the Royal Air Force Police investigative branch launched an investigation into the execution of the fifty escaped officers. As a result, the allies hanged or imprisoned many of those responsible for the murders.
Do you collect things? Stamps? Godzilla figurines? Commemorative spoons? In THE SKULL, Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing) and Sir Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee) collect all things Satan. They scour auction houses in search of devilish statues and books about torture for their macabre collections. They even buy hot tchotchkes from shady evil-stuff-seller, Marco (Patrick Wymark). Marco stocks an unusual variety of bizarre items including a book he sells to Maitland. It’s a rare book. Well, one hopes it’s rare since it’s the memoirs of the Marquis de Sade covered in human skin. Anyway, Maitland jumps at the chance to drop major ducats on the tome, which gives you some idea about his level of dedication to his hobby.
I’ll wait for the paperback.
The next night, Maitland lounges in his well-appointed study reading his skin book when Marco arrives with a new demonic accessory to clutter his bookshelves. Marco brings Maitland a skull. This is no ordinary, dime-store skull, mind you. This skull has provenance. Well, Marco says it has anyway. This skull is the bony part of the head of the Marquis de Sade! Why Marco didn’t sell the skin diary/skull as a set will forever remain a mystery. The two men haggle over skull prices, as one does, but Maitland won’t bite. Maitland mentions the exchange to his friend, Sir Matthew who warns him not to buy it by saying, “All I can say is keep away from the skull of the Marquis de Sade.” Words to live by, Matthew. Words to live by.
“That skull’s evil, right devil statue?”
Unfortunately, Maitland doesn’t listen to his friend and drops by Marco’s place to buy the skull. Marco is indisposed, being dead and all, so Maitland grabs his souvenir and hits the road. Back home in his library, Maitland relaxes after a hard day’s looting. He spends a lovely evening surrounded by statues of Beelzebub reading about sadism from a book made of skin.
Almost immediately, weird stuff happens. The normally peaceful Maitland begins to feel a strange, homicidal urge.
Is it coincidence? Is it the skull? Is he not getting enough fruit? Only the skull knows for sure.
“Honey? You up?”
THE SKULL is an absolute blast. The stellar cast of Amicus/Hammer regulars including Patrick Magee, Michael Gough, and Jill Bennett add to the general atmosphere of British horror wonderfulness. We even get a little George Coulouris for good measure.
“You didn’t see my lips move, didja?”
Robert Bloch (Psycho) wrote the story, aptly named The Skull of the Marquis de Sade. Milton Subotsky, half of the Amicus production team of Rosenberg/Subotsky wrote the screenplay and the script moves right along. Director, Freddie Francis, a veteran of Amicus films, knows how to pack a lot into 83 minutes. They also pack some cool special effects into THE SKULL. Ted Samuels, who created the special effects for a number of Amicus features including DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS and THE PSYCHOPATH outdid himself here. The skull, you see, flies. When provoked, it floats gracefully toward the camera. It’s not a choppy, Tingleresque motion, rather a majestic glide. The skull also lights up. It even manages to look evil. I stopped the DVD three times to watch a lit skull soar across a gentleman’s study. Seriously, you need to see this. If I haven’t convinced you yet, think about this. One scene in THE SKULL shows Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing playing pool…in tuxes. ‘Nuff said.
Note to self: Check into the possibility of manufacturing skull nightlights. You know, for kids.