Cinemallennials: The Great Escape (1963)

Cinemallennials: The Great Escape (1963)

The Great Escape-Steve McQueen-James Garner-Richard Attenborough CMH thumbnail

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Cinemallennials, it is a bi-weekly podcast in which I, and another millennial, watch a classic film that we’ve never seen before, and discuss its significance and relevance in today’s world.

In today’s episode, I talked with James Wilson about The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges and starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough. The Great Escape is often considered the pinnacle of classic World War II action films and is also the film that ensured Steve McQueen’s status as a Hollywood legend. While known for its depictions of valor and defiance in the face of danger, The Great Escape exhibits the emotional and empathetic attitudes, often not explored, of those that served in the Second World War.

The Great Escape- Steve McQueen-Hannes Messemer
Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) being questioned by Kommandt Von Luger (Hannes Messemer)

While not listed as often as some of his contemporaries as being one of the best directors of all time, John Sturges definitely rubbed elbows with some of them and often took on films whose difficult subjects those directors would be hesitant to approach. Sturges began his Hollywood career as a member of RKO’s blueprint and art department in 1932; from there he eventually rose to production assistant and film editor, and then the Second World War changed his life. Serving as a captain in the U.S. Army Air Forces during the war, Sturges directed over 40 documentaries including Thunderbolt, co-directed with William Wyler, which documented the aerial operations of Operation Strangle, and which would lead to his meteoric rise as a director. After the war, Sturges went on to direct a wide variety of films including dramas, comedies, thrillers, and would even confront racism in films like Right Cross (1950), and his breakthrough film, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). His most notable films besides The Great Escape were his westerns, especially The Magnificent Seven (1960) which was his adaptation of Akria Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), and which starred Yul Brenner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. Kurosawa himself praised Sturges’ adaptation and even supposedly presented Sturges with a samurai sword, which Sturges recalled as the single proudest moment of his life.

The Great Escape-James Coburn-John Sturges-Steve McQueen-Charles Bronson
James Coburn, John Sturges, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson

Set during 1943, The Great Escape follows the story of a group of Allied prisoners of war who are obsessed with escaping from a high-security prison camp. Despite being experienced soldiers turned notorious escape artists, their plans often go awry and are quickly dashed. That is, until American Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) and RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) enter the camp and vow to attempt the largest escape plan ever, in order to disrupt the Third Reich’s evil campaigns of hateful death.

During this episode, James and I will be discussing The Great Escape’s influence on films like Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, and Chicken Run.  We’ll also discuss the greatest generation and their idea of strength, the struggle of putting your trust in strangers in the direst of circumstances, and the role that empathy and compassion play in life or death situations.

What differentiates The Great Escape from other World War II films of the period, and even today, is its emphasis on the characters’ empathy for their fellow man. While the film uses, and in some cases, creates new archetypes for the genre and the soldiers of the greatest generation, James and I were surprised to see the emotional subtext throughout the film. As millennials, we were raised on the notion that veterans kept their wartime experiences close to the chest to avoid displaying emotions that would lessen their perceived bastion of physical and emotional strength. Whether it’s because of our exposure to popular history, popular culture, or even first-hand or second-hand accounts, the greatest generation is almost always depicted at a near mythological level. With that in mind, it was impressive to see the displays of emotional and mental support between the main characters in the film.

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Blythe (Donald Pleasance) and Hendley (James Garner) playing chess.

Probably the most heartwarming example of empathy in the film is Hendley’s (James Garner) support and compassion for Blythe (Donald Pleasence) when he realizes that Blythe is going blind. This leads to a heroic moment for Hendley, as he volunteers to lead his blind friend to freedom, risking his own life for the life of his friend.  Similarly, one of the ‘Tunnel Kings,’ Willie, shows empathy towards fellow ‘Tunnel King,’ Danny, when Danny reveals he has claustrophobia. Willie commits to seeing Danny through the tunnel, and sticking with him. Willie does just that, possibly through one of the scariest moments of Danny’s life. 

The Great Escape John Dudley Leyton-Charles Bronson
Willie (John Dudley Leyton) comforting Danny (Charles Bronson) on his way out of the tunnel.

While The Great Escape has all the elements of typical World War II action film archetypes, the film brings to light that the greatest generation didn’t just fight with bullets and ammunition, but also with love, empathy, and compassion for each other.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Cinemallennials, which you can find here on apple podcasts or on spotify. Please reach out to me as I would love to hear your thoughts on The Great Escape, especially if you’re a first-time viewer too!


— Dave Lewis for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Dave’s CMH Cinemallennials articles here.

Dave Lewis is the producer, writer, and host of Cinemallennials, a podcast where he and another millennial watch a classic film that they haven’t seen before ranging from the early 1900s to the late 1960s and discuss its significance and relevance in our world today. Before writing for Classic Movie Hub, Dave wrote about Irish and Irish-American history, the Gaelic Athletic Association in the United States, and Irish innovators for Irish America magazine. You can find more episodes of Cinemallennials, film reviews and historical analyses, on Dave’s website or his YouTube channel.

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One Response to Cinemallennials: The Great Escape (1963)

  1. Michael T Fisher says:

    I introduced a friend to this movie by taking him to a big screen viewing. While the performances, script, direction, photography, are first-rate, Elmer Bernstein’s legendary score is literally a cast member that cannot be forgotten. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the all-time greatest.

    This film also has made me read several works on the actual escape itself, which is one of the most fascinating tales of WWII. (And that is saying something, as WWII is chock full of fascinating tales!) I heartily recommend for any fan of this movie to read up on the actual event

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