Alphabetical Movie – The Great Escape
With a renewed sense of purpose, I’m moving forward with the Alphabetical movie blog. Today, I’m writing about The Great Escape.
When I finished watching this film, I watched the documentary that was on the DVD. I was hoping it would have more about the real escape that was the basis for the film.
In fact, it was much more about the film production than the actual escape, which was a disappointment. However, it helped me understand why I have some issues with this film – an acknowledged classic – because I got to understand how it was written.
Let me back up for a minute and say that in general, I love documentaries and commentaries on older films because they have the benefit of historical context. When Kenneth Branagh recorded his admittedly excellent commentary for Thor, he didn’t even know if the film would be a commercial success. Documentaries on recent films are really just promotional reels put together to convince an audience to watch the film.
A doumentary for The Great Escape or Citizen Kane, however, can explore the intricacies of the production, the relationships within the cast and crew and most importantly, the historical impact of the film. A commentary by a historian can take the most interesting stories from the film’s production along with the reasons why this film has survived to be viewed as a “classic” and really make the film production come alive.
So here is where watching a documentary for The Great Escape helped me gain some insight into my own feelings for the film.
You see, I like the film but I’m not head over heels in love with it. I think it is too long for the wrong reasons.
I have no problem with a film that is nearly three hours long, mind you. To me, it just feels like this particular film is trying to do so much that it simply cannot be any shorter. At the same time, it lacks the depth of character or story that justifies a longer film.
The documentary tells us that director John Sturges was never really satisfied with the script. It went through at least six revisions and was being re-written for the entire length of the shoot.
That explains to me why the film feels almost episodic. There is such a large focus on getting every detail of the escape plan right that there doesn’t always feel like a real story emerges beyond that plan.
That’s fine, I guess. I mean, the name of the film is The Great Escape.
The characters come off as mostly one dimentional, though, because there are so many of them. They are defined by their function and all of their scenes really focus on that. They are also defined by their unifying desire to escape confinement. Again, that is pretty much the focus of the film.
And you know, that is all right. I tend to respond more to films that have a more textured story and character depth. It doesn’t mean that every film lacking those qualities is a bad film. I’m an unapologetic fan of Independance Day and no-one is going to suggest that film has those qualities.
Independance Day, of course, is a gloriously awful film.
The Great Escape is not an awful film. It just don’t think it is a particularly well written one.
The documentary talks about how Sturges painstakingly storyboarded the entire film and his attention to visual detail is, I think, what really makes the movie a “classic.” It looks fantastic.
Because film is a predominatly visual medium, you can get away with storytelling that is a little bit weak as long as the visual element is strong. Fortunately, that is where this film truly excels. From the clausterphobic tunnel set to the wide open motorcycle chase, it is a joy to watch.
Now, I knew all of this without watching a documentary about the film. But the documentary told me why I felt this way. I don’t think the story is any weaker than I thought it was before and I don’t think the visual elements are stronger. I just have a much better idea why the film turned out the way it did.