After seeing “Ben-Hur” Friday morning at Grauman’s Chinese, I holed up in the newsroom that had been set up at the Roosevelt Hotel for the next few hours, doing an interview and writing my first blog post from the festival.
Just before 5 p.m., I realized I had better cross the street and get over to Grauman’s for “The Great Escape,” which was starting at 5:30. By the time I made my way through the line, the only seat I could find was about six rows from the screen.
At least that vantage point afforded a good view of producer Walter Mirisch, who was interviewed on the stage by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. Mirisch, 91, was sharp and funny, recalling how he and director John Sturges initially discussed having Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster take the lead roles in “Escape,” having worked with them in “Gunfight At The O.K. Corral” (1957).
Asked what scuttled that idea, Mirisch was frank: “We thought about how much it was going to cost us to use Kirk and Burt.”
The audience was enthusiastic throughout the film, reminding me how much it relies on humor to sustain interest in the cat-and-mouse game between the POWs and their German captors for nearly three hours.
One of the biggest laughs came when Charles Bronson, as Danny “The Tunnel King” is taking a shower to camouflage one of the tunnels. When a German guard asks him what he’s doing, Bronson merely points to the shower head with his thumb and says, “Shower. I need a VASH.” Then the guard looks at Sedgwick (James Coburn), and makes the same inquiry. “I’m watching him,” he replies, bringing more guffaws from the Grauman’s crowd.
**** SPOILER ALERT ****
Sturges and screenwriters James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, who adapted Paul Brickhill’s book, do a masterful job of keeping the tension high.
I hadn’t seen “Escape” about 20 years, so I had forgotten that early in the film the Gestapo, have targeted Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), the leader of escape operations, threatening to shoot him on sight if he is caught trying to escape once again. It was a moment that made me wish I was seeing the movie for the first time, without the knowledge of what happens to Bartlett and 49 others who are captured in the final reel.
Garner, as the American “scrounger” Hendley, takes the acting honors amid a stellar cast, in my view, partly because the character is so suited to the Garner persona so familiar from “Maverick.” Hendley is vital to the escape effort from the beginning, finding tools, materials and other things the men will need. He has memorable scenes with both Blythe “the Forger” (Donald Pleasance) and the beleaguered German guard Werner (Robert Graf) that hit just the right note.
Attenborough is also very good, along with Gordon Jackson as MacDonald, the chief of intelligence.
Of course, McQueen stands out, doing a lot with a character that stands outside of the central plan until the movie is half over. His Hilts establishes a rapport with the nearly stir-crazy Ives “the Mole” (Angus Lennie) that pays off in Ives’ death scene. The demise of his best friend in the camp finally persuades Hilts to go along with Bartlett’s scheme.
I’m glad I saw “The Great Escape” on the big screen, despite my seat. As much as I always liked it, it really comes alive with an audience.
– David B. Wilkerson