Well, despite the fact that our feature presentation was not the first Cinema 1544 film to feature Nazis, I ploughed ahead and showed a quick clip from Monty Python’s Flying Circus that I like to call “Mr. Hilter In England”.
Hitler, Himmler, and von Ribbentrop have stealthily taken up residence in a boarding house in England under the names of Adolf Hilter, Heinrich Bimmler, and Ron Vibbentrop, but have a bit of trouble staying undercover. (Bimmler: “…und vas head of Gestapo for ten years…FIVE years…uh, I joke! Vus not head of Gestapo at all!”) Mr. Hilter is naturally an aspiring local politician, whose platform is centered around the annexation of Poland. It’s all very silly.
And to an extent, so was our feature presentation, The Great Escape directed by John Sturges. The Great Escape is based on a real-life story. It also features one of the most memorable and upbeat theme songs in movie history.
Sadly, it features pretty much one song, which has to do for every possible emotive moment. Prisoners arrive at the prison camp? Happy theme song. Prisoners begin digging tunnel? Happy theme song. Prisoner shot dead scaling the fence? Happy theme song. You know, they really could have sprung for a bit more incidental music.
Anyhow, Having already given away nearly the entire plot of the film above, I will nonetheless attempt to summarize the film. During World War II, the Nazis, having gone to great trouble gathering up escaping enemy POWs, come up with a brilliant plan: they’re going to gather together all of the most cunning escape artists and put them together at one POW camp. So they can pool their resources.
For instance, here you see some guy, the Forger, and the Mastermind.
And here are the Scrounger, the Cooler King, and some guy. Most of the roles seem relatively obvious. The Mastermind is in charge of the escape plan. The Forger forges documents. The Scrounger manages to find the stuff they need (despite being in a freaking POW camp). And the Cooler King?
He gets thrown in prison and bounces his baseball against the wall a lot. Mostly he gets thrown in the clink for escaping, though one time he allows himself to be caught so he can give recon to the other prisoners.
Anyway, it’s a pretty simple plot – with all of the best escape resources gathered together, the prisoners decide to – get this – escape. They devise a plan to build three tunnels very Britishly named Tom, Dick, and Harry (under a stove, not appearing in this picture, and under a drainage grate respectively). The tunnels themselves are engineered by a claustrophobic Charles Bronson (ah, the dramatic irony!)
Unfortunately, digging tunnels leaves behind a lot of dirt, which the POWs have to dispose of, so they cleverly take up gardening, surreptitiously dumping the dirt while working their plots. One positive side effect of this is that they grow potatoes, which they manage to turn into vodka under the noses of their oppressors (this is on top of the whole tunnel-digging thing). The negative side effect, however, is that as they drink the vodka to celebrate the guards manage to find Tom, which was almost finished. Well, on to Harry.
Turns out that Harry was really no great shakes either. They had it calculated as finished, they set a night escape plan, and under the fortuitous cover of an air-raid blackout, they began to file out.
Unfortunately, the exit, which was supposed to be safely under the cover of the trees was still out in the open, and after 76 of the planned 250 escapees get out, they are discovered, and thus begins the German clean-up effort. Some are killed during the escape.
Some fifty, like the Mastermind, are captured and killed in a mass execution.
And a very few, like the Cooler King, get recaptured and thrown back in the cooler.
Only three escape.
All in all it was quite a light and funny film for one that ends with just about everybody dying. If I had one complaint, it was really long. Like three hours. And really only a few things happen. They build a tunnel, it gets found, they build another tunnel, they get out, they get caught. That would be like 100 minutes, tops, in today’s cinema. (To be fair, it would also turn out that one of the escapees was really a Nazi spy and their tunnel would be discovered when he narcs on them. There would probably also be a twist that the camp was really being run by an American paramilitary group, and the Nazis would turn out to be either Zombies or Vampires, so I’ll just take the original version.)
There was one element of the film that was either clumsy or brilliant, and I can’t decide which without a re-viewing. See, shortly before the escape, the forger becomes a liability because he has slowly gone blind. Since he was trying to disguise this, his comrades are quite surprised when they find out. So was I. But the question is, did the film drop subtle hints that I just missed (the same way his fellow prisoners would have missed them), or was it just sprung on us unforeshadowed? When watching the first time, it definitely felt like the latter, almost like it were an afterthought thrown into the script because there wasn’t enough drama. But perhaps on a second viewing, knowing what was coming, the signs would be there. I’m willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt, but I’d still like to confirm it.