The Great Escape deserves better than this.
The Coolest Guy Movie Ever: Return to the Scene of The Great Escape should put you off by title alone—not because it’s geared toward men or because it threatens to ignore the complex conversation surrounding gender politics of the 21st century in its wake. Those are hyper-academic subplots of criticism that the film does not earn. It should make you wince because it’s gaudy, vague, and bombastic. It is a warning sign that reads, “Beware of Lack of Subtlety.” The titular claim is half-baked to say the least. What does the “coolest guy movie ever” even assume? What would be the criteria for this award if it actually existed? It is a claim that cannot be vindicated with authority. It’s truly arbitrary, and more likely to be ignored with a tinge of frustration than actually addressed. So, in that vein, let’s leave the title behind and get to the picture.
First-time director Christophe Espenan and second-time writer Steven Jay Rubin (East L.A. Marine: The Untold True Story of Guy Gabaldon) combined their vigor for John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963) to create this nostalgia passion project. It is a treasure hunt for the locations of some of the film’s most iconic shots. Driving around the Bavarian countryside, Espenan and company meet with locals that recount their on-looking experiences of the shoot as they try to determine exact angles of each shot and reminisce over their love for the film.
In spirit, they’re on to something. The Great Escape is a classic by every measure of the word and I have no doubt that there is a built-in audience of retired, Turner Classic Movie daytime bingers that would enjoy this brand of in-depth recollection on the historical film. The Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Bronson vehicle holds a place in film history that simply cannot be denied. As garish as the title of this documentary is, it’s obvious that they chose the name for said built-in audience.
The Great Escape perfectly embodies a slowly dying normative understanding of what a “guy” wanted to see on screen in the early sixties. However, the filmmakers are unable to capitalize on any of this. Given its narrow focus and oft-assumed knowledge of the classic, it could be a fun 58-minute special feature on a future anniversary Blu-Ray release. On the contrary, the pace, editing, music, content, and overall approach likely pushes away even the most curious of McQueen Heads and Great Escape die-hards.
For example, it features interviews with people like Jacob Schmolz, a barber who remembers cutting McQueen and Bronson’s hair during the shoot. Schmolz’s story is the kind that might be interesting to hear if you were getting your haircut from him and had no other choice, but even then it wouldn’t do too much to impress. He, like every other interviewee, remembers that McQueen was “nice” and “cool” and that Bronson was not. The end.
They show us where Sturges, McQueen, Bronson, and Garner stayed in Germany with excitement, but it’s just a cozy bed and breakfast that makes you wish you were vacationing to the Bavarian hillside. There is no lavish MTV Cribs-esque intrigue or enticing story about their stay or the making of the film. On top of that, it’s often not clear who is being interviewed, or why their inclusion is relevant (e.g. sometimes the interviewee is named with a subtitle that just lists the city they assumedly live in).
Interviews with actors involved hover over background footage of the film like the pip function on an old tube TV used to. It all looks so amateur. There is no consistency. Some of these old actors look straight into the camera without blinking, others look away, others awkwardly glance at the camera in between words like it’s a foreign object. At times, it becomes hard to endure, more reminiscent of enduring classmates’ PowerPoint presentations in high school than enjoying a film.
It has the pace of an educational state history museum video, but it feels grimy like one of those unauthorized Bob Dylan gas station DVDs that ends up being a roadie talking at you about their career in front of a 1990s textured family portrait backdrop. Five minutes in you realize there was never a script editor, or maybe even a script, and a dull Bob Dylan story is only going to comprise a 78-second blip at the pinnacle of the roadie’s otherwise humdrum career. In other words, it drags.
The editing is clunky. Transitions are particularly frustrating. The sound editing follows suit. Volume levels rise and fall for absolutely no reason. Each interview employs its own acoustic makeup. Music fades out seemingly by accident and shoots back in suddenly as if the editor thought they fixed problem. The incessant overlaid narration includes plenty of stutters and “ums” and words like “that” and “there” without any point of reference. At one point, we spend 45 seconds zooming in on a piece of wood that Steve McQueen stood next to in the movie. It’s an opportunity for some self-reflective humor, but it’s certainly not included for laughs. We are supposed to be fascinated.
The music is painfully cheesy and poorly chosen. Overly sentimental piano plays over an second narrator’s explanation of where they hypothesize certain scenes were filmed. Not only are the tones of the music and what’s happening on screen terribly disparate, but the explanations offered are laborious and insulting to the audience. Several minutes are spent explaining evidence behind the location of a shot that could be achieved by some “1963 vs. Now” side-by-side photos.
The meat of the documentary is absent. It exists solely to praise the film, which is fine, but it does so poorly. If I hadn’t heard of or seen The Great Escape, I would not be encouraged to look into it by the end of this documentary. There is more time spent watching unnamed men on the hunt hover over maps than there is intriguing, well-evidenced praise of the beloved Sturges/McQueen flick. Make no mistake, Espenan, Rubin, and everyone they gathered to participate are deeply in love with The Great Escape, and their admiration is commendable. But they aren’t able to fulfill their filmmaking roles and the product is just plain boring.