On one hand, Dana Polan’s Dreams of Flight does exactly what we might expect a monograph devoted to a single film to do: provide a meticulously detailed analysis of its production history and formal qualities. On the other hand, this book expands in myriad and often surprising directions as it traces not only the many sources and influences of the classic 1963 film The Great Escape, but its resonances across time as well—in popular culture and even within individuals’ hearts and imaginations. As Polan states, “My goal in the following pages is to account for both the making of the film and how the tale of the escape has contributed—both before and after this film adaptation’s release—to a legacy of memory, fandom, and ongoing pop-culture referencing” (20). Thus, readers of this excellent book will be rewarded twofold, gaining both a deep appreciation for this film (or, for those who are already fans, a deeper appreciation) and a rich understanding of the many ways in which The Great Escape connects with its moment in Hollywood history and with American culture from the 1960s until today.
Adapted from an autobiographical book by Paul Brickhill from 1950, The Great Escape is a POW “escape film” directed by John Sturges and featuring an ensemble cast that includes Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Donald Pleasance, among others. The film followed a number of other World War II “escape” books and films, many of them British, but Dreams of Flight is precise in showing how The Great Escape marks a turn in that genre from an upbeat, “fun” tone to one of pessimistic cynicism (69). In fact, Polan aligns this film with a broader change in the sensibilities found in Hollywood cinema, writing that “The Great Escape looks back to a golden Hollywood of action entertainment, but it also is arguably very much a Sixties film with all the doubts, tensions, contradictions and so on that infiltrated into or explode explicitly outward from the critical films of the period” (11). As an escape film, specifically, The Great Escape coordinates also with broader notions that “modern life is a prison” that were circulating in art and culture at the time.
As a work of film history, Dreams of Flight is remarkable for the extent and imaginative richness of the research materials it brings to bear. Polan clearly aimed to be exhaustive in tracking down any tidbit related to the film, and his infectiously animated prose gives the sense that he quite enjoyed the process. For instance, in its tracing of the many precursors to The Great Escape, the book provides analyses of two earlier adaptations of Brickhill’s book, a teleplay that aired on NBC in 1951 and a radio adaptation broadcast in Australia in 1954, neither of which has received scholarly attention before. Polan analyzes how various forces and important individuals shaped the making of the film, including director Sturges, the Mirisch production company, multiple screenwriters, and the fact that it was shot in Germany at a moment when Hollywood was producing fewer films on location internationally.
Even more strikingly, in my opinion, Polan gracefully interweaves specific individuals’ recollections and impressions of The Great Escape with the more conventional historical materials examined in the book. Through conversations and email exchanges, Polan gathered numerous responses to the film from a seemingly wide range of people, including friends, colleagues, and individuals associated with its making in some fashion. Through his inclusion of this material, Polan further indicates how multifaceted The Great Escape is, to the point of being refracted wildly, even kaleidoscopically, through people’s lives. This is a history of a single film, based on rigorous research, that also pushes against pure facticity by reminding us how the importance of any movie resides in the way it moves its viewers. Polan declares his own attachment to the film as well, detailing how he saw it at a drive-in as a kid, and how much he liked it, and yet how much it confounded his expectations for a rousing, uplifting film with its various dispiriting moments and discouraging ending.
Polan is also interested in assessing the film’s textual construction, and while he (wisely) does not examine the entire film, he devotes a long chapter to analyzing specific scenes, moments, and their formal strategies. He looks at how camera angles and movement work in conjunction with editing, actors’ performances, and sound design, among other elements, to create a film of remarkable craftsmanship that is especially good at creating suspense and teamwork, as well as hope and dashed hope. He intersperses these close readings with several “interludes” that situate the film in a number of cultural and cinematic contexts, including its relation to the caper film and to cultural sensibilities of the 1960s. Thus, Polan gives the reader an account of the precise means by which The Great Escape works, textually, while also suggesting multiple ways in which its meanings are derived from a larger intertextual and discursive relay. Indeed, Polan closely examines many of the film’s “afterlives,” cataloguing how it has been referenced, directly and not, in countless instances of popular culture, including television ads that have drawn upon the film but twisted it into a representation of triumphant liberation. He also provides an extended comparison to the POW sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, which began airing just two years after the film was released. One gets a sense of how impactful this film has been, and yet also of how varied, even contradictory, a text can become as it gets reworked in culture.
Polan adds a final, complicating layer to this multidimensional study in an appendix that offers a concise but exacting account of the real historical events that inspired Brickhill’s book and, via adaptation, The Great Escape. This is especially thrilling to read if one’s only knowledge of the tale is through those sources, though Polan makes it clear that much discussion has already been devoted to the ways in which these texts deviate from the historical record, even as he marks those differences here. Yet, as in the rest of the book, this account is punctuated by specific individuals’ accounts of the history and its relation to The Great Escape—once again demonstrating how history is lived and made subjectively, which is not to say falsely. Dreams of Flight shows how The Great Escape has escaped its own apparent, and impressive, textual form.