A Memorial Day Double Feature

A Happy Memorial Day to everyone; in honor of the holiday, I’m offering up some recommendations, a couple films that manage to be both highly entertaining and reminders of some of the hardships faced by our brave troops in POW camps during WWII. First up, one of my absolute favorite films of all time:

The Great Escape

I can think of no better way to describe this movie other than to simply say it’s a gripping yarn. Watching the whole three-hour tale requires dedication, but it’s worth it. And, after you’ve seen it once, the whole thing takes on a comfortable familiarity, making it easy to jump in at any point and enjoy the film’s semi-episodic plot and wide ensemble of characters.

Based on a true story, The Great Escape follows a group of (mostly British) Allied soldiers brought together in a German POW camp – they are a collection of the best escape artists in the Allied army, isolated so that the Nazis can, as the German comandante puts it, “have all their rotten eggs in one basket.” Not the brightest idea that the Reich ever had. Led by “Big X” Roger Bartlett, the prisoners quickly hatch an intricate plan to secret 250 men out of the camp, a plot that would severely disrupt the internal workings of the Reich as the Germans would be forced to commit hundreds, even thousands of troops to round up the escapees.

Many of the men are assigned specific roles in the escape plan: the Digger, the Forger, the Scrounger, the Tailor. As unique as their occupations are their personalities, and much of the fun of this film lies in the interaction between these individuals. But mostly it’s just a fantastic story, rife with tension and suspense as the audience follows along with every twist and kink in the plan. It doesn’t end up quite where you expect it to go, but you really do get a sense of the tireless work ethic and optimism that got soldiers through the harsh circumstances of war. It’s hardly a realistic depiction of the violence and suffering of war, but, hey, it was 1963; even if they could make Saving Private Ryan, the Hays Code wouldn’t have let them.

The great ensemble cast is led by the King of Cool, Steve McQueen, and he lives up to his reputation with his smooth demeanor, irreverent wisecracks and a sweet motorcycle chase. Other standouts include Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, James Garner and Donald Pleasence.

Stalag 17

About 10 years before The Great Escape, famed director Billy Wilder attempted his hand at another tale of POW camp intrigue, based on a successful play of the same name. This time, the camp’s full of Americans, and Wilder tries to beef up the humor, putting in blatantly comic characters like the duo of Animal and Billy. The jokes are a bit hit-or-miss; it feels like the whole thing is trying a bit too hard, but there are some good laughs along the way.

The story’s greater strength lies in the dramatic intrigue of the plot. The narrative focuses on the inhabitants of a single barracks; when we come in, two of the prisoners are attempting an escape, only to be easily caught and shot by the Germans. The soldiers realize that one of their own must be an informant, as the German comandante (acclaimed director Otto Preminger in one of his few acting performances, a magnificently haughty turn) seems to know every secret of the barracks. The obvious candidate is Sefton (William Holden), the local cynic who has amassed a fortune in cigarettes and other handy trinkets by trading with the German officers.

Holden won his one and only Oscar for this role, and the film certainly rides on the talented actor’s shoulders. Sefton is mysterious and detached, hated and envied by his peers. He’s a savvy operator, for sure, to be such a good trader, but does that mean he’s a spy?

Stalag 17 is not as good as The Great Escape; besides some of the dated humor, the film features an annoying narrator, a bit of a simpleton named Cookie who latched on to Sefton and seems to be telling the whole story from some years later. But, his narration is neither funny nor insightful; it just spells out things we could’ve figured out for ourselves, anyway. But, if you can get past this unnecessary touch, the story is tense and features enough interesting characters to justify a viewing. Plus, Wilder gives the film his trademark touches of melancholy but ultimately heart-warming sentimentality (if you’ve seen the films of Jason Reitman, like Juno or Up in the Air, you’ll understand what I’m talking about), making the story more touching than it really has any right to be.

Coming up tomorrow, you won’t want to miss the unveiling of the complete Must-See 500. Enjoy your day off!

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