In Britain, if you grew up in the 80's, there was a running joke that every Bank Holiday, Christmas, Easter, and any given Sunday, you'd be guaranteed to see certain films appear on our 4 channel TV's... Yes you heard that right... FOUR!!!
There was always a Bond film, always Superman movie, a "premiere" of some minor blockbuster from about 6 years prior...and at least one of a small group of "classic films".
Not classic in the sense of "that's so good" but to a kid, "classic Dad films" as in boring. It became a running joke nationally, there was Quo Vadis with Peter Ustinov fiddling as Rome burned and my namesake in the lead... that only ever interested me cos Deborah Kerr probably gave me my first boner in that film.
There was also Battle of Britain, Breakfast At Tiffiny's, The Italian Job, The Black Hole, Bridge Over The River Kwai, Hannibal Brooks (Every 6 weeks it seemed) and the two I'm gonna write about in the next few days.
The one joked about the most in our house was The Great Escape. Made in 1963 and with a running time of 3 hours it was the definition of dull for a kid...how little I knew.
One day, when there was literally nothing else to do and I had just left school, I found a video, my dad had taped the damn film... so I popped it in...and my world changed for 3 hours.
The first thing that struck me was this was colour, quite unusual for films of that time in my head. It seemed one of the most colourful films I'd ever seen. The theme got the blood pumping and within 20 minutes I was hooked, to this day there are only 2 films I can watch without at least one break of 3 hours... this and Shawshank.
As I became more of a movie fan, it became apparent how important The Great Escape was, it launched the A-list movie careers of James Coburn, James Garner, Steve McQueen and featured guys who I had only known from TV, like David McCallum and Gordon Jackson (I so nearly wrote a new Professionals cast) and guys I knew but had never properly watched like Donald Pleasance and Charles Bronson... Then of course the guy who I had just seen in Jurassic Park.
Sir Dickie Attenborough, who I had the honor of meeting once many years later at an Audience with event. This was the film that made me realize how good ALL these guys were. Today that cast would cost hundreds of millions to put together surely?
So with that in mind, let's go there shall we?
Some criteria first... The plot is unchanged, while not a shot for shot remake it'd be a very faithful adaptation and the characters largely the same... but I am not being precious on nationality... the best actor gets the role.
While it would be "cool" to get someone like Tarantino or Matthew Vaughn to direct, to me there is only one person suitable... Spielberg... he has done this material before with Empire of The Sun, Saving Private Ryan and Band Of Brothers, WWII POW's would be "well treated" cinematically as you know it's gonna have influenced him and I always got the sense he had one more epic blockbuster in him.
So without further ado... let the music and the credits roll and lets go back to 1943 and meet the X Organisation.
Sqn. Ldr. Roger Bartlett AKA Big X
The leader of the X Organisation and the bane of the Lutfwaffe and Gestapo's lives, Bartlett or Big X is the man responsible for organising more "blitzes" than any other. He is brave and daring but also very aware of the consequences of his actions and very much a true leader of men, he wants to take EVERYONE out but knows this is never possible.
He was played in the original by Richard Attenborough in one of his signature roles and with the exception of John Hammond and Kris Kringle it's his best loved.
Who could fit into this role today? There are two "name actors" who instantly come to mind, both of whom have ironically played the same cerebral character and who both do appear in this cast . This is a role where someone is however, going to play against type. our Big X is...
Robert Downey Jr.
Let's get it clear, he is not here to be Tony Stark in a prison camp, or Sherlock, none of his usual "tricks" work in this setting. This RDJ performance would be about a serious military man, with the terrible burden of duty to escape, knowing it could cost lives of those who have become his friends. Everyone expects him to play other characters or do the usual wizardry he performs. Not this time here's where he gets to go for that Best Actor Oscar in a role made famous by the man who directed him in Chaplin. You KNOW they talked about this movie and role while making that film and you KNOW RDJ was influenced by Attenborough, if done right it would be career defining.
Gp. Capt. Ramsey, the Senior British Officer (SBO)
The highest ranked of the British Officers and leader of the prisoners was not a small role in the first film, and was played to perfection by James Donald. This is an injured man, who knows what has to be done, while maintaining appearances and "cordial relations" with their captors, knowing that if successful, he will be staying behind to face the consequences.
