Tuesday, July 04, 2006

For the Fourth: the Great Escape

[This is a repeat of an old post.]

I was thinking about memorable Fourth of Julys (Fourths of July?), and the first thing that came to mind was this:

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Fans of the movie "The Great Escape" (and I must confess that I am one, big-time) will recognize this photo as the Fourth of July celebration scene, featuring the incomparable Steve McQueen on the left, playing the flute; James Garner on the right with the drum; and I-don't-know-who in the middle (help, anyone?). I consider it astounding that I could locate a still of the scene--isn't the Internet great?

Anyone who hasn't already seen the classic 1963 action movie should rent it and settle in with some popcorn for the long haul. I was a teenage girl in 1963 when I saw it on the widescreen, a stirring combination of male pulchritude (not a female in the cast, and what a cast!), suspense, wit, ingenuity, and tragedy. It's long, but not overlong, and the score is memorable, too.

Amazingly enough, although the film merges a number of actual people into single characters, and takes a few liberties with time (and invents the fabulous motorcycle chase in which McQueen gets to strut his stuff), it is historically accurate in the extreme, especially for a Hollywood flick. Oliver Stone, it ain't--fortunately. The makers of the film were dedicated to making it as true to actual events as possible. The screenwriter had been a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp, and a former prisoner and expert tunneler from the actual prison camp depicted in the movie worked as an advisor to the director. Follow the link to read just how much of the film was actually true to life.

Donald Pleasence, who played the going-blind forger Blyth, had been a prisoner of war in a German camp. Hannes Messemer, the German actor who managed to bring an extraordinary humanity to the role of the Kommandant of the camp (a person who in real life was apparently well-liked and respected by the prisoners), had been a prisoner of war in a Russian camp, as had several of the other German actors in the film (these facts are to be found here).

"The Great Escape" was one of the first films I ever saw that defied my expectations. There was so much humor in it, so many likeable characters, and so much Hollywood-type action that I assumed it would have a Hollywood-type ending, too, in which all turned out well. It doesn't.

But the Fourth of July scene is delightful. Watch McQueen and Garner and that other nameless guy, the only three Americans in the camp, drink the booze they've distilled, react appropriately, and then celebrate (with a bunch of mostly Brits) that long-ago American victory over the Brits. Apparently, all is forgiven, but not forgotten.

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