Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source MGM DVD
John Sturges began his decades-long career in the 1940s as a film editor for RKO and soon became a director for Columbia Pictures, then a poverty row studio known for cranking out dependable, if unexceptional, B-movies. Sturges worked on whatever projects were sent his way from westerns to potboilers, from melodramas to comedies. After a few years at Columbia, Sturges moved to MGM where he was given increasingly bigger budgets, bigger stars, and more prestigious materials. His first film for the studio in 1950 was a murder mystery called, appropriately enough, Mystery Street. Starring Ricardo Montalban in one of his earliest American roles and a host of now-forgotten contract players, the film was a good enough start for a young director at a new studio, even if it was not the kind of picture that gets one noticed. Still, Sturges must have done something right because his next several pictures starred some of MGM’s top talents of the time: June Allyson, Ethel Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, and Barbara Stanwyck.
In 1954, Sturges was enlisted to direct MGM’s first film made in the new CinemaScope format, Bad Day at Black Rock. A spare, tightly-constructed, small-town character drama set against the imposing landscape of California near Death Valley, the film was a financial and critical success that earned Sturges a significant amount of prestige and clout. He soon left MGM to work on a series of other projects, and made a series of well-appointed westerns with big stars that cemented his reputation as a master of the action film. Sturges returned to MGM in the 1960s in a position to dictate his own terms and to produce his own pictures. Beginning in 1960 with The Magnificent Seven, he produced and directed a string of films for MGM with massive budgets and huge ensemble casts of major actors that made piles and piles of money for everyone involved. Perhaps the most beloved and well-known picture among these successes is 1963’s The Great Escape.
Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Paul Brickhill, himself a prisoner of war who attempted an escape from a German camp, the film attempted to tell the story of Brickhill’s compatriots as accurately as possible. In this regard, the movie shares a great deal of structural similarity with Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, but in actuality, the two films could not be more different. Whereas Bresson’s film focuses solely on the physical process of one man’s escape from a German prison, Sturges’ film details the attempts of nearly seventy. Despite the increased scale of the premise, Sturges is more concerned with exploring how so many men of such vastly different backgrounds, character, and experience unite to achieve a shared heroic goal.
As might be expected from a film that has nearly a dozen main characters and a script that was re-written almost daily by its director, the film is not the paragon of narrative efficiency. Nearly an hour is spent assembling the protagonists in the camp before they begin planning the escape, and very little of the actual preparation for the escape is shown. Instead, Sturges is content to develop his characters more fully: they joke around, make moonshine, and taunt German officers. This has the effect of giving the audience many characters they come to care about, but it reduces the actual suspense that should amplify while awaiting the escape attempt. This is not to say there are no thrills in the picture. On the contrary, nearly the entire final hour is devoted to the escape itself, as well as to the fates of several of the soldiers who succeeded in gaining their freedom. The narrative jumps from scene to scene of escape, chase, capture, and elusion with fluidity, and one is grateful to Sturges for taking time to invest in his characters emotionally so that their destinies become significant points of concern. It is perhaps too little too late, however, as two hours (of a three-hour running time) of the audience’s goodwill has already been spent waiting for this “great escape” to happen.
While John Sturges rightfully earned a reputation as a director who could handle budgets and casts of considerable size, his best work was made on a smaller scale. The westerns Last Train from Gun Hill, Hour of the Gun, and the aforementioned Bad Day at Black Rock (not precisely a western, but western enough), which play almost like chamber pieces in contrast to the colossal symphonies of his action epics, are more deeply affecting and seem to have more to say, even though they are just as entertaining as the bigger films. The Great Escape does provide a stimulating viewing experience and does pay tribute to a kind of heroism and bravery that most war films overlook and does, in all, succeed as great entertainment. It does so, however, at the expense of being one of John Sturges’ best films.