Some of the "ideal" candidates are now a little old to convincingly play the role of someone still active enough to be shot down, Bill Nighy would have been perfect 15 years ago for example.
As most of his scenes are with Bartlett, chemistry is important for that reason he is played by.
This is no "Holmes & Watson" however, Ramsey is very much a superior officer to RDJ's Bartlett and there would be disagreements. Law has that right "stiff upper lip" quality, mixed with the acting ability to "take the lead" over other cast members without overshadowing their own performances. It'll be an interesting role reversal for two actors who clearly know each other well.
Flt. Lt. Robert Hendley, the "Scrounger"
Arguably the most pivotal character, the thing that made the original work so well was that you could buy into James Garner as someone who really could "get anything" and he gave birth to the MacGuyver and Templeton Peck type we know and love from old TV. Hendley was a guy who could manipulate without malice, get what he needs and still be a good man when he needed to be. Temptation here is to go with someone known for this kind of role, even who has done it before in other movies. But the one name that sticks out as being perfect for this is...
Cavil is very close to James Garner in many ways and could easily play that suave manipulator, yet be forceful when the time comes to fight another's corner.
Lt. Andrew MacDonald, "Intelligence"
This role set Gordon Jackson for life as Big X's able lieutenant, and the man who makes the fatal error that causes the plan to unravel. He played similar roles for the rest of his career. The obvious choice here is...
He is JUST the right side of being too old and has the "elder statesman" vibe that means he could have the respect of the men. He's also no stranger to ensemble acting in smaller but important roles, I can also just picture his face when he slips up at the train station.
Eric Ashley-Pitt, "Dispersal"
This was David McCallum's breakout role and while he mainly made his career in TV thereafter his part in this film is crucial. It needs someone able to hold the screen and be somewhat of the "younger" member of the group, he also makes arguably the biggest sacrifice to help others get away. For this role I'm going with...
Kingsman showed that he is comfortable playing military characters and he has a great resemblance to McCallum. If played differently, perhaps as an American or Irishman then Kingsman comparisons can be allayed and, like McCallum before him the youth in the camp can be shown properly.
Fg. Off. Louis Sedgwick, the "Manufacturer"
James Coburn's character was another crucial piece to the puzzle, despite his outrageously bad Australian accent. He was the guy responsible for the ventilation in the three tunnels and crucially is one of the only 3 who survive the escape in the original.
There is a no brain answer for this that I am not even going to try and avoid.
Admit it... you thought I was going to say Hugh Jackman didn't you?
While Jackman is also damn near perfect, he is just that bit too old now to really make it work. If he were 5 years younger the part is his, particularly with the French speaking later in the film... but he isn't and just as Coburn was the "Aussie Beefcake Who Can Act" in 1963, so is Hemsworth today. He has the humor to make the character work and the physical presence to be believable in making stuff. They can even throw in a hammer joke instead of the old "bunk bed wood missing" gag.
Flt. Lt. Danny Velinski, "Tunnel King"
Played by Charles Bronson, Danny is the man who has dug more tunnels than anyone, despite crippling claustrophobia. This needs a beast, just as Bronson was in 63 and it also needs someone who can have a buddy relationship as this is a crucial beat of the film. You know where this is going right?
Hardy has the look and it's somewhat fitting that the man who made his name playing the criminal version of Charles Bronson should take one of the signature roles of the original man. Hardy has the range to play the Polish pilot in his hubris and in despair when panic attacks hit... he just needs his friend.
Flt. Lt. William Dickes, "Tunnel King"
Willie is the 2nd part of the Tunnel team and he and Danny have a very close friendship, pivotal to the operation. Without Willie, there is no Danny as he can become a quivering mess once in the dirt.
Originally played by hearthrob singer John Leyton (he was in a film before the Beatles were) he had youth but a wisdom beyond his years. I've chosen a TV actor who has impressed a lot in recent months.
As Leo Fitz on Agents of Shield this guy has shown great chops in season 2, playing brain damaged but heroic and being someone who can rally in a crisis around stronger individuals and make them stronger. He can act those relationships well and you could easily see a "love/hate/blood brothers" vibe between he and Hardy in the movie. Danny probably wants to kill Willie to get out of that tunnel but Willie can always get him "back in the room".
