Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reaching the Trees: The Great Escape on a Great Expanse

I'd seen it dozens of times. But never like this.

Friday night, at the AFI Silver, just outside of Washington, DC, I saw The Great Escape as if for the first time — because for the first time I saw the 1963 classic stretched across a theater screen.

To say that viewing fulfilled a lifelong dream would be an exaggeration, but only by about 11 years. My uncle introduced me to The Great Escape in my preteen years on two grainy VHS tapes — and in so doing he connected me with a movie that instantly became one of my favorites and that fanned the flames of my growing passion for cinema.

The Great Escape wasn't the oldest movie I'd seen to that point or, at 172 minutes, even the longest. But it was certainly the oldest and longest movie I'd ever seen that captured my attention from the opening frames and never let go, filling me with as much excitement as the "faster-and-more-intense" Star Wars trilogy I'd been raised on, and anything else I'd seen.

Although I wouldn't have been able to articulate it at the time, The Great Escape was the movie that convinced me that the thrills of cinema could be timeless, and I so trusted its power that I frequently showed it to friends over the rest of my middle school, high school and even college years as a way to gain their faith in the potential of movies released prior to our generation — liberating them from the prison of artistic ageism.

It worked. And after seeing The Great Escape on Friday, I'm as confident as ever that it still works, even if the movie's signature stunt — the motorcycle jump pulled off without the assistance of CGI by Steve McQueen's buddy and stuntman Bud Ekins — is modest by modern standards.

Sitting in the middle of the back row of the main seating area at the AFI Silver, I was a few seats away from two people seeing The Great Escape for the first time: a boy of about 13 who munched on popcorn throughout, and a woman in her late 40s, there with her husband and her husband's friend.

My only apprehension about seeing the movie in a theater stemmed from the potential for the experience to be marred by those quick to demonstrate their fandom: moviegoers who would whistle to Elmer Bernstein's famous score in the opening credits and laugh just a hair before all the punchlines to make sure we knew this wasn't their first time.

Thankfully, everyone behaved. The audience was quiet, enraptured and always of-the-moment, and thus the two loudest emoters were those newbies sitting nearby.

For once, hearing those around me was delightful. The boy laughed with his whole body when Cavendish plummeted through three plank-deprived wooden bunks. The woman let out a whimper when Ives made his slow, suicidal trudge toward the wire after the discovery of "Tom." And both of them gasped — genuinely gasped — when MacDonald blew his French identity by responding in English to a German's "good luck."

It was comforting hearing a movie I love so much having such an effect on them.

It was just as comforting feeling the movie having such an effect on me.

The Great Escape is a heist movie in many respects, except this time it's about breaking out instead of breaking in. There are plans and schemes aplenty — three tunnels, lots of wood, even more dirt and 250 men in need of disguises and false documentation. There's ingenuity and good old-fashioned work ethic.

Process takes such precedence that, even in a movie just shy of three hours, there isn't much time for character development — and yet we glean who these men are by their roles in the grand operation. James Garner's Hendley is resourceful, charming and cocky — because that's what it takes to be the scrounger. Richard Attenborough's Bartlett is demanding, indomitable and a bit mad — because that's what it takes to be Big X. Donald Pleasence's Blythe is the epitome of tea-sipping calm — because who else would have the patience to be the forger? And so on.

John Sturges directed the film, based on a screenplay by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, with astonishing efficiency. The first 23 minutes establish, through numerous absurd failed attempts, the difficulty of escape. The next hour is a long domino chain of obstacles crashing into one another: How to get out? Dig. How to dig? Through the foundation of the huts. How to blast through the concrete without arousing detection? Create diversions. How to shore up the tunnels? Wood. How to get the wood? Strip it from everyplace not in plain sight. Etcetera.

Only after the first tunnel is discovered by the German "ferrets" (need I say, "spoiler warning"?), and all of the prisoners' attention is put into the second tunnel ("Harry"), does the movie linger enough to allow us to appreciate the emotional toll of their labor, from Blythe's deteriorating eyesight to Danny's deteriorating sanity, so that we know how crucial it is that they succeed.

My favorite shots in the movie have always been any inside the tunnel, particularly those that capture its unforgettable combination of claustrophobic tightness and mouth-to-terminus expansiveness, which are especially apparent when the men ride rope-pulled dollies from station to station.

It's palpable, that tunnel. Damp and earthy. In each shot, you can feel all the effort and determination that went into carving it, one small shovel scoop at a time. The tunnel is the physical representation of the POWs' refusal to give up or give in. It's also their lifeline. All of the prisoners' hopes are invested in that tunnel, and so when they end up 20 feet short of the trees beyond the prison camp, it isn't just a logistical or strategic crisis. It's a dagger to the heart.

Twenty feet short.

In a way, that's how I watched The Great Escape for almost 10 years. And like the prisoners who built "Harry," I had no idea how much I was missing.

My well-worn VHS copy of The Great Escape was cropped in pan-and-scan, which was the format that aired on TV at the time. So it wasn't until The Great Escape got its DVD release, when I was in college, that I first saw it in widescreen. And on that first viewing — and even still — I was blown away by the significance of those little bits that had been trimmed from the periphery.

In the initial shots of the camp, for example, the widescreen canvas brought into view more men unloading from more trucks, a seemingly insignificant detail that somehow exponentially enhanced the vastness of the entire physical space. Much later on, the shots of Hilts riding his motorcycle toward the Alps brought forth a "new" (albeit original and intended) panoramic grandeur.

