About two-thirds the way through the screening of “The Great Escape” movie last weekend at the Roxy Theatre in Uxbridge, there was a scene in which the American POWs break out a batch of potato-based hooch. They’re celebrating July 4, 1943, even though they’re prisoners in the famous Stalag Luft III POW camp.
In the famous scene, actors James Garner, Steve McQueen and Jud Taylor play three shot-down U.S. airmen (in the mostly British Commonwealth prison camp) celebrating Independence Day. McQueen dispenses the booze as he spouts epithets such as “Down the British” and “Up the Colonies,” when Taylor turns to McQueen.
“Representation by population,” Taylor shouts.
McQueen does a double take, knowing Taylor has just delivered an unplanned ad lib, but since nobody broke up during the shooting of the scene 50 years ago, it remained in the film. And the only reason that the Roxy audience caught the ad lib was because our host that afternoon, Mark Christoff, alerted us to watch for it. Taylor’s off-the-cuff comment and McQueen’s response got a bigger laugh last weekend, than the scene probably ever got when “The Great Escape” premiered in 1963. Thanks to Christoff, we enjoyed one of those magical moments that occasionally occur in a movie theatre.
I’ve experienced a number of such moments over the years. They are perfectly spontaneous things, such as the audience shrieking out loud in the final few minutes of “Wait Until Dark,” (1967) when Alan Arkin lunges out of the basement apartment shadows at a defenseless Audrey Hepburn, the blind tenant attempting to defend herself against a murderous invader. I remember the theatre growing cloudier by the minute as illegal pot smokers lit up during the psychedelic re-entry scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s (1968) classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” I guess those are kind of iconic movie-audience moments.
But here’s one that could only have happened once. Remember the 70-millimetre IMAX movie that inaugurated the Ontario Place Cinesphere in 1971? The documentary was “North of Superior,” a kind of travelogue – featuring Graeme Ferguson’s classic nearly 360-degree almost wrap-around imagery – showcasing the wilderness north of Lake Superior.
Well, as I recall the night we all watched it in the brand new Cinesphere, there was that sequence about halfway through the film in which the IMAX cameras take us to the heart of a northern Ontario forest fire. But then almost as quickly as the movie throws us into the heat and flames, the intensity of the blaze and the roar end in a split-second… with a close-up image of a forester’s boot planting a pine seedling in soil still scarred by the fire.
It so happened at precisely that moment – as the movie soundtrack switched from deafening roar to nearly silent close-up of the boot pressing the seedling into the soil – one member of our group in the Cinesphere let go with a loud sneeze. For all the world, it seemed as if his sneeze had blown out the inferno. His timing was perfect. The memory of our laughing at his timing stays with me to this day.
Then, there was one of the climactic scenes in “The Guns of Navarone,” the action war movie, starring Anthony Quinn, David Niven and Gregory Peck among others. The 1961 feature depicts a team of British commandos dispatched to destroy gigantic naval guns guarding a vital channel in the Mediterranean. As the group makes its way up the cliffs and through the Nazi-occupied towns of the Greek island housing the guns, it becomes clear there’s a spy among the civilian guides.
Suddenly, Anna (played by Gia Scala) the beautiful, young mountain guide (apparently tortured earlier in the war by whipping across her back) is suspect. Someone challenges the back whipping scenario and rips open the back of her dress right in front of the camera. There’s no blood, no scars, nothing. In the silence of the shocking discovery, someone in the movie theatre couldn’t resist speaking the obvious.
“She’s got a gorgeous back!” he said. And the theatre erupted in laughter, totally destroying the drama of the scene. Moments later the Irene Papas character pulls out a revolver and shoots the young girl to ensure the safety of the mission.
There was one other magical moment we enjoyed during the Roxy screening of “The Great Escape” last weekend. As many of you know, I’ve made a recent crusade of illustrating how much of the extraordinary effort to tunnel out of Stalag Luft III was directed by Canadians. And yet the movie makes mention of “Canada” only once in the entire movie. The scene involves James Coburn creating a diversion while other POWs attempt to break out of the camp. He spontaneously grabs a fellow prisoner’s jacket, winds up to punch him, and shouts: “You rotten Canadian!”
Hollywood never let facts get in the way of filming a good story. But sometimes the magic happened out in the audience as well as on the screen.