Just ahead of Mark's appearance with Walter Kirn, Kat Timpf and Tyrus on tonight's "Greg Gutfeld Show", here's our Saturday movie date:
This column was prompted by readers of last week's. As you'll recall, we marked the centenary of Donald Pleasence by celebrating his definitive cinematic Blofeld. That of course stirred some comment about his other roles. Chris Hall, everyone's favorite Macedonian Content Farmer, writes:
Donald Pleasence was not only an excellent Blofeld, but he and Jim Garner basically stole The Great Escape from Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough.
To which Calvert Whitehurst, a Steyn Club First Week Founding Member from Virginia, adds:
The male bonding (if I may use that word) between James Garner and Donald Pleasence in The Great Escape. I thought those were the best scenes in the movie when I first saw it as a 14-year-old in 1963.
You were ahead of me there, Calvert. The Great Escape is a great Boy's Own caper, and, when you're a boy, you like it for the boy stuff - the planning, the execution, the improvisation, the daring. It usually takes a few more years to appreciate Pleasence and Garner as the most touching relationship in the picture. But the movie is all the better for it.
Pleasence himself was a former PoW, in Stalag Luft I. The Great Escape is set in Stalag Luft III, and based on a true story, although with the usual compressions and composite characters for the sake of effective movie-making. The biggest change derived from the fact that it was an American film, and therefore its American producers wanted Americans in it. Unfortunately, Stalag Luft III held airmen from the British Commonwealth, which meant English, Scots, Canucks, Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans, plus a few Poles, Czechs, Dutch and Norwegians who'd escaped to Britain and signed on with the Royal Air Force. But no Americans. So the producers cast Charles Bronson as one of the Poles, and James Coburn as an Australian, with an accent that rivals Dick Van Dyke's Mary Poppins turn in its mesmerizing distance from its target. But in the end there's no point to shoehorning in Americans unless they're all-American. So James Garner plays a Yank who volunteered for the RAF's Eagle Squadron at the start of hostilities, and Steve McQueen plays a Yank who's a Yank and that's that.
And everyone else is British. The golden age of war movies was about fifteen years after the war, when almost all except the very youngest actors had had some kind of direct experience of the thing and brought a natural ease to their habitation of the roles. The gold standard here is the stiff upper Brit serving as senior officer at the German PoW camp, Group Captain Ramsey. I don't know whether James Donald is simply the best exemplar of the type, or whether he in fact helped create the type. At any rate, almost from the end of the war he was officer material in war movies and often prisoner-of-war movies (he's in Bridge on the River Kwai). He's the perfect iteration of the wry civilized officer whose quiet authority the Germans tended to mistake for weakness. In The Great Escape he walks with a cane, which shorthand tells us that he himself can never scramble down tunnels and up into woodland, and so will not be among the escapees. But, as he informs Herr Kommandant, it is the duty of every man to escape and, if that is not possible, to tie down as many of his enemies as he can in preventing him from escaping. And Group Captain Ramsey will ensure that his men do not neglect their duty.
As Donald Pleasence well knew from his own wartime experience, the Luftwaffe and the RAF had a certain mutual respect for each other and were inclined to treat each other well when one fell into the other's hands. The camp commandant, von Luger, is an intelligent and not unreasonable man: In a different world, he and Ramsey might well have been friends. But the Group Captain and an ingenious squadron leader played by Richard Attenborough have a plan of surpassing audacity: a mass breakout - not of a handful but of hundreds.
