Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Busy Bees

Folks, June is going to be a busy month.  In the first two weeks alone I have scheduled three blogathon entries, plus a special entry of my own.  I also find I've entered two blogathons with the same due date (June 28-30).  Add that to two more blogathons between those two bookends and I have a total of 7 entries for a month with only four weeks.  I hope you get a chance to read all of them.

In an effort to help anyone who wants to keep up, I am going to post a schedule that I intend to try to keep:

June 2 :  The Royalty in Film Blogathon:            Flash Gordon

June 5 :  The Athletes in Film Blogathon:           The Dirty Dozen

June 8 :   A Celebration of (Personal) Sobriety:  The Lost Weekend

June  11:  The Order in the Court Blogathon:      My Cousin Vinny

June 18:  The Nature's Fury Blogathon:               Gojira  and Godzilla

June 29:  The Mel Brooks Blogathon:                  Blazing Saddles

June 30:  The Joan Crawford Blogathon:              Reunion in France

Note:  This post has been edited.  The Joan Crawford Blogathon is not until July.  So I only have 7 entries due in June, not 8.... Whew!



Friday, May 27, 2016

If You Go Chasing Rabbits

This is my entry in the Animals in Film Blogathon sponsored by In The Good Old Days of Hollywood.

Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Hollywood  wanted to pay tribute to all the great animals that had appeared in movies over the years.  I am sure she was expecting (and got) entries like Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, National Velvet, That Darn Cat, you know the cutesy animals of bygone days.   So I suspect she was initially taken aback when I suggested Harvey.  After all, Harvey is never physically shown on screen, and is not, in fact, even an animal.  Harvey is what is referred to in the movie as a "pooka" which is a mythological spirit that, as described in the movie, often takes the form of an animal.  Thus for Elwood P. Dowd, Harvey is a 6 foot 3½ inch rabbit.  And Elwood is the only person that can see Harvey, although many friends humor him, even if they do think he's bonkers.

Harvey was originally a Broadway play by Mary Chase.  The play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1945.  It had an extremely successful run as a play on Broadway (1,775 performances) and was very popular at its time.  Frank Fay originally played Elwood P. Dowd, later to be replaced by, among others, Jimmy Stewart, and Josephine Hull, who would reprise the role in the film, played his put upon sister, Veta Louise Simmons.  A side note:  Joe E. Brown played Elwood for a time during this run.  Now there's an Elwood I would have liked to seen.  Probably not as sedate and calm as Stewart, I'm guessing...

Harvey (1950)

The movie begins with Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart) leaving his house for the day, accompanied by his invisible friend Harvey.  His sister, Veta (Josephine Hull) and niece Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne) watch him in anticipation.  Dotty old Elwood is not a wanted guest this afternoon, because Veta has scheduled a party to try to introduce Myrtle into society, with the object of eventually landing her a husband.  To ensure that Elwood is kept away, Veta enlists the help of a friend Judge Gaffney (William H. Lynn).  The Judge promises to put a man on following Elwood, but the man gets injured, unbeknownst to the Judge,  and can't do the job.

Meanwhile Elwood learns of the party.  Being hopelessly befuddled, he thinks Veta just forgot to tell him and goes home (with Harvey).  He tries to introduce the society ladies to Harvey and they all run screaming for the exits.  Veta is at her wits end, and with the help of her friend the Judge, decides to have Elwood committed to an institution.  Thus begins a riotous sequence of events that rivals, in my opinion, Arsenic and Old Lace, for queer antics and misconceptions and confusion.

In a nutshell, Elwood is taken to a room, but he seems to be the normal one when compared to Veta, who is sometimes frantic and hysterical over her brother's antics.  As a result, the doctor on call, Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake), has her committed and Elwood released.  His nurse (Peggy Dow), is remonstrated for having committed the wrong person, but she tells him it really was Elwood who was to be the patient.

Elwood, meanwhile is wandering out of the hospital and encounters Mrs. Chumley (Grace Mills), and asks her, if she sees Harvey, to tell him where Elwood has gone.  It is at this point that Elwood reveals that Harvey is a pooka, but like those of us in the audience watching it for the first time, she says "What's a pooka?"

