From Paul Brickhill’s true story of a remarkable mass breakout by Allied POWs during World War II, producer-director John Sturges has fashioned a motion picture that entertains, captivates, thrills and stirs.
The film is an account of the bold, meticulous plotting that led to the escape of 76 prisoners from a Nazi detention camp, and subsequent developments that resulted in the demise of 50, recapture of a dozen.
Early scenes depict the formulation of the mass break design. These are played largely for laughs, at the occasional expense of reality, and there are times when authority seems so lenient that the inmates almost appear to be running the asylum.
There are some exceptional performances. The most provocative single impression is made by Steve McQueen as a dauntless Yank pilot whose ‘pen’-manship record shows 18 blots, or escape attempts. James Garner is the compound’s ‘scrounger’, a traditional type in the Stalag 17 breed of war-prison film. Charles Bronson and James Coburn do solid work, although the latter’s character is anything but clearly defined.
British thespians weigh in with some of the finest performances in the picture. Richard Attenborough is especially convincing in a stellar role, that of the man who devises the break. A moving portrayal of a prisoner losing his eyesight is given by Donald Pleasence. It is the film’s most touching character.
Elmer Bernstein’s rich, expressive score is consistently helpful. His martial, Prussianistic theme is particularly stirring and memorable.
1963: Nomination: Best Editing