I recently watched two films that had to do with prisoners escaping. Both were done well, but one was done much better than the other. I think it's a good case in film study.
The first film was The Great Escape, the 1963 star-filled movie which follows the true WWII story of a mass escape of Allied soldiers from a gulag in Poland. The iconic scene we all remember is Steve McQueen jumping his motorbike over the fence attempting to escape Germany to get into Switzerland. But the bulk of the 172 min. movie is about the planning of the escape, which gave the filmmakers time to well develop the multitude of characters, something they decided not to do.
I feel the script, based off of the 1950 Paul Brickhill book, spent far too much time during the first two acts on the minutia of developing the escape plan, at the expense of deeply developing the characters. This is compounded by the fact that the Nazi Commander seems far too light-hearted about the multiple escape attempts. This is a classic case of a too-reserved antagonist, which hurts the entire story, because the stakes never feel as high as they should.
I enjoyed The Great Escape. Though each of the three acts dragged far too long, it was mostly engaging from beginning to end. But if the characters, both Allied and Nazi, had been better developed, the film would have worked at a much higher level.
The second film I watched is the much beloved The Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 Frank Darabont film based off of a Stephen King short story. It seems eternally stuck on the top of the IMDB250. You rarely hear a bad word about it, except from the extreme film snobs who dislike it because of its popularity.
What Shawshank does so much better than The Great Escape, is it focuses heavily on character development. It's able to do this because there are few main characters to develop. Though we remember Andy and Red, perhaps the most important character is the antagonist, Warden Norton, who we quickly come to hate. The prisoners suffer greatly, and because of this, the stakes are sky-high for the escape.
I believe both of these films are slightly overrated. I enjoyed both, but not as much as most people. Shawshank is clearly the best of the two, for many reasons, but mainly because of character development, which becomes evermore important as audiences become more sophisticated.
My Great Escape rating: 7.5
My Shawshank Redemption rating: 9.0
Jon David Rosten, author of
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