There are some hilarious scenes with an orderly, Wilson (Jesse White), who almost steals the show in every scene he is in. He and Myrtle begin to fall in love.  He is probably the least believable Don Juan to every come on the screen, but Myrtle really likes him.

 At one point he is asked what a "pooka" is.  He looks it up in a dictionary and reads the following:

"P O O K A.  Pooka.  From old Celtic mythology... a fairy spirit in animal form, always very large.  The pooka appears here and there, now and then, to this one and that one.  A benign but mischievous creature, very fond of rumpots and crackpots and how are you, Mr. Wilson?"

(BTW:  Do you recognize him?  He was the Maytag repairman  for years in all those commercials...)

Eventually Veta is freed and everyone goes looking for Elwood.  Dr. Chumley (Cecil Kellaway), the head doctor finds him first.  The rest eventually catch up to Elwood who is alone.  He tells them that Dr. Chumley and Harvey left together.  As ridiculous as it may seem to the audience, there is some suspicion that Elwood caused some harm to the doctor.  The whole crew go back to the sanitarium, which Elwood, sweet innocent soul that he is, is willing to be given a serum that will make him "normal", to make Veta happy.

Dr. Chumley is there and wondering what to do about Harvey.  (It seems that now someone else besides Elwood can see him.)  Elwood has a long chat with the doctor about Harvey's innate abilities and the doctor wishes that Harvey could stay with him.  Harvey has his own ideas though.

Harvey is without a doubt the best use of Jimmy Stewart's down home serene demeanor and is one of the best comedies of the classic era.  Proving even to a hardened 80's juvenile comedy lover like me that funny doesn't have to have sophomoric humor and four letter words to be funny. Stewart came in behind Jose Ferrer in the voting for best actor of 1950.  (Ferrer won for playing Cyrano de Bergerac in the movie of the same name).  But Josephine Hull did win a statuette for Best Supporting Actress.  Check it out.

And thanks to Crystal for putting up with this stretch of the blogathon parameters.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Waiting for The Snake

John Carpenter is my favorite director, and by extension, I guess you could say Kurt Russell is my second favorite actor (John Wayne is still #1).  The reason I say Carpenter is my favorite director and Russell is #2 on the list of actors  is because on my top 10 list of favorite sci-fi/horror movies, Carpenter/Russell collaborations occupy four of the spaces, Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, and the two objects of today's post, Escape from New York and Escape from L.A.

One-eyed ne'er do well S. D. "Snake"  Plissken is a World War III Special Forces war hero, garnering two Purple Hearts, and being the youngest soldier to be decorated by a U.S. President.  But he turned to a darker side after the war, committing various criminal acts.  He avoids capture quite a bit, but does eventually come under the control of the prison system at various times in his career (hence the ability to have not one, but two feature films of his exploits in the criminal justice system.  His only real nemesis is himself, although he is driven by an intense hatred for the justice system and the nation and its political system in general.  In other words he doesn't "give a F*** about your country or your President".

Escape from New York (1981)

The pre-history to this one involves a rise of crime to astonishing levels.  As a result, the government converts Manhattan Island into a ultra-high security prison, building a containment wall around it, mining all bridges and tunnels, and sending all criminals into the prison, with just one rule: Once you go in, you never come out.  The prison itself is then allowed to run it's own self within the confines of the walls.  Gangs and cutthroats run their own system within.

Into this mix, Air Force One, the President's plane, is hijacked by revolutionaries and crashed into the center of New York.  The President (Donald Pleasence) [a President with an English accent, What IS the world coming to?] is launched before the crash in an escape pod.

"Jolly good show, eh what?'  The President encourages his staff.

Police forces, with Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee van Cleef) are dispatched to rescue the President, but before they get there the President is captured.   Hauk and his contingent are told to leave immediately or the president will be killed.

