This Year, Steve McQueen WILL make it over the wire…
I swear I saw Christmas cards being sold with this slogan a few years back.
Why is it that any thought of this film evokes the smell of cold cuts, bubble and squeak, Stilton and mulled wine? What makes this appropriate Christmas scheduling? I know the film is often described as a “bit of a caper” – a piece of “great escapism” as one of its original reviewers unoriginally quipped.
If so, then this is a light-hearted escapist movie in which most of the main characters are slaughtered by the Gestapo.
Why do we forget this, year after year? Do we have a collective sense that somehow, if gathered round our TV sets in sufficient festive numbers, we can collectively will Steve McQueen’s motorcycle over the Swiss border? Why does this film about failure excite so much Yuletide loyalty?
The enterprise looks decidedly dodgy from the start (not the actual escape but the Sturges’ movie.) Not only is the guy in charge of forging documents going blind, but the chief tunnel digger is severely claustrophobic. Mind you, Tunnel King (Charles Bronson) is one of only three people to actually escape in the course of the story. James Coburn’s character is also supposed to have made it to Spain though we must assume that at some point is he shot dead by Australian forces in retaliation for having murdered their accent.
If it’s festive at all, it must be festive because of some kind of surprising and transforming love – a love linked to sacrifice. The most meaningful human relationship in the film (possibly the only really involving human relationship in the film) is between James Garner and Donald Pleasence (the Scrounger and the Forger). Perhaps it helped that both Garner and Pleasence had actually been POWs in real life ( in different wars).
Pleasence was fresh from playing the definitive “Davies” in Harold Pinter’s Caretaker. The Great Escape would prove the most sympathetic role of his film career and in this story, he was both lovable and beloved. In the course of this long movie, it is only these two who offer the spectacle of human beings really loving and caring for one another.
Yes, this is a Christmas movie about the Forger and the Scrounger – the one who rewrites those documents that mark and define us, and the one who redistributes.
James Garner is Santa Claus. It is he who gives out the presents and it is he who provides the means of (the hope of) liberation. 2014 was a very very sad year for Great Escape cast members, with the deaths of Richard Attenborough, James Garner and Angus Lennie. I like to think of the Forger and the Scrounger together again, in some translated sphere.