World War Two: the Nazis have built a high-security prisoner of war camp to house the men who have escaped repeatedly. But those Allied officers believe that it is their duty to escape - not simply to get away, but to cause as much trouble as possible for the enemy, and it's not long before a daring plan is drawn up...
This staple of holiday television was written by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, based on the book by Paul Brickhill. Although the story seems far fetched, it is actually based on true events, which may become hard to believe when you see the Herculean efforts the captured forces put into securing their freedom, from building secret tunnels to blackmailing cameras out of guards.
Steve McQueen is top billed, and his cocky, rebellious presence is certainly one of the film's strengths. But its main virtue is the ensemble cast, all of whom are just as adept at the serious scenes as they are in the contrasting lighter moments. James Garner is the scrounger, a charming rogue who can get just about anything; a touching relationship develops between him and Donald Pleasence, who despite being an expert forger is going blind. Charles Bronson alternates between tough determination and panic attacks; James Coburn is the easygoing Australian (at least, that accent is supposed to be Australian); and Richard Attenborough holds it all together as the mastermind behind the whole thing.
What develops is a battle of wits between prisoners and guards. The Nazis are largely unlikeable, although the Luftwaffe who run the camp are shown to be preferable to the formidable SS or Gestapo, whose deadly influence falls over the story and leads to the downbeat ending, which ponders if the whole escapade was worth it, before settling on a "victory in defeat" tone to finish with.
We never forget the claustrophobic nature of the camp - the cells are cramped and even outside barbed wire fences are in just about every shot. It's a long film which spends over half of its running time in the confined spaces of the prison, so when our heroes finally get out in the last hour, the freedom of the rolling landscape is strongly felt. But it's also deceptive, as the search intensifies. This final hour contains many of the classic scenes, from the "Thank you" bit to McQueen's famous motorbike chase.
Even if the prisoners' ingenuity stretches credibility (you may be reminded of the Ripping Yarns episode where P.O.W. Michael Palin constructs a plane out of toilet rolls), The Great Escape succeeds because it never loses sight of the inspiring adventure of the indomitable human spirit that it tells. Even if you don't normally like war stories, you should be won over by this one. Trivia question: do you remember who gets away? Memorable music by Elmer Bernstein.