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The Great Return: ‘The Coolest Guy Movie Ever’

To the extent that they are necessarily divergent, the worlds of film fandom and film history overlap to equally avid ends with Christophe Espenan’s 2018 documentary, The Coolest Guy Movie Ever, a 58-minute look back at the 1963 John Sturges classic, The Great Escape. The title notion of a “guy movie” and what exactly that means is never really considered, which is probably just as well given its potentially divisive characterization—it does star only men, and it’s fair to say mostly men enjoy it—but that hardly seems to be Espenan’s concern anyway. Instead, the film is an impassioned, on-site consideration of this tremendously popular World War II drama, and those taking part in the retrospective enterprise include filmmakers, historians, movie buffs, and assorted other experts, all congregating on a series of settings that once, in the summer of 1962, played host to a major Hollywood production and a roster of celebrated stars.

From the rolling Bavarian hillside to municipal venues just outside Munich, The Coolest Guy Movie Ever traces the development of Sturges’ feature largely through the locations where it was filmed. Pulling out notebooks complete with frame-by-frame enlargements, Espenan and company attempt to ascertain the placement of these rustic backdrops some 56 years after the fact, looking for indications of their correct position—first in the film, then in real life—identifying the spot by a still-standing building, a cross, a particular mountain range, etc. Some of these efforts prove less fruitful than others, such as their search for the Nazi POW camp from which The Great Escape’s Allied heroes make their break (that structure has since been bulldozed and its former settlement now exists in some indefinite forest labyrinth), but even then, discussion about the discarded camp provides the filmmakers opportunity to explore the logics of constructing the site in such wooded density in the first place.

These visitations comprise a majority of Espenan’s film, though it’s rarely just about the novelty of being in the same place where The Great Escape was shot; there is an involved, emotional, and systematic approach to the investigation. British filmmaker Simon Purdey and Connecticut resident Stephen H. Gay appear as embodiments of this engagement, forgoing disconnected speculation in favor of a physical participation with the setting, crouching down along the street to verify the framing of a certain perspective, for example, or reenacting the movements of Steve McQueen as he hid behind an isolated barn. This moment in The Coolest Guy Movie Ever goes so far as to have Gay match the wood grain to confirm the precise camera angle (it’s also noted that the barn as it’s seen in The Great Escape, adorned with swastikas, was a paint job deemed none too amusing by the building’s owners).

Map-hopping the region by car and foot, The Coolest Guy Movie Ever frequently appears as an inviting field trip in which a couple of friends meet and greet the locals and chat up descendants who share their recollections about when Hollywood came to town, relaying stories of cooking for the actors, lodging them, giving them haircuts, sitting together in living rooms and generating what is generally referred to as a “family atmosphere.” Undoubtedly, this sense of camaraderie was and remains part of The Great Escape’s appeal, and it’s at the heart of The Coolest Guy Movie Ever’s own cordial, collaborative effort. And when it comes to Sturges’ beloved United Artists production, Lawrence Montaigne, who narrates The Coolest Guy Movie Ever and had a bit part in The Great Escape, rightly touts the cast as a benchmark in ensemble action movies. Espenan illustrates the star-studded attraction through behind the scenes photographs and archival interviews—with James Garner and James Coburn—and more recent conversations with the film’s stunt performers.

More than anything, though, or anyone, The Coolest Guy Movie Ever inevitably turns its attention to McQueen, the stand-out star of The Great Escape playing its most iconic character, the baseball-tossing, motorcycle-driving, escape addict Hilts “The Cooler King.” Several of those in Espenan’s documentary note the ambiance around McQueen, his “macho” persona and his charm. Noting his penchant for racing and often crashing cars, Garner presents part of the portrait by recalling the time McQueen rode around the community on a bike with a sidecar embellished in Nazi insignia (“He had no respect for anyone,” says Garner). Others testify to McQueen’s genuine aptitude for motorsports; German bike riders, they say, were unable to keep up with the American idol, so creative cutting allowed McQueen, in Nazi garb, to essentially chase himself, as he was the only one who could emulate his own speed. Like one of Espenan’s cadre gushing about “walking in the footsteps of Steve McQueen,” the pronounced and projected mystique goes a little far (receiving an extended close-up is a stool where he sat while waiting for filming to begin), but McQueen is the subject of one of The Coolest Guy Movie Ever’s most valuable inclusions, an excerpt from a German television news program with the star front and center for a rare on-set interview.

In general, there are sizable portions of The Coolest Guy Movie Ever that are a bit more majestic than they need be (overly dramatic plot summaries and an inflating score don’t help), and other than merely seeing what individual locations look like today, there is little in the way of discovery or groundbreaking insight into The Great Escape itself (at its best, The Coolest Guy Movie Ever seems more like a complimentary bonus feature that would be better served as a Blu-ray extra). But amid the accumulation of anecdotes and production details, those participating speak seriously and in earnest, and one can’t deny the enthusiasm of Espenan and his team (the director dedicates the documentary to his father). Montaigne, for one, appreciatively notes how The Great Escape opened doors to further his career, while Christian Riml, the son of The Great Escape’s second unit cameraman, Walter Riml, ascribes profound, persistent resonance to Sturges’ film, especially its universal validation of liberty and harmony. “Freedom and peace,” he says, “is something that we have to keep.” If one can glean that sort of optimistic outlook from a movie like The Great Escape, maybe it is worth such lavish attention.

About Jeremy Carr

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, and Fandor.

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