Meanwhile, Snake has finally been captured and is being processed for internment in the prison.  Because of his experience as a guerilla war soldier, he is given a chance to redeem himself by Hauk, with all past iniquities removed from his record.  All he has to do is infiltrate the prison, find the President, and get him and his secret info back to civilization in 24 hours.  This is the overriding suspense of the story because a) the President has to deliver the secret info he is carrying in less than 24 hours, and b) to insure that Snake cooperates with the authorities, he has been injected with microscopic nuclear bombs which will explode if he doesn't get back in time.  (Thus preventing him from just taking off and saying "Screw it.")

Upon landing (at the top of the World Trade Center) he immediately descends into the chaos that is the prison system in New York.  Using a locating device he finds himself in an old theater in which, watching the floor show, among others, is "Cabbie" (Ernest Borgnine).

Snake Plissken?  I heard you were dead...

As referenced in the above caption, a running theme throughout the movie is whenever Snake meets up with someone, the first comment from the is "I heard you were dead."  Obviously these people don't know Snake Plissken.  You can't kill a snake that easy.  Anyway Cabbie informs snake that the Duke (Isaac Hayes) has the President.   He takes Snake to meet with the Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) who is essentially the Duke's adviser, and who also has a map to where the mines are on the bridge.  Brain resides in the New York Public Library with Maggie, his main squeeze.

The Brain (with the Bosoms)
It turns out that Snake and the Brain were partners in crime, but Brain (whose real name is Harold) ditched Snake, so Snake has trust issues with him.  But Snake convinces Brain (at gunpoint) to take him where the President is being held.  Things backfire when the Duke discovers what is going on and captures Snake.  He forces Snake to go one-on-one against the biggest, baddest mofo in the prison (Ox Baker).  While Snake battles it out, Brain and Maggie rescue the President.

Eventually the four team up again with Cabbie and begin a race down the bridge trying to dodge the mines, and being chased relentlessly by the Duke.  The Duke's car is a sight to behold,   It has chandeliers hijacked from some fancy hotel as headlights and looks exactly like you'd think a 70's era African-American gang leader would have.

The Duke's "Pimpmobile"

Not all of the heroes survive however.  But, of course, Snake does.  (Remember, it's hard to kill a snake.)  You'll have to watch the movie to see who else does.

Escape from L.A. (1996)

It's 16 years later from the time of Escape from New York, and, coincidentally, (or maybe not) the same amount of time since the first movie.  I don't know what the hell happened to the prison in New York.  For all I know it's still in existence.  But in the history since that time there has been a massive earthquake that completely separated the city of Los Angeles from the mainland.  The country is now being run by a radical right-winger (think Jerry Falwell on moral steroids), who, as President for Life (played with incredible intensity by Cliff Robertson), has declared L.A. to be a morally corrupt place.  It is here that all morally undesirable people are sent.

Right makes might

Not necessarily all within the confines are criminals by current standards of legality.  The "morally corrupt" inhabitants include those of non-conforming religions (Muslims and any non-Christian religions, as well as atheists), users of now illegal drugs such as tobacco and alcohol, fornicators, and anything else that the devout Christian President deems a "sin".  Of course, being in that atmosphere, most of the residents, at least the ones we encounter on screen, are morally corrupt even by today's standards, but they could be seen as victims.

The President's daughter, Utopia (A. J. Langer), confiscates a secret weapon from her father and escapes into L.A. where she ends up hooked up with the leader of a counter-revolutionary group inside the compound, Cuervo Jones (George Corraface).  The secret weapon, the MacGuffin of the story, is a device that can be used to control satellites orbiting the earth and with pinpoint accuracy effectively shut down an area, an entire country, or as stated in the movie the entire globe.  It does this by sending an electronic pulse that shuts down all electric powered paraphernalia within the focus of the satellites.