Flt. Lt. Colin Blythe, the "Forger"
Colin is, for much of the film set up as comic relief, he's not an officer, not even supposed to be there, just hitching a ride on a recon flight that got shot down. As the movie progresses though, his skill at forging is integral to the plan and his gift becomes his curse as he loses his vision and becomes a danger, forcing Hendley to make a life altering choice to not leave him behind.
Donald Pleasance played this nicer than nice guy in the original, the scene with the pin is a lump in the throat moment. We have the perfect guy for this already in the mainstream... but it's a leftfield choice.
No motion capture or CGI, just his acting ability. I had other close run choices here, I think Andy Serkis could do the role a lot of justice and I have a "crazy" notion that Ricky Gervais could do it with the right approach, even Toby Jones at the outside. But Bettany is a top quality actor, just like Pleasance was and his new Avengers status gives him a chance to own a role like this. Bettany plays this role, he gets an Oscar nom. I'd put money on it.
Fg. Off. Archibald Ives, the "Mole"
Ives as played by the recently deceased Angus Lennie is a tragic cameo in many ways, but he's crucial to the heart of the film. He develops a close bond with Hilts in the "cooler" and is the reason he agrees to help the plan rather than just escape himself. He's intended to be younger and while many will call this "obvious" there really is no one better than.
Ive's death is the gutpunch that shows the stakes involved, much of the early part of the movie is brightened by Lennie's performance and his chirpy almost annoying optimism and innocence, despite being in a horrible situation. As he cracks, we crack. Pegg is someone the audience will love quickly and hate to see die violently early, anyone not "onside" with the others will be after that. Pegg would likely relish the chance to play a smaller role that is "geek friendly" but something different. Like I said, literally no one better.
Von Luger, the Kommandant
Remember back when we talked about Big X and there being 2 choices? Here is where the 2nd one appears. This was a relatively small role in the original, but crucial in that he suffers almost as horrific consequences for the escape and at heart knows that they all deserve their freedom. Yet he's a Nazi and not meant to be sympathetic... Who can make us feel like that?
15 years ago this was Gary Oldman or even Tom Hanks if he could sort the accent. Now however this belongs heart and soul to...
So nearly my pick for Big X, he'd bring much to the role but I felt that RDJ being "straight man" for a change would lead to the better performance. We KNOW Cumberbatch could play that role, but he'd be equally good if not better in a larger role than the original version of the head Nazi. He has the look, the stern demeanor and the right abilities to show Von Luger after the massacre that ends the film a mix of shame, disgust at what his bosses have done and fear at what awaits him, he and Law in that final scene...telling him 50 are dead... that's gonna be powerful stuff.
So that finally brings us to our "lead" if you like.
Capt. Virgil Hilts, the "Cooler King"
While not the biggest star at the time of the original, this movie launched Steve McQueen into not only the A-list but to iconic status, the now ubiquitous image of him riding a motorcycle, or the rousing finale when he returns and defiantly marches to the cooler with his trademark ball and glove. Hilts is the crucial ingredient that makes this a fun film rather than a dour one, every joke and quip, the moonshine, even his interactions with the "superior officers" were memorable. Hilts is the "don't let them take you" spirit of the whole picture. There's one guy right now I REALLY think could pull a similar performance out the bag.
He's Hollywood's go to guy right now for action/funny and while Chris Pine and Dwayne Johnson could probably get away with the role, Pratt could OWN it. He's played military before and this isn't Peter Quill in WWII, there would be a more serious tone required, but he seems to have the chops and the "every man but ballsy" vibe McQueen brought to the role.
Some would say McQueen would be rolling in his grave, or that Matthew McConnaughey would be better, I don't think so... while he was an action man he was very much an actor first, and I think he'd rate Chris Pratt for being able to be believable and funny at the same time...and I think it's pretty clear where they got the idea for his Jurassic Park character from...
So what do you think?
Would this cast escape or be gunned down in cold blood at the box office?
As ever your feedback is welcome and keep posted for the second movie on my recasting list.