But of all the widescreen upgrades, the most significant was this: In the pan-and-scan version, we never once saw the entirety of Hilts' familiar cell in the cooler in a single shot. Indeed, in those famous moments when he throws his baseball against the wall, the ball would disappear off the right side of the screen — sometimes quickly captured with a cut, and other times merely bouncing around beyond the frame.

The effect of needing multiple shots to reveal each wall of Hilts' cell, combined with the loud echo of the baseball slamming against the concrete, created the sense of a room at least two times larger than it proves to be when the movie is seen in its original format. Only in widescreen could I fully appreciate the claustrophobia of Hilts' solitary confinement, not to mention the aesthetic beauty of the single-shot composition.

Watching The Great Escape on the big screen for the first time didn't redefine any shots in such a significant way, but it did feel like a new movie, despite all its wonderful familiarities.

Mostly, it was the little things — those details so easily lost in the background on even the widest of widescreen TVs that now felt like part of the foreground. The numbers on the huts. The expressions of the German "goons." The lettering painted on various trains and storefronts in the scenes outside the camp.

I can't say these "enhancements" changed the movie itself (certainly not like upgrading from pan-and-scan to widescreen), but they did change my experience.

Because make no mistake: size matters — at least if you know how to use it. And Sturges does.

Particularly striking on the big screen is the movie's strong use of depth in several shots, like the scene in which the Germans come into the hut where Danny is working on widening the mouth of "Harry," or the one much later in which Bartlett, having made a narrow escape, picks up a newspaper on a quiet street in an effort to blend in and catch his breath.

(Also rich with detail on the big screen is the left-to-right pan when Bartlett enters the hut on the night of the escape, and walks by the other prisoners waiting in the queue.)

It would be going too far to suggest that modern filmmakers don't fill the frame with such detail. But so often these days the big screen is filled with CGI elements that, to my eye at least, still lack the tangibility of flesh-and-bone and brick-and-mortar. The compositions of The Great Escape, like many movies of its era, indeed feel "more real."

Having said that, I suppose it's time to mention that my first big-screen experience with The Great Escape was a high-definition digital projection — a format that many cinephiles regard with begrudging acceptance or outright derision. I'm not sure that a celluloid copy is still in rotation amongst revival houses (I know it's never come to the AFI Silver in my decade of living in the area), but if such a print exists I'd love to see it.

And yet for a movie like The Great Escape (or Lawrence of Arabia, which I've had the pleasure to see on the big screen in both 70mm and 4K digital formats), I'm of the opinion that there's greater upside in faithfulness to scale than in faithfulness to texture — and unless you only buy DVDs of movies that were digital in the first place, or unless you're equally happy to watch a movie on an iPad or a widescreen TV, you probably agree with me.

Whether Friday's viewing was my first or last big-screen experience with The Great Escape, the effect is sure to linger, and not in the ways I necessarily expected.

Yes, the motorcycle chase seems even bigger in a theater (it's especially thrilling to be able to recognize McQueen's face several frames earlier as he zooms in from the distance), but the same sequence on Blu-ray won't suddenly seem small. Indeed, none of the movie's adventure or suspense will be diminished in the slightest in my humble home theater.

Rather, from here on, all my viewings of The Great Escape will be emotionally enhanced — not by the romanticism of seeing an epic on the big screen but by the intimacy of it.

It was a given that the panoramas would be spectacular in a real theater, but I wasn't prepared for what it would mean to the film's emotional heft to be able read a character's expression in a long shot, or to have a medium shot play like an extreme close-up.

The agony of Charles Bronson's Danny, the playfulness of Garner's Hendley, the solitude of Pleasence's Blythe, the desperation of Attenborough's Bartlett, the moxie of McQueen's Hilts — it was always there.

But now, thanks to the big screen, it's even greater.


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jake said...

Wonderful post. I'm a big fan of seeing old movies on the big screen and I'm lucky to have theaters in Minneapolis that do this type of thing.

I saw The Great Escape a long time ago but now I'm throwing it at the top of my N'flix queue again.

SO glad to see that you're back writing!

Sam Juliano said...

So great to have your unique writing style back on the boards Jason, and in consideration of an equally unique live experience such as this one. THE GREAT ESCAPE has maintained its popularity over the years, but one can never make claim to seeing it without 'really' seeing it in the manner that you did. I have never actually seen this particular film on the big screen for some reason, but you vividly put it all together in this marvelously comprehensive report. In recent years I have listened to the score several times, as I've been on a massive Elmer Bernstein binge, and have revisited the great score he wrote for it. Nice that you honored here as well.

Welcome back!

Hokahey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hokahey said...

Yes, it is a tribute to the film's director and to the performers that the charm and the drama and the suspense are "all there" even on the small screen - but it's great to have the full widescreen theater experience so that you can see how eye-filling older movies can be. Glad you had this experience.

I love your dissection of the story's phases here, how the parts of the film combine to transmit a lot of information without a lot of exposition - and how the film moves so smoothly and expeditiously from the "obstacles" phase to the escape from the tunnel phase to the exterior escape and chases phase.

Nowadays, one can find films that are visually expansive or unrelentingly suspenseful or memorably endearing - but it's hard to find a movie that does all of that as well as The Great Escape.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Jason - Awesome!! I saw this on the big screen at the Music Box in Chicago - years ago - and it was overwhelming. I watched it again recently, wrote it up on my site - it's the details that really stay with me, after so many times seeing it. The panicked gleam in Bronson's eye as he confesses his claustrophobia … just amazing. Loved to hear from you about the audience response too.