Radical revolutionary 

Snake, our hero, is sent in to recover the device.  The President gives him explicit instructions, however, to eliminate his renegade daughter.  Under the direction of Commander Malloy (Stacy Keach), Snake is outfitted with various weapons and gear reminiscent of the latest James Bond film (Q, is that you?).   Among this is a holographic projector which gives him an ability to make a holograph of himself for a  15 minute period.  The impetus to get Snake to do the job is he is given a cut on his hand by a passing person which injects him with the "Plutoxin 7" virus, which he is told will kill him in a very short time.  (Once again, Snake is forced to comply with the less than reputable legal forces to do their will)

Among the people that Snake encounters is an aging hippie surfer (played by Peter Fonda), a smarmy scam artist, Eddie (Steve Buscemi), and a former cohort from his adventure in Cleveland (prior to the movie), "Carjack", who has been transformed into a transsexual leader of a competing gang, Hershe (Pam Grier).  I really liked Hershe and despite the obvious accoutrements on her chest, I had to watch the end credits to see if he or she was played by a male or a female... Pam Grier pulls off an incredible performance for a movie of this caliber.
Map to the Stars Eddie



Much of the movie, as in it's predecessor, involves Snake trying to overcome delays in his quest, including a great scene in which he has to score 10 points on a basketball court against a countdown timer which will mean his execution if he doesn't score the points in time.  And of courso, Cuervo Jones has to have his own stylish ride.  The film is a little too dark for me to see, but it appears that there is a disco ball on the trunk.  What purpose it serves, I have no idea...

Having a (disco) ball.  Wish you were here. 

Snake eventually nabs the device, and, against his explicit instructions, takes the daughter back to the mainland.  The President, showing his completely nasty side, has the daughter taken to the electric chair and demands the device from Snake.  As his timer runs out, it is shown that he was lied to about the virus.  It was just a very intense flu, not a lethal toxin.   Snake still has an ace up his sleeve (this is Snake Plissken, after all). Remember the holographic projector he was given?  Well, he finally gets a chance to use it.  Nuff said.  You have to watch the movie to see how it all comes out.

Well, the theater has just gone dark, so it's time to crank up the old Plymouth Fury and see if I can dodge the mines.  Drive safely kiddies.  BTW, are you curious about that Plymouth?  Here it is for you to enjoy.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

Bad Apples

This is my entry in the Great Villain Blogathon being hosted by Speakeasy, Silver Screenings and Shadows and Satin

Villains come in all shapes and sizes.  There are the megalomaniacal demigods bent on the destruction of humanity.  There are the egocentric geniuses who want to rule the world (or at least be given millions of dollars to not attempt it.)  There are extraterrestrial gurus of an esoteric religion bent on following the will of their master at any cost (and the master, too, falls into this villain  category).  There are even snide mustachioed ne'er-do-wells who will do whatever it takes to get the deed to a ranch held by the daughter of a deceased rancher.

Sometimes, however, the villain can come in unexpected forms.  The villain can be just a normal every day guy like you'd meet on the street, but who, through some quirk of fate or bad decisions turned to a darker side.  He may not be evil or have evil intentions, per se, but just have a nastier bent to his personality.  And said nastier bent may not be present until later in life (although if you have an existential bent you may say it was there all along and just took longer to come to the fore).

Paul Gleason had a very good career, and played a few nasty characters in his career.  Not all were villains.  Some were just nasty by nature: Coach Hisler in Johnny Be Good.  And some were dedicated professionals who let their higher status get the better of them by making rash and ultimately futile decisions: Deputy Police Chief Robinson in Die Hard (Although it should be noted that Gleason was topped for the top sleazebag role in that one by William Atherton as a TV journalist, not discounting the actual villains, the terrorists).

Gleason had a list of credits, mostly TV appearances, including a stand as a character on the daytime soap opera All My Children, but I think it's safe to say most people never saw him before his appearance as the nefarious Clarence Beeks in Trading Places, or possibly even before his most iconic role as Assistant Principal Vernon in The Breakfast Club.

Trading Places (1983)  

Gleason was a topnotch villain playing a greedy stooge, Clarence Beeks,  to the wiles of a pair of ultra-rich brothers, the Dukes (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche).

