One of the first things that Lawrence Montaigne observes when he revisits the site where he played a diversion specialist in the John Sturges movie The Great Escape is how little things have changed. The rolling hills and farm-green grass — where Steve McQueen rode a motorcycle so nimbly that Sturges’ European cycle champions couldn’t even appear to be giving him a proper chase — have not been paved into parking lots.
Montaigne declares that The Great Escape is, if not the greatest movie (it doesn’t even crack the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list), certainly the “coolest guy movie” ever. To cement the definitive claim, filmmaker Christopher Espenan also uses the phrase to title his mid-length documentary on the Sturges film, which Montaigne narrates.
The Coolest Guy Movie Ever: Return to the Scene of ‘The Great Escape’ is not very good, but the documentary does provide a chance to reexamine the appeal of its subject matter, a movie that is mostly forgotten by denizens of its own genre of war-set entertainment who have grown to prefer the moodiness of The Battle of Algiers or Apocalypse Now to Sturges’ theatrics in shining armor.
But those movies, as Montaigne might be suggesting, aren’t very cool. They’re grim. The pleasant-looking Bavarian town of Füssen, where many of The Great Escape‘s scenes of a World War II prisoner-of-war camp were filmed, attracts a not inconsiderable number of curious tourists on holiday who tell Espenan that they are eager to walk the same roads “possibly used in the film” (imagine saying this about the Filipino village of Pagsanjan, used in Apocalypse Now).
Espenan himself functions as one of these tourists, as well, tracing the locations involved in the movie’s making and talking to excited locals who still remember cutting McQueen’s hair one afternoon 50 years ago (a press release describes this approach as “forensic”).
The location that merits the most attention — and rightfully so — is the grassy knoll where McQueen elegantly rode a Triumph TR6. The Great Escape‘s premise, in which a mass escape of mostly British prisoners from a Nazi German POW camp is perpetrated and some 50 of its conspirators are executed, exists to provide the exhilarating release of this scene.
McQueen’s breakout role had occurred two years before, in another Sturges movie, The Magnificent Seven, a somewhat more well-remembered Western. And The Great Escape is probably better thought of as a kind of Western too, complete with villainous heels in foreign accents. In using the thinly historical background of the POW camp and the Second World War, directors like Sturges could reinvent the escapism of the Western in starkly literal terms.
The Great Escape was, in fact, based on an actual mass escape that occurred at a German POW camp in 1944, though the motorcycle action that underpins the movie is entirely fictional. The documentary makes mention, however, of other motorcycles that were used in the war.
The logic of The Great Escape is ultimately masochistic: 50 British officers are massacred so that a fictional American can leap over a fictional fence (in this case, the leap is conducted by the late, celebrated stuntman Bud Ekins, who makes a brief ghostly appearance as a talking head in Espenan’s film).
Strangely, the movie is perhaps even more popular in the UK, where a poll among British men once awarded it the best family movie of all time. The conflux of these modifiers, both “family” and “men,” the latter repeated in the title of Montaigne’s film, suggest that The Great Escape is a product resembling the dens constructed by middle-aged men in their garages or basements, a seclusion from the world and from time itself.
Made in the middle of the Cold War, The Great Escape searched to find a way to represent war as something recognizable to mass audiences and came upon a child’s game: a collection of British soldiers, led by Richard Attenborough, endlessly designing escapes from POW camps like a set of wholesome activities you would find in the back pages of Boy’s Life magazine.
Montaigne is not wrong: The Great Escape is both literally a man’s movie and literally very cool, holding back the heat of tension, worries or fears and creating a primordial childhood that ends coldly in meaningless and uncategorizable violence, a shock of terror designed to wake up anyone caught dozing toward the end of the film’s almost three-hour runtime.
The collection of stunts that The Great Escape contains is a perfect outline of how mammoth movie productions could contain references to even recent events of popular history — both the Westerns and the gigantic biblical epics of the era were mostly created to avoid the 20th century — and turn them into large cinematic playpens.
Espenan struggles to contain these vestiges of pure cinematic adrenaline rush, which are maybe among the coolest ever but fade away easily when you leave.