A stirring example of courage and the indomitable human spirit, for many John Sturges's The Great Escape
(1963) is both the definitive World War II drama and the nonpareil prison escape movie. Featuring an unequalled ensemble cast in a rivetingly authentic true-life scenario set to Elmer Bernstein's admirable music, this picture is both a template for subsequent action-adventure movies and one of the last glories of Golden Age Hollywood. Reunited with the director who made him a star in The Magnificent Seven
, Steve McQueen gives a career-defining performance as the laconic Hilts, the baseball-loving, motorbike-riding "Cooler King." The rest of the all-male Anglo-American cast--Dickie Attenborough, Donald Pleasance, James Garner, Charles Bronson, David McCallum, James Coburn, and Gordon Jackson--make the most of their meaty roles (though you have to forgive Coburn his Australian accent). Closely based on Paul Brickhill's book, the various escape attempts, scrounging, forging, and ferreting activities are authentically realized thanks also to technical advisor Wally Flood, one of the original tunnel-digging POWs. Sturges orchestrates the climax with total conviction, giving us both high action and very poignant human drama. Without trivializing the grim reality, The Great Escape
thrillingly celebrates the heroism of men who never gave up the fight.
Akira Kurosawa's rousing Seven Samurai was a natural for an American remake--after all, the codes and conventions of ancient Japan and the Wild West (at least the mythical movie West) are not so very far apart. Thus The Magnificent Seven (1960) effortlessly turns samurai into cowboys. The beleaguered denizens of a Mexican village, weary of attacks by banditos, hire seven gunslingers to repel the invaders once and for all. The gunmen are cool and capable, with most of the actors playing them just on the cusp of '60s stardom: Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn. The man who brings these warriors together is Yul Brynner, the baddest bald man in the West. There's nothing especially stylish about the approach of veteran director John Sturges (The Great Escape), but the storytelling is clear and strong, and the charisma of the young guns fairly flies off the screen. If that isn't enough to awaken the 12-year-old kid inside anyone, the unforgettable Elmer Bernstein music will do it: bum-bum-ba-bum, bum-ba-bum-ba-bum....
Millionaire businessman Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) is also a high-stakes thief; his latest caper is an elaborate heist at a Boston bank. Why does he do it? For the same reason he flies gliders, bets on golf strokes, and races dune buggies: he needs the thrill to feel alive. Insurance investigator Vicky Anderson (Faye Dunaway) gets her own thrills by busting crooks, and she's got Crown in her cross hairs. Naturally, these two will get it on, because they have a lot in common: they're not people, they're walking clothes racks. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) is a catalog of '60s conventions, from its clipped editing style to its photographic trickery (the inventive Haskell Wexler behind the camera) to its mod design. You can almost sense director Norman Jewison deciding to "tell his story visually," like those newfangled European films; this would explain the long passages of Michel Legrand's lounge jazz ladled over endless montages of the pretty Dunaway and McQueen at play. (The opening-credits song, "Windmills of Your Mind," won an Oscar.) It's like a "What Kind of Man Reads Playboy?" ad come to life, and much more interesting as a cultural snapshot than a piece of storytelling.
Junior Bonner (1972) is director Sam Peckinpah's lovely, elegiac look at the world of the rodeo--and his only film with nary a bullet wound. Steve McQueen, engagingly easygoing but determined, is the title character, a rodeo rider out to win a big bull-riding contest in his hometown. Even as he confronts his dwindling days on the circuit, he also must deal with his feuding parents, marvelously played by Robert Preston and Ida Lupino. Preston is particularly good as the randy old con artist; he and Lupino strike real sparks. Peckinpah's slow-motion camera is put to particularly good use filming the balletic violence of the rodeo, at once more terrifying and awe-inspiring than any gun battle. A lovely country-western valentine to a dying breed.