The movie, a variation on the Mark Twain story The Prince and the Pauper, involves an executive and upper class snob, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), who, through the machinations of his bosses, the brothers Duke, is made to be a convict and an outcast of society. At the same time a street conman and ghetto refugee, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), is catapulted from his surroundings to the job vacated by Winthorpe, through the same Dukes.  In any other review, the Dukes themselves could be considered the villains of the piece.  But I'd like to concentrate on Beeks, the Gleason character.

Ostensibly Beeks is a representative of a security firm given the duty of transferring information (although we don't find this out until the mid-point of the movie).  He has been seduced by the Dukes and their money to do their nefarious deeds.  In the beginning of the movie it is established that he is going to give the Dukes the orange crop report before it is made national news, thus giving them an edge in the stock market for the fictional "frozen concentrated orange juice" market.

The brothers hire Beeks to plant evidence of theft on Winthorpe, and to have him humiliated at his private club, and then arrested.  He is also given the task of corrupting a police officer to plant drugs on Winthorpe during his strip search.  Beeks also gives a hooker a task of embarrassing Winthorpe by pretending he is her drug dealer in front of his fiancee, thus completing the job of throwing Winthorpe to the dogs, so to speak.

Meanwhile, Beeks has still been entrusted with the secret transfer of information to the Dukes on the status of the orange crop.  In the process of the main plot of the movie Winthorpe and Valentine discover what the Dukes have done with their individual lives and the secret plot involving  Beeks as well.   They plan to intercept Beeks en route and take over the information.  This occurs on a New Year's Eve train ride in which Jim Belushi plays an over-indulgent participant in the NYE costume festivities (dressed as a gorilla)  and Al Franken and Tom Davis play a couple of dimwitted baggage handlers entrusted with the duty of helping transport a male gorilla (see this one coming?) back to Africa.

To accomplish this transfer the four (including Winthorpe's former butler, Coleman (Denholm Elliott), and the hooker who is now his friend (Jamie Lee Curtis) pose as various people to try to catch Beeks off guard and pull the old switcheroo on his classified information.  But he gets wise before they can pull it off.

 Ultimately, of course, the four good guys do regain the upper hand (if you were expecting anything different you haven't watched enough of these movies).  In the process, Beeks gets knocked out and dressed up in Belushi's gorilla costume and stuffed in the cage with the real gorilla.  He is mistaken for a female (FEMALE???!!!)  gorilla by the two brain-dead baggage handlers and shipped off to Africa.

Since this review is only about Beeks, I will leave off the ending for another review someday.  Needless to say we never hear from Beeks again.  I hope he and his gorilla companion were able to make a happy transition in Africa.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

The stars of this movie are what the media referred to as the "Brat" Pack (after the Rat Pack of the 60's; Sinatra, Martin et. al.)The Brat pack consisted of a group of young 20's aged actors from the 1980's.  These included Rob Lowe, Robert Downey, Jr. and Andrew McCarthy, not featured in this movie, and the stars of this movie:  Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy.

The five are reluctant high school students having to serve a Saturday of detention at Shermer High School, presided over by our second Gleason villain, Assistant Principal Richard Vernon.  (It's no coincidence that a common nickname for one named Richard is "Dick").  Gleason exudes contempt for these "malcontents" as he views them from the very beginning.

Throughout the movie "Dick" is in a constant battle trying to exert his control over the crowd.  His main vituperative attitude however is reserved for John Bender (Judd Nelson) who becomes the figurative antihero of the piece, doing for the others what they are too timid to do, that is stand up to the villain.    This animosity towards each other becomes apparent early on when asked if there are any questions, Bender responds with "yeah.  Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?"

The bitter feud between the two escalates with Vernon adding detention upon detention and warning Bender "Don't mess with the bull.  You'll get the horns."

Eventually, Vernon loses all control and drags Bender to a storeroom and locks him in it, even going so far as to threaten to kick his ass one day when he, Bender, has finally left the school.  A side note has Vernon digging through the school's personal files  and being caught by the janitor doing so.  After apparently paying off the janitor to keep quiet about it, the two have an intimate moment of reflection where Vernon reveals a personal side which (almost) makes him seem sympathetic.  It seems he was once an idealist teacher, but has grown more and more disgusted with what he sees as the future with the kids who will become the future adults in charge.

