The Greatest Ensemble Cast You’ve Never Seen
If there’s one thing I’m constantly doing, it’s recommending movies to other people. If I’ve seen a great movie recently, I’ll talk about it for days. The same is true for horrible movies. (Speaking of which, don’t ever watch Lady and the Tramp 2 under any circumstances).
The problem that I’m constantly facing in recommending movies is the expression of confusion I receive at the movies I recommend. The same scrunching of the nose, the tilt of the head. Then, the final blow.
“I’ve never heard of that movie. Who’s in it?”
When I tell them the actors, their expressions grow even more confused. “Who? I’ve never heard of him.”
We’re fortunate in today’s generation to have so many popular, recognizeable actors. And when popular actors get together, they make great ensemble casts. Look at the gang from The Avengers or Red. Look at Judd Apatow’s acting troupe, or when celebrities get together to provide voices for film. If you have a great ensemble cast full of great, strong actors, you can do just about anything.
Which brings me to today’s discussion. I am here to recommend a film. Because if you want to know the greatest ensemble cast you’ve probably never seen, you’re gong to find it here. And it’s found in the 1963 film, The Great Escape.
Here is the film’s most basic premise, without giving too much away. After having a problem with various escape artists in different POW camps throughout Germany, the Nazis decide to “put all their rotten eggs in one basket”. They create a camp just for all of the escape artists to be kept. Little do they realize that in doing this, they have just assembled one of the greatest escape think tanks that the world has ever seen. It isn’t long before plans are already underway, and everyone needs to do their part.
If you’re not convinced yet, consider this. The film is based on a true story, which was originally a book by the same name written by one of the men in the camp.
You’re a little bit interested now, aren’t you? Then keep reading. Don’t stop now.
While most of the cast will be new, there are a few familiar faces. The first time I saw the film, it took me forever to figure out where I knew Richard Attenborough from, who plays the commanding officer of the film. I finally realized that I was looking at the face of Santa Claus from Miracle on 34th Street and Professor John Hammond, creator of Jurassic Park.
Steve McQueen will no doubt be a new face to some, but is very much steeped in Hollywood. After all, there’s a reason why Lightning McQueen from Cars has that name. McQueen was often known for not only his thrilling car chase scenes but his personal collection of cars and habit of racing them. Acting has also carried on in his family. Fans of The Vampire Diaries will immediately see the resemblance between this McQueen and his grandson, Steven R. McQueen.
James Garner remains one of those “Oh yeah, I know him from something” actors. A veteran of both the small (The Rockford Files, 8 Simple Rules) and big screen, he’s been in countless movies. The one that the majority of people will recognize him from? The Notebook, where he not only acts in the film but provides the majority of the narration.
Much like the crew of Judd Apatow’s, members of this film often went on to work together in other films, the most notable if which is The Magnificent Seven. The film featured three of the original cast: Bronson, McQueen, and Coburn. But each of the cast members would go on to work on at least one other film with someone from the cast, most often with McQueen or Bronson.
Every character has their own role, and way they play it. James Garner is his loveable self trying to make the most of a bad situation. Steve McQueen is the resident bad boy looking for a way out. Donald Pleasance is the geeky forger. Charles Bronson is the hard shell with the soft centre. Richard Attenborough is the hard-nosed organizer with no time for fun. James Coburn is the guy who just wants to to all be over with. Together, they’re nothing short of magic.
The most important thing to having a successful ensemble cast is that they all remain strong without overpowering each other. The characters and the actors all need to be able to carry their own stories and scenes as well, and still have the ability to be part of a bigger group. This is a perfect example of where it happens, and the escape plan is the vehicle through which it happens. Everyone has their own job to do and their own expectations as part of the whole. As the audience, we watch them work together to get this done. But in addition to this, we find out more about the individual identities of the characters themselves, how they got their, what they have come to believe in, and what they fear the most. We watch them form bonds, develop loyalties, and even make friends. But we also know that no matter what, in times of war, not everyone is going to make it. So enjoy them all while you can.
One of the easiest things in the world would be for me to say “Oh, I can’t describe it! Just watch it!” But you don’t know me and odds are that’s not a convincing enough case. And with a film that’s just under three hours, I can’t say I’d blame you.
Here’s what I will tell you. If you like action and explosions, then this is not the film for you. If you like deep psychological explorations into the human soul, then this is also not for you. If, however, you’re tired of the same old movies with the same predictable elements, then you want to watch this. It will only take one viewing. And I’ll even go so far as to say this: give it half an hour. If you’re not hooked after half an hour, turn it off. But be prepared to be completely pulled in and curious. Choose your favourite character and sit back to watch what happens. You will become a part of these men, become a member of the camp. Because this movie is one of a kind, and you’ll never see anything else quite like it.