Welcome to 50 first times. For those who came in late, I’m working my way through 50 previously unseen movies, watching good films, bad films, forgotten classics, Oscar winners and everything in between.

The rules are as follows:

  • The film I watch has to be something new (for me)
  • The film can be from any decade/genre

Today I’m watching…

The Great Escape (1963)

Image: ©United Artists/MGM

Yes, yes, I can hear the gasps at the back of the room, it is true – I have never seen The Great Escape. This will come as a big surprise to many people because…

a) This is a much-loved, highly praised film, adored by millions.

b) I’m an ex-film student, so this is one of those films that I should have watched at least 15 years ago when I was at university.

c) I live in the UK, where The Great Escape is shown EVERY YEAR on TV over the Christmas period. EVERY YEAR!

Yeah, seriously. In the UK, The Great Escape is ALWAYS on television over Christmas. It pops up like clockwork, alongside The Wizard of Oz (1939), Superman: The Movie (1978), and anything to do with Wallace and Gromit. To us Brits, this movie is as important to Christmas as the Queen’s speech or Noddy Holder.

So, why have I never watched The Great Escape?

Erm… to be honest, I’ve just never felt the need to watch it. Oh, I’ve wanted to; but because it is on TV every year I always work on the basis that I’ll watch it next year (and so on).

This year I decided to be proactive, which is why I am watching it BEFORE it airs on TV. So, I’m viewing it in the run-up to Christmas, rather than wait for it to pop up on BBC2 (or wherever it will appear).

As for my prior knowledge of the movie, well, I am very familiar with the theme tune, and I know the story involves a group of World War II prisoners trying to escape from a prison camp. Oh, and I know Steve McQueen does something with a motorbike – but I’m not entirely sure what.

Maybe he jumps a fence… or something? I don’t know.

Yep, that’s all I’ve got. I think it’s time to give this one a watch.

*Presses play*

5secs – The movie opens with Elmer Bernstein’s theme to The Great Escape. Even though I’ve never seen this film, I know the theme very well. It’s a good way to kick-start a movie. 

4mins 30secs – Steve McQueen!

9mins – Within the first nine minutes of the film, The Great Escape sets out its premise: A bunch of prisoners of war, held in a German prison camp, are endlessly looking for ways to escape. It’s a simple premise, but I reckon that it will hold my attention.

30mins – This film has such a good cast. Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn!

32mins – A plan is being formed for an escape. The prisoners are going to dig three tunnels.

*Checks running time*

Hmm… there’s still over two hours to go. This can’t be the final plan, can it? I presume this won’t be ‘The Great Escape’, merely an attempt at escaping, right?

35mins – Donald Pleasence has just turned up. I don’t trust him.

45mins – I’m going to make a few predictions, which will no doubt turn out to be wrong.

  • Charles Bronson will die
  • Donald Pleasence will betray everyone 
  • Steve McQueen will escape 

51mins – Hmm.. I’m beginning to think that this tunnel plan IS the main plan. I suppose, the best way to make this escape ‘great’ is to build it up over the course of the movie. OK, I can go with that. I like these characters.

54mins – You know, even though I’ve never watched this film before, there are so many moments in this movie that I’ve seen repeated in other films. That is the sign of a good movie.

1hr – Donald Pleasence is talking birds. Birds, ay? Birds… like a pigeon?! A stool pigeon! Yeah, I see you Donald Pleasence. I see you and I don’t trust you. He’s a bad guy, right? I’m sure of it.

1hr 23mins – Is the escape plan about to be rumbled?

1hr 25mins – Oh crap, one of the tunnels has been discovered. But work continues on the next. Phew.

1hr 31mins – Hmm… I might be wrong about Donald Pleasence. He’s not a bad guy at all and it appears as if he is losing his eyesight. Bugger.

1hr 45mins – The escape is in full swing. But with an hour to go, this can’t be the escape, can it?

1hr 52mins – Donald Pleasence is about to escape. Meanwhile, Charles Bronson is struggling with claustrophobia and is having to be urged to go through the tunnel. Something’s going to go wrong. I’m on the edge of my seat.

1hr 55mins – Ah, shit. An unexpected air raid is taking place. All the lighting around the camp has gone out. Charles Bronson is panicking in the tunnel! It’s all gonna go to sh*t!

1hr 56mins – Oh, Charles Bronson is out! I thought his claustrophobia would cause a huge problem for his escape, but nah, it was all fine in the end.

1hr 59mins – The escape plan has been discovered! Bugger! But at least 76 men have escaped. How far will they get?

2hrs 13mins – A number of the escapees have fled aboard a train. Meanwhile, Steve McQueen has stolen a motorbike. Now I know that a motorbike plays a big part in the ending of this film, so I’m expecting something good and/or dramatic.

2hrs 16mins – David McCallum has been killed off. 

2hrs 21mins – James Garner & Donald Pleasence have made it out of the country by stealing a German aircraft. Hurrah!

2hrs 22mins – Oh… hang on. The stolen aircraft has lost power and Garner & Pleasence have crashed. Oh well, I’m sure they’ll be fine…

2hrs 24mins – Pleasence has been shot. Oh.

2hrs 25mins – Pleasence is dead and Garner has been recaptured. And…

…oh, no time to worry about those two, Steve McQueen is about to do something impressive with his bike!

2hrs 26mins – Nah, he fluffed it. He crashed his motorbike into barbed wire and has been recaptured. Balls!

2hrs 29mins – You know, the most baffling thing about this whole movie, is James Coburn’s Australian accent. Did someone tell him he could pull it off? Does he even know where Australia is?

2hrs 35mins – A group of the escapees have been captured. And now they’re dead.

2hrs 36mins – They killed Richard Attenborough. The b@st*rds!

2hrs 37mins – Of the 76 men that escaped, 50 have been killed. I expected casualties, but I thought more would have made it home.  

2hrs 40mins – There’s five minutes left… and my iPad has just died on me! The battery has gone.

*Raises clenched fist to the sky and shakes it while pulling an angry expression*

*Puts iPad on charge*

*Waits until the iPad turns back on*

*Resumes movie*

2hrs 43mins – As the film ends, Steve McQueen is put back in the prison camp where he will no doubt keep looking for ways to escape. 

*Presses stop*

Well, that was good. I presumed the film was entirely about the escape, so I was pleasantly surprised that a good chunk of the movie was about the men being on the run.

OK, so I was totally wrong about all my predictions, but I’m glad about that. This film has been repeated and parodied so many times, I expected it to be very predictable, and yet it wasn’t. It felt fresh.

I can see why The Great Escape is shown on television every year. It’s a damn good movie!

Would I watch it again?

Yeah, I would. I would indeed.

Maybe next Christmas.

Thanks for reading this latest entry in 50 first times. If you want to check out my posts on other previously unseen films then dive into Song of the South (1946)Trilogy of Terror (1975)Rob Zombie’s 31 (2016)Chef (2014)High Noon (1952)Xanadu (1980)When A Stranger Calls (1979)The Sitter (1977)A Night at the Roxbury (1998)The Dark Crystal (1982)Starchaser: The Legend of Orin (1985)Super (2010)When Harry Met Sally (1989)What We Do in the Shadows (2014)Shin Godzilla (2016), and Road House (1989).

Read: Part 18