To Vernon's credit, the students do just about anything in their power to egg him on, albeit much of it done at the behest of the de facto leader of these rebels, Bender.  Vernon, however, while no Darth Vader, is a guy who an entire generation came to hate.  He doesn't really get the comeuppance he deserves, although the kids do manage to try to put him in his place with the report they are given to write.

Gleason passed away in 2006 from mesothelioma, a disease that he probably got from working with asbestos when he was a young man working for his father.  He is a pleasure to watch in action in his available film performances, though.

Thus ends this week's entry folks.  Be sure to buckle up before leaving the theater.



Saturday, May 7, 2016

We Gotta Get Out of This Place

Note:  I originally intended for this piece to be a double feature with Von Ryan's Express, but after watching the movie again (for about the 20th time) and watching all the special features that came with my DVD, I decided to devote the whole entry to just one movie.

There are two kinds of war movies that really get my juices flowing.  One is the shoot-em-up, lots of explosions, gritty down-and-dirty soldier action movie, like Patton The Longest DayA Bridge Too Far or Battle of Britain.   The second is one in which prisoners of war deal with the day-to-day life behind the barbed wire and guards of the enemy.

One of the absolute best of the second type is a 1963 movie based on real WWII events called The Great Escape.   The Great Escape  was based on a book by Paul Brickhill which described the attempts by a group of Allied P.O.W.s being held in a German P.O.W. camp.  The Allies, which consisted of mostly English Air Force officers, with a smattering crewmen of other nations, banded together to dig a tunnel from Stalag Luft III.

When published in 1950, it became a sensation, and came to the attention of John Sturges, a very respected director in Hollywood.  He had a rough road convincing anyone to film the movie because it was not an overwhelmingly successful escape attempt in the first place.  (Only 3 of the prisoners were successful in escape and 50 of the recaptured prisoners were executed by the Gestapo).  Many bigwigs in Hollywood turned it down, too, because they thought it was unfilmable.  Sturges finally got the go-ahead from the brothers Mirisch, who had found the Mirisch Company a few years earlier and were willing to back it.  Based on a budget of $4 million dollars, Sturges and company began production.

The movie, despite the misgivings of people in Hollywood, was a success.  It made over $11 million on it's initial investment, not the numbers created by It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (a fellow film from the same year), but still a respectable return.  And it continues to be a popular movie even today.  It starred an ensemble cast, which included Steve McQueen, James Garner and (Sir) Richard Attenborough above the title, with co-stars such as James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, David McCallum, Jud Taylor, and a host of others.

This will be a rather different style of entry from previous blog entries.  Rather than tell you the entire story from start to finish, I decided to focus on each actor and their character individually.  Note that these entries will occur in the order that they appear on screen at the beginning, not necessarily how important they are to the movie.

Angus Lennie:  as Archibald Ives, "The Mole

Ives is by far the shortest of all members of the camp.  He states early on that before the war his job was as a horse jockey.  Since he is an airman, it makes one wonder how he got in, since shorter people were generally not accepted into the Air Corps.  But that's American standard, so perhaps it was different in the RAF.  Ives is known as the "Mole" because of his many escape attempts underground, including a key one he plans with Hilts at the early part of the film.  Ives puts on an excellent front for the Nazis, but the truth is he is on the verge of a mental breakdown due to his long incarceration in the P.O.W. system.  When the Nazis discover the main tunnel and it looks like his hopes of escape are dashed, he finally does have that breakdown.

