Book Review – Dreams of Flight: “The Great Escape” in American Film and Culture

In the history of rousing action cinema few movies are as revered or have produced such a collective cinematic response as John Sturges’ World War 2 POW picture The Great Escape (1963) starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough and a host of upcoming stars including The Magnificent Seven alumni James Coburn and Charles Bronson,  

Dana Polan’s rich assessment of the film’s making coupled with a superb analysis of the film itself, script, style, themes and directorial bravura is filled with informative nuggets. Eschewing the standard star bio approach, Polan goes much deeper to detail how earlier adaptations for American television and Australian radio (made by novelist Morris West’s company and with Rod Taylor as a German guard) affected the film, how it fitted into the British POW tradition (The Colditz Story etc) and the influence of an American offshoot like Stalag 17.

You might already be familiar with the work of Dana Polan since he has written books on Pulp Fiction, The Sopranos and Jane Campion and another half-dozen books besides. This is an excellent addition to his impressive portfolio.

Paul Brickhill, author of The Great Escape (and other war classics The Dam Busters and Reach for the Sky) had been an inmate at Stalag Luft III so drew on personal experience – including that of tunnel digger – and sketches made at the time of the tunnels to turn out, as co-writer, a precursor Escape to Danger. It was either interviews relating to this or a magazine article or condensation that alerted neophyte director Sturges in 1945/1946 to a potential film. The book, published in 1950, sold a million copies in paperback in the UK alone and was a huge global success. And for independent producers Mirisch, for whom Sturges later made The Magnificent Seven, buying the rights was integral to the director’s pact with that company in 1957 and indeed The Great Escape was mooted as his debut picture for them. When finally greenlit, it was intended to be shot in the U.S. with only 10 per cent taking place in Europe. That it went the other way was due to an unusual set of circumstances.

In his analysis of the picture, Polan makes other interesting connections, first of all to the caper picture where each character has a specific task to contribute to the overall effort. Unusually for a heroic film, he points out that courage is continually undercut, each uplifting moment leading to defeat, the film itself having an essentially downbeat ending, the only true victory found in defiance. And in some respects The Great Escape created a bridge between the gung-ho war films of the 1950s and the more cynical approach to war envisioned in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now.

Being British, it had never occurred to me how important the baseball glove was to American culture, the glove representing for many a “certain brand of American problem-solving in the face of adversity” although far more universally accepted would be the premise of the motorcycle escape representing the triumph of the spirit even as it results in a more down to earth resolution.

Tracing Sturges’ stylistic development back to post-WW2 B-movies made for Columbia explains the importance of the trademark parabolic shot in driving action forward. Yet for all his stylistic bravura, Sturges was very grounded when it came to the work required to make pictures, for example here adopting coloured index cards to shuffle around pieces of action to best effect.

The script went through various hands – William Roberts and Walter Newman, both integral to The Magnificent Seven, but was finally credited to crime writer W.R. Burnett (who had worked with Sturges on Sergeants 3, 1962) and James Clavell (who adapted The Satan Bug, 1965), himself a POW in a Japanese camp with British writer Ivan Moffat (Giant, 1956) coming in at the last minute as script doctor. A breakdown of the various scripts attributes the Hilts’ cooler baseball bouncing to Moffat who also wrote the scene that changed Hilts from loner to participant.

In a terrific appendix you can discover exactly the problems facing the real escapees and who came up with the book title (clue – not the author) four years after the idea originally surfaced. There’s a fascinating coda about the film’s impact on Hollywood and general culture and Polan takes time out to reflect on the experience of various fans on their virgin encounter with the picture. The movie was a big hit and so well received that when critic Bosley Crowther wrote a negative review the “New York Times” postbag was filled with complaints. Written with tremendous authority and great style, this is one book you would want to find in your Xmas stocking.

Dreams of Flight: The Great Escape in American Film and Culture by Dana Polan is published by University of California Press at $24.95 / £20 in both paperback & ebook.  ISBN 9780520379305. It is available on Amazon and Kindle.

https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520379305/dreams-of-flight

When Alistair MacLean Quit – “The Satan Bug” (1965)

Scrolling down the credits for The Satan Bug (1965) you might have been surprised to discover that the film was based not on a book by Alistair MacLean but by one Ian Stuart. Yes, this turned out to be a pseudonym but you might be asking yourself why on earth did a world-famous thriller writer need to employ a pseudonym.

Pseudonyms were generally used for two reasons, and most often in genre fiction. Firstly, they were utilized by authors who were far from world-famous and needed to churn out four or five books a year to make a living. In those days only the likes of Agatha Christie or Simenon could get away with producing three or four books annually without the public getting fed up with their output. Long before the likes of the prolific Danielle Steel or James Patterson showed publishers that the public would devour anything they produced, it was considered ruinous to your career to be seen to be turning out more than one book a year.

