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The Great Escape

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Image credit: The Great Escape, 1963

This might make me a traitor to the 1960s, but I’ve never totally understood the lure of Steve McQueen. After watching several of his films recently… I still don’t. (side note: am I the only one who realizes this man had a terribly unflattering haircut???). However, this week’s film The Great Escape (Disc/Download) is so much more than just a McQueen vehicle (pun-intended). Rather, it’s a well-choreographed ensemble piece that surprised me at every turn.

First, I assumed that a movie about military prisoners in World War II-era Germany would feature scene after scene of torture and random killings at the hands of the Nazis. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. The film opens with a jaunty Elmer Bernstein score, where we catch our first glimpse of a POW camp that encourages gardening and crafts instead of starvation and forced labor. It’s all so… civilized? I was slightly amazed by how frequently the prisoners are left to their own devices, allowing them time to dig three tunnels, sew new clothes, forge documents, and manufacture gadgets to aid in their escape. My second surprise was that although McQueen gets top billing, he doesn’t necessarily get the most screen time. I actually thought Charles Bronson and James Coburn were the true MVPs of the cast. Watching Bronson crawl through those tunnels with his RIPPED arm muscles was a sight to behold, and I can’t help but be reminded of my late father, who served as a tunnel rat in Vietnam. Now it makes sense to me why he owned this movie (and why I’ve now inherited it)- it wasn’t about McQueen. It was always about The Tunnel King.

You’d think alcohol would have no place in a POW camp, but remember this is a civilized camp. Prisoners make their own hooch with the potatoes they’ve grown, which serves two purposes—getting rid of the excavated tunnel dirt, plus letting off a little steam. This week, pay tribute to those Allied prisoners of The Great Escape with this Dirty Martini!

Dirty Martini

2 ½ oz Potato Vodka

½ oz Dry Vermouth

½ oz Olive Brine

Olives for garnish

Combine vodka, vermouth, and olive brine in a shaker with ice. Stir until well chilled and combined, then strain into a martini glass. Garnish with olives.

It’s so interesting that the escapees didn’t just want their freedom—rather, they wanted to force the Nazis into devoting valuable resources to recover the prisoners. In that sense, the escape was successful. Yes, it has an unsatisfying ending for some of the characters, but nevertheless, this remains a fantastic cinematic example of what it means to be brave, selfless, and strong. Cheers!