For more Lennie:  Oh! What a Lovely War, One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing

Steve McQueen:  as Virgil Hilts, "The Cooler King"

Hilts is, what von Luger refers to as a "hotshot pilot".  This is the quintessential McQueen character, someone who refuses to buckle under, refuses to kowtow to his captors, and has a "never say die" attitude towards his many escape attempts.  Never without his baseball and glove, he almost cheerfully welcomes each session in the "cooler" (the isolation chamber which is probably anything but "cool" especially in the summer).  Hilts is one of three Americans (although, technically, Hendley was in the RAF before his capture) in the camp.  It is noted by the special features section of my DVD that by the time of the actual escape, there were no longer any Americans in the camp; they had all been transferred to a different camp.  But this being Hollywood, it was understood that without any American soldiers in the movie, it would not sell well in the U.S.  And, in fact, most of the P.O.W.s from the original camp who were still alive gave their assent, saying that without American help in the early stages, the tunnel may not have been built.  It's a sure bet no one escaped by using a motorcycle as Hilts does here, but here again concessions were made.  McQueen only agreed to do the movie if he could show off his skills on the motorcycle.

For more McQueen:   The Blob, Bullitt, Papillon, The Getaway.

James Garner: as Robert Hendley, "the Scrounger"

Garner plays an American, but one who was a flier in the RAF Eagle Squadron, apparently having enlisted there before the Americans entered WWII.  He plays a wily and quick-witted ne'er-do-well who uses his charm and cunning to acquire many of the tools and copies of papers that need to be forged for the escapees.  He has a couple of great scenes with Robert Graf who plays an enemy soldier, one of the few German soldiers we get to see fleshed out as bonafide characters.

For more Garner: The Rockford Files (TV Series), Support Your Local Gunfighter, Victor/Victoria

Nigel Stock:  as Dennis Cavendish, "The Surveyor"

Stock has Cavendish has an important duty for the building of the tunnel, but his main purpose in the movie appears to be providing comedy relief.  Some of the funniest parts of the movie involve Cavendish being the butt of the joke in the scene.  This is all well and good as many of the movies I have seen Stock in he plaqyed comedic characters.

For more Stock: Young Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes (BBC Series)

David McCallum:  as Eric Ashley-Pitt, "Dispersal"

McCallum, probably best known as Illya Kuryakin in the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., her plays a Royal Navy officer who is significant to the story as having found an ingenious way to get rid of the dirt being brought up from the tunnel.  Ultimately he sacrifices himself to try to help Bartlett get away after they have made it out of the camp into the railway station nearby during the crucial scenes after the escape attempt.

For more McCallum: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (TV Series), NCIS (TV Series)

James Coburn:  as Louis Sedgewick, "The Manufacturer"

Although Coburn was an American actor added as a draw to American audiences, here he plays a New Zealander.  He is a likable character who insists on carting a suitcase with him every where he goes.  You never get to see what's in the "steamer trunk", as others in the movie call it, but it is hinted that he had a whole camping gear set up inside it, scenes of which never got filmed due to time and budget constraints. Coburn and Bronson have one of the best tete-a-tetes in the movie, IMO.  Early in the movie Bronson and Coburn are trying to pose as Russian prisoners in order to walk out of the camp.  Sedgewick asks Danny if he speaks Russian:

Velinski: Yes, but only one phrase.
Sedgewick: Well, let's have it.
Velinski: Ya vas lyublu.
Sedgewick: (repeating) ya vas lyublu, ya vas lyublu.  What's it mean?
Velinski: "I love you."
Sedgewick: I love you...what bloody good is that?
Velinski:  I don't know. I wasn't going to use it myself.

For more Coburn:  The Magnificent Seven , In Like Flint, Cross of Iron, Affliction.

Charles Bronson:  as Danny Velinski, "The Tunnel King"

Velinski is a Polish refugee who escaped Nazi held Poland and went to England to join up in the fight against the Nazis.  He is the main "tunnel king", but suffers from claustrophobia, which is not revealed until the second half of the movie.  Bronson's character is by far the most intriguing of the characters aside from Hilts.  He and Dickes are the ones most often seen when scenes of the tunnel being dug are shown.  Along with Dickes, Velinski is one of the three characters who are shown to have been successful in the escape.

For more Bronson:  Death Wish, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, The Mechanic.