Elmer Bernstein's terrific score takes its cue from the Brits - its signature march is like River Kwai's "Colonel Bogey" sideways, and less dotty. We know how these three-hour sprawling-cast epics go: Characters are sketched out in tics and traits and have to connect with us in just a few minutes apiece of screen time. For whatever reason, three Britons are paired with three Americans who were or would become very big stars. Thus Charles Bronson as the token Pole has to be nursemaided through his claustrophobia (not helpful for a tunnel digger) by John Leyton, a UK pop star who parlayed an almost ludicrously morbid hit - "Johnny, Remember Me" - into steady screen work through the Sixties. Steve McQueen bonds with a diminutive Scotsman because they're both scrappy and pugnacious and so are always being confined to the "cooler" together. Jock and Yank discover they also like riding - albeit one on motorcycles, the other on horses. But one actor is a great charismatic enduring acme of cool who can stand there in a crewneck sweater bouncing a ball and millions will queue for hours. And the other's Angus Lennie, a five-foot-one tartan goofball who's never going to be anything other than an idiosyncratic character player if you happen to have a midget role. And yet it is the love of one character for the other that drives McQueen's "Cooler King" to do something insanely sacrificial: escape from the camp - and then return to it with the necessary information from the outside world that will enable hundreds of others to get out too.
Yet even this unlikely couple is breezily outpaced by the third pairing - between a bald beady-eyed nondescript with a bank manager's voice and a star of surpassing good looks and laconic charm. (The physical contrast between English and American cellmate is most precisely framed in the scene in which Donald Pleasence and James Garner play chess.) By 1963, Garner was a household name, from his telly hit "Maverick" and then the romantic comedies that followed: just before he did Great Escape, he'd starred in Move Over, Darling, as a man who finds himself honeymooning with both Doris Day and Polly Bergen: to be sure, there are worse predicaments to be in, but it nevertheless requires a great escape all of its own. On the other hand, Donald Pleasence was a rising character actor whose ordinary mien could nevertheless conjure memorable performances. When he inquires as to the mode of escape, Attenborough replies, "We're going to tunnel", and Pleasence responds with a single understated word: "Splendid." It is to be his very English catchphrase, augmented when especially enthused: "Splendid. Simply splendid."
But that's the point: For Pleasence's Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe, "Splendid" is a catchphrase; Garner's flight lieutenant, Donald Hendley, is splendid. In contrast to McQueen's crewneck, Garner has a great turtleneck: it's almost as if their agents negotiated all the best knitwear away from the Brits. Pleasence's Colin is an ornithologist: "I suppose you have birdwatchers in the States..? Tea?" But Garner's Hendley has tasted tea just the once - in hospital in England - and he has no desire to repeat the experience.
These are familiar jokes of Anglo-American difference, but, like every inconsequential exchange in Great Escape, they are purposefully deployed. On Attenborough's team, every man has a skill. Hendley's arises from that lazy, natural Garner charm: He's "the Scrounger", the fellow who can talk anybody into coughing up useful materials (cameras, identity cards) or at least things they can trade for useful materials (chocolate, cigarettes, marmalade). Colin Blythe's expertise arises from those beady Pleasence eyes: He's "the Forger", the man who uses the camera and specimen identity card to create plausible new ID for hundreds of his fellow prisoners.
But Colin has a secret he's hiding from his comrades: He's going blind, fast. And a blind man emerging from a tunnel to stagger sightless through the Third Reich is only going to jeopardize prospects for everyone else. Attenborough's squadron leader, the practical Englishman, orders him to stay; Garner, the optimistic American, wants his friend with him - and seals the unlikely bonding by feigning enthusiasm for a cuppa: "Colin, do you have any tea..? Let's have some."
And so, simply because he's James Garner's buddy, a blind man winds up with all the action sequences - jumping from trains, hijacking planes. The end is moving and tragic and stays with you. When you're fourteen, unless you're Calvert Whitehurst, you think the film ends with Steve McQueen on a motorbike. When you're older, you remember the most effortlessly appealing of American leading men and his unlikely English sidekick, and their final scene together.
A quarter century later there was to be a Great Escape II: The Untold Story, which was in fact the story previously told - the escape - but this time using the actual names of the real escapees. None of the original cast returned - except one. By this time Pleasence was a famous screen villain, and so played one of the baddies.
But I prefer not to think about that.
~Mark will see you on the TV in a couple of hours on "The Greg Gutfeld Show".
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