Salvatore Lombino wrote under the pseudonyms of Ed McBain (the 87th Precinct series), Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle etc), Richard Marsten, and Hunt Collins. Most famous under his own name, British author John Creasey (The Toff series) had 27 pseudonyms including J.J. Marric (the Gideon books) and Anthony Morton (The Baron series) as well as a number of different names for his westerns and romances.  A famous author wanting to dip a toe into a new genre was the other common reason a pseudonym came into play, the outstanding recent example being J.K. Rowling who turned to crime under the name of Robert Galbraith.

Alistair MacLean fell into neither of these categories. An unexpected success, the Scottish schoolteacher hit the jackpot with his debut HMS Ulysses in 1955, a straightforward war novel, and two years later bestseller The Guns of Navarone which was turned into a movie. He followed up with another four thrillers in four years under his own name, the last being Fear Is the Key (1961).

The reissued 1969 hardback while retaining the Ian Stuart name on the cover
links the book to Alistair Maclean in the inside flap.

By this point, MacLean, a somewhat touchy individual, had become exceedingly annoyed at the treatment his manuscripts received at the hands of his publisher Collins. In particular, he was often taken to task by editors for making simple errors like confusing “of” with “off.” But more importantly, editors treated his books as if they should be met with a rejection slip – in fact it was strongly suggested that the author set aside his third book South by Java Head in favor of something else – rather than slung out to an adoring public. As his biographer Jack Webster put it, he felt “very much like a pupil under severe pressure from a master.” It would have been humiliating for an English teacher to be told off for his use of English. The editors also complained there were too many incidents which made the books hard to read rather than enrapturing the reader.

While no doubt every author gets picked up for momentary lapses or for elements of the story that need reconsideration, it was clear to MacLean that his publishers were taking a very snobbish attitude to his output rather than falling over themselves to have in their possession such a cash cow. MacLean also felt that his books only sold so well because his name was attached. Every book was “by the author of HMS Ulysses” or, after the fantastic success of the movie, “by the author of The Guns of Navarone.” He was beginning to feel more of a unwelcome commodity than a cherished asset. And he had already made so much money from his millions of books sales and additional revenues from film studios -£30,000 for HMS Ulysses for example – that he did not need to listen to his publishers.

In fact, matters had come to a head with Fear Is the Key (1961), his least successful book. Clearly this provided his enemies in the publishing house with the opportunity to gloat and to attempt to force him to listen to their superior wisdom and toe their line But for MacLean Fear Is the Key was an experiment, a deliberate change of writing style. “What I’m trying to do is develop a technique of completely impersonal story-telling in the first person”  – in essence the reader would see action unfold as if through the eye of a camera. His publishers, who appeared to view sales as the only measure of a book’s success, felt otherwise. After one too many clashes with the Collins hierarchy, he took himself off to renowned agent Curtis Brown who welcomed him with open arms and none of the niggling that marked his dealings with the publishers. While Collins would remain his British publisher, Curtis Brown took on the task of invigorating foreign rights.

Having snared what they expected was a golden goose, you can imagine Curtis Brown’s astonishment on being told that the first book they were to sell under this new deal would not bear the name of Alistair MacLean. It would be by an unknown author – Ian Stuart. The Dark Crusader (retitled The Black Shrike for U.S. readers) was set in Australia and concerned a hunt for missing scientists. Never mind previous antipathy between author and publisher, Collins hated this book, complaining about over-complicated plot, boring characters, and improbable action. It was “a thoroughly bad book.” MacLean was incensed: “If the book is as bad as you say and you obviously lack faith in it, can you genuinely imagine that I believe you will honestly and sincerely get behind it in promotion, publishing and selling?”

Desperate to retain the author and hoping that this experiment would be short-lived, especially if sales showed a marked downturn from the MacLean books, Collins agreed to publish it. Naturally, the only way to ensure that it reached any kind of sales peak rather than vanish into the chasms of oblivion that faced most new authors, Collins gave the book “by a new author” a heavy publicity campaign. The poorer sales did not dampen MacLean’s ardour for his pseudonym and he went to produce The Satan Bug by Ian Stuart, his faith in his decision justified when a Hollywood director of the caliber of John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, 1960), clearly seeing far greater potential in the novel than the publishers, snapped it up for production.

The rule breaker – the back cover of the 1962 U.S. paperback gives the game away and clearly, judging by the quote from King Features, the true author’s identity must have been in the public domain.

Myth has it that both The Dark Crusader and The Satan Bug played by the rules laid down by the author. But that did not turn out to be the case. The paperback edition of The Satan Bug published by Popular Library in 1962 on the back cover reveals the true author. In any case in due course the book was reissued under the MacLean moniker and is a far better example of the cinematic style the author was attempting to achieve than The Dark Crusader and became the template for his later books.

But, as it turned out, this was not the first time that Alistair MacLean would go on strike.

Catch Up: movies made from Alistair MacLean novels featuring in the Blog are The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Secret Ways (1961) and The Satan Bug (1965).

SOURCESAlistair MacLean by Jack Webster (Chapmans Publishing, 1962, paperback edition), pages 73, 89-90, 94-96, 112-117.  

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