John Leyton:  as William Dickes, "The Tunnel King"

Dickes, a buddy to Velinski, the other tunnel king, really doesn't have that much of a meaty part in the film compared to the rest of the cast.  His main pupose in the film, it appears, is to keep Velinski focused and help keep him from himself and his ghosts involving his claustrophobia. At one point he has to talk Velinski out of trying to escape through the wire (which is sure to get him killed) and join in the tunnel escape occuring the next day.   Dickes' character is also one of the three prisoners who succeeds in the escape attempt.

more Leyton: Krakatoa, East of Java, Von Ryan's Express, Was also a singing sensation in the UK.

James Donald: as Capt. Ramsey, Senior Officer

Ramsey is the authority figure of the piece.  The authority within the camp that is.  He serves as the final say in any judgments that need to be made concerning how the main escape is being planned, as well as any extra-curricular escape attempts (see above).  Because of his limp, more than anything else, I would guess, he is not one of the prisoners who are lined up to attempt the big escape.

For more Donald: Lust for Life, Cast a Giant Shadow

Gordon Jackson:  as Andrew MacDonald, "Intelligence"

MacDonald is, in essence, 2nd in-command behind Bartlett in the digging of the tunnel.  He is in almost every scene when Bartlett finally appears on the scene, and is in charge of developing the system by which the camp can be alerted whenever the guards are near so they can prevent the tunnels from being discovered.  As a Scotsman, he is also a boon companion to Ives.  You don't see much of the character in the movie, but his influence remains, due to his planning of the "system of stooges" as her calls it.  And he also makes a good presence when on screen.

For more Jackson:  Jackson was in a lot of movies before and after this, but never as much of a presence as here.

Hannes Messemer:  as von Luger, the Kommandant

von Luger is the head of the P.O.W. camp.  It is very interesting to watch Messemer essay the character.  Often he seems rather exasperated, wanting dearly to have things go smoothly, despite the fact that he has a bunch of hardened escapees trying to make a run for it at every turn.  You get the feeling that von Luger does not side with the ruthless Nazi that the image of cinema has given us over the years, and that he would be much happier relaxing with a pipe and a schnapps at his villa in the Rhine valley than having to exert his officer status at the camp.  Of all the German officers in this film, his is the most sympathetic, making much more a shame to watch him as he has to reveal to Captain Ramsey the truth about 50 of his fellow P.O.W.s.

For more Messemer:  If you speak or understand German, be my guest...

Donald Pleasence:  as Colin Blythe, "The Forger"

Blythe is the most unoffensive person you'd ever want to meet.  A good natured fellow, he would prefer to be bird watching.  He went out for a joy ride, and got shot down and has been a P.O.W. ever since.  His job is creating forged documents for all the escapees.  He goes blind towards the end seriously threatening his place in the line for being one of the escapees.

For more Pleasence:  Halloween (I, II, IV and, V), You Only Live Twice, THX 1138.

Richard Attenborough:  Roger Bartlett, "Big X"

Bartlett, code named "Big X", is the planner of the escape tunnels.  Attenborough plays him with a passion to create havoc, although he states it is not for revenge for what they have done to him.  Bartlett, course, is one of the escapees in the film.  He has one hell of a time trying to evade capture, but his face is recognizable by every Gestapo agent he has ever met, and so as a result is re-captured, not albeit without some entertaining suspenseful scenes of his pursuit and attempts to avoid familiar faces.

For more Attenborough:  The Sand Pebbles, A Bridge Too FarJurassic Park .  Gandhi (director)

Even though I've given away the ending (and it's not like you probably couldn't figure it out on your own) I think I've left enough out to make it well worth checking out this movie.  Each character is wonderfully well played, even many of the Germans.  (BTW, the production company cast mostly real Germans for the major German parts, some of which had actually been on the other side during the war.  The special features on my DVD says many of them were gung-ho about doing it as a catharsis for the remaining guilt they felt as being enemy soldiers).

Well that's all for this time, folks.  Be sure to show your passes to the guards at the gates as you leave.