Greetings again from the darkness. As one who watches more than 200 movies each year, I absolutely understand how someone could be extraordinarily passionate about a particular film … even to the point of bordering on obsession. First time director Christophe Espenan clearly feels that way about THE GREAT ESCAPE. In fact, his sentiment is so strong for the film that he assembled a team and took off to Bavaria in order to re-trace the filming locations some 50 years after John Sturges and his all-star cast were there.
The documentary kicks off with the modern day team trekking through a heavily wooded area. We learn they are searching for the exact location of the movie’s prison camp. It was built on a studio backlot, and background research reveals that trees had to be cleared to construct the prison, and the promise was made to re-plant twice as many trees once production ended. In the five decades since, the trees have flourished into what could now be described as a forest … with no signs of the prison camp that was part of cinematic history. So what should have been a highlight of Mr. Espenan’s movie, turns into something akin to Geraldo Rivera opening Al Capone’s vault.
Based on Paul Brickhill’s book, the iconic 1962 film starred Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, David McCallum, and Gordon Jackson. It surely belongs on any list of ‘cool guy’ movies, along with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (released two years prior). Both films were directed by Mr. Sturges and feature terrific and memorable scores from the great Elmer Bernstein.
Archival footage of interviews from James Coburn and James Garner are included, as well as numerous photos and clips from the film itself. Mr. Espenan carries an album of screenshots from the film and does a nice job of matching up specific locations and scenes as he and the team walk through the towns. Local Hotel Alpina is featured as the place where much of the cast and crew stayed during filming, and the hotel staff fondly remembers when their paths crossed. Lawrence Montaigne serves as narrator, and since he also had a small part in the movie, his insight is appreciated … though he was better known for this frequent TV series appearances, before passing away in 2017.
A substantial portion of the film’s 55 minute run time is devoted to the motorcycle stunts of Steve McQueen. However, on the whole, the film does not feel stretched, but rather just a bit too lightweight for today’s documentary standards. It comes across as more of a tribute or fanboy whim than a “making of” or “behind-the-scenes” project delivering insight or detail. It did succeed in getting me to add THE GREAT ESCAPE near the top of my list for classic films to revisit … it’s one I’ve never reviewed, and definitely should. Premiering on VOD August 21.