The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

The one motorcycle jump I will remember

with 8 comments

I’m not a fan of long scenes where we watch people chasing each other with various vehicles. Most of the time I can’t tell one from the other. It’s just a blur of roaring engines, crumbling metal and someone either getting caught or killed in the end.

There are exceptions though, chases that I will remember. Like the one in the corridor at the Death Star, which I maybe remember most of all because it seems endless.

And the other day I watched another case scene that somehow managed to rise above the average, the scene in The Great Escape where Steve McQueen, after escaping from a camp during World War II, is chased by German soldiers.

I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that makes it so special. The level of violence, danger and speed is abysmal compared to most vehicle chases you see in movies these days. But I think there’s something about the way he runs the motorcycle that makes it glow. Perhaps it’s related to enthusiasm. Apparently the motorcycle chasing was added on request by McQueen; it was one of the conditions for him to take the role. He did a lot of the driving by himself; he even played his antagonist, the German motorcycle driver who was supposed to chase him.

The climax of the scene is when he (or actually McQueen’s stand-in, since the film’s insurance company didn’t allow him to do it) makes a mighty and yet elegant jump over a high fence of barbed wire. It’s a joy to watch and I would have cheered loudly if I hadn’t been in a public theatre among other people. I suppose I’ve seen people jumping with motorcycles in other movies, but this one, as opposed to the others, will stay in my memory.

Surprisingly dark – and surprisingly bright
It’s not every day you get the chance to see a three hour long matinee film from 1963 on a big screen, so I was happy to grab the opportunity when a group of Swedish bloggers were invited to see a newly restored version of it at Cinemateket, the theatre of the Swedish Film Institute.

I’ve understood that this film – based on a true story – about a group of prisoners of war making a breakout from a camp – is considered a classic, which frequently is shown on television, at least in UK. But either it’s because I’ve been living under a rock, or because I’m more into science fiction than into World War II, I had never seen it before and wasn’t familiar with the story either. Since it started out more or less as a comedy, with the prisoners constantly outsmarting the Germans playing various tricks on them, I had expected it to end in joy and triumph, so you can imagine how surprised I was when it took a different, darker direction.

At the same time: while some events are truly dark, it’s also a strangely bright film, quite the opposite of the gritty, shaky hand camera, docu-style war moves that are so common nowadays.

Spending weeks in an isolated cell seems like a minor annoyance rather than the soul crushing horrific experience I imagine it to be. The soldiers sing Christmas carols to cover the sounds of their digging. Someone suffers from claustrophobia and has issues with the tunnel, but you can’t really say that anyone appears to be truly traumatized by the war.

Of course I’m not the one to say how it was in reality. I wasn’t there. Perhaps people were different back in the days – happily sacrificing themselves for the benefit of the many, manning up, hiding their doubts inside. More likely though, I think the reality of war didn’t fit into this movie. It was not the kind of story they were trying to tell. The main purpose of the film is not to spark emotions or new insights with the viewer. The aim of the film is to entertain, and in this, it’s very successful.

The pace isn’t what we’re used to either. It reminded me of the lovely steam train we saw in the movie. It’s a time consuming way to travel and probably not something you want to do every day. But for a lazy Sunday trip, when you want to relax and watch the landscape passing by, rather than to get to the destination as quickly as possible, it’s perfect.

The Great Escape (John Sturges, US 1963) My rating: 4/5


Here’s what my fellow bloggers in the network Filmspanarna thought about it:

Fredrik on Film (In English)
Moving Landscapes
Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord
Fiffis filmtajm

Written by Jessica

December 11, 2013 at 6:00 am

Posted in The Great Escape

8 Responses

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  1. I understand that Steve McQueen said yes to the part just because he got to show off his motorcycleskills. After seeing the film I understand him.


    December 11, 2013 at 8:37 am

    • It makes you want to ride a motorbike, doesn’t it?


      December 31, 2013 at 3:08 pm

  2. The motorcycling Steve McQueen didn’t do it for me. Those scenes felt patched on and he was too obviously proud of his mad skillz. But they ended on a nice (and unexpected) note, I’ll have to admit that.


    December 11, 2013 at 10:30 am

    • For some reason they worked for me, especially seeing them on such a bit and marevellous screen.


      December 31, 2013 at 3:09 pm

  3. Glad to see you liked it. It’s a classic for a reason, even though it wasn’t as “great” as I remembered it to be.

    I agree with you that Steve McQueen’s scenes on a motorcycle stand out. They might not mean much on their own, but within the film they say a lot.

    Movies - Noir

    December 11, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    • It was a first time watch for me, which probably made them more impressive.


      December 31, 2013 at 3:09 pm

  4. I’m with you on these kinds of scenes. I remember when they tried to sell the release of the DVD of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace by touting the “extended pod race” – as if THAT is supposed to make it better? Really?

    Steven B

    December 15, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    • Oh dear. It definitely wouldn’t sell it to me. Nine times out of ten it’s just a boring filler.


      December 31, 2013 at 3:11 pm

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