The Great Escape might be the greatest cinematic paradox of all time. It ends quite tragically, with scores of characters we have come to know and care about getting executed by the National Socialists. Yet, it is a totally rip-roaring, thoroughly entertaining movie that never fails to lift the spirits. Perhaps that is because the prisoners of Stalag Luft III most definitely accomplished their goal: they gave the Germans Hell. Fifty-five years after its initial release, it remains a perennial favorite among movie lovers. To celebrate the film, a group of fans and movie historians make a pilgrimage to the original Bavarian locations in Gary Espenan’s The Coolest Guy Movie Ever: Return to the Scene of the Great Escape (trailer here), which releases today on DVD and VOD.
Surprisingly, Espenan’s film is nearly as archaeological as Paul Goldsmith’s Island of Blue Dolphins doc. There is a great deal of searching for locations, using primary documents and archival photos. Due to an agreement worked out between the producers and the German Interior Department, the sight of the prison camp location is now unrecognizable and essentially untraceable. In return for permission to temporarily clear forest land, the production agreed to replant two trees in exchange for each one they chopped down. It is frustrating for Espenan’s team, but it is rather gratifying to see our fellow Yanks were so true to their word.
They have better luck identify the locations seen during the third act scramble for freedom. Of course, the motorcycle chase gets special attention, because obviously. There is not a heck of a lot of behind-the-scenes dishing going on, but fans will be happy to hear Steve McQueen basically charmed the pants off the locals. In fact, the film only further burnishes McQueen’s personal and professional reputation.