We find ourselves in the purgatorial wasteland between Christmas and New Year, where time is measured only by ad breaks and the latest round of food made out of an ever-dwindling supply of leftovers. By this time, most of us are in such a vegetative state that we are watching TV indiscriminately, making our way through relatively safe choices that can please the bored child waiting for someone to go to the shops to get more batteries, the surly teenager avoiding Christmas school assignments as well as keeping your gran amused enough that she does not spend the afternoon telling you her views on the NHS, prisons and immigrants.
Films like The Great Escape are on every year, and have such an integral part of our Christmas that we do not even realise see them as films, more like screensavers of moments that we cannot remember a time before we saw them. They have been part of our Christmases for so long, in fact, that they become favourites without anyone realising that the only reason that they are on at Christmas is because they are super long films that fill up the largest possible chunk of a TV schedule.
Well, that is not the only reason. There are other criteria for a Christmas TV film. It has to be old enough that it is cheap to licence and screen every year and bland enough to appeal to the broadest possible viewer base. The Great Escape succeeds on all these fronts, but does not succeed particularly well when you give the film your full attention rather than a little of your attention whilst you do the Radio Times cryptic crossword and process the shame of having eaten twelve cold pigs in blankets.
Put simply, every thing that turns an OK movie into a good or great one is missing from the Great Escape. It feels as if the team took the real story of an epic tunnel-based escape from a WWII POW camp and though the story was so interesting that they did not need to actually turn it into a movie. Individual characterisation is almost non-existent, even more than in most films about male prisons of barracks. The pacing is also poor, with everything post the escape (an undeniable highlight) suffering from a complete lack of suspense that completely removes the gut punch that in other hands could be devastating as the escapees are mostly rounded up and shot on a roadside. That is even before we get to the filming. A certain dour aesthetic is part and parcel of these films, but it makes it fairly laughable when they try to suggest the quick progression of the seasons through shots that may as well have been filmed on consecutive days.
Admittedly as a film to half-watch, it is a perfect choice. You could go and make a cup of tea or prepare a whole leftovers buffet and know that you were not going to lose track of the plot in a way that could not be solved with a simple yes or no question:
“have they dug the tunnel yet?”
“great…who wants some tea?”
Next Christmas, I will fill the inevitable POW movie time (whilst avoiding gran’s more racist WWII reminiscences) with the admittedly flawed but far superior Stalag 17 by Billy Wilder, and just tune in for the tunnel escape in between slices of cold nut roast and hunks of blue stilton from last Christmas.