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Great Escaper film

‘There's a lot of deep, deep feeling': Director Oliver Parker on his new film ' The Great Escaper'

Image: Michael Caine in the 'The Great Escaper'

The Great Escaper, a new film featuring Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson, is based on the true story of 89-year-old Bernard Jordan, who made global headlines in 2014.

Bernie had staged a 'great escape' from his care home to join fellow war veterans on a beach in Normandy, commemorating their fallen comrades at the D-Day Landing 70th anniversary.

At 10:30am, on the day before the big anniversary events, Bernie walked out of The Pines care home in Furze Hill, Hove. The D-Day veteran, with his medals hidden under his raincoat, had taken a train from Brighton to Portsmouth, then sailed on a ferry to Normandy. He spent the night tucked up in a hotel in Ouistreham

It was a story that captured the imagination of the world with Bernie embodying the defiant, ‘can-do’ spirit of a generation that was fast disappearing. Director Oliver Parker who spoke to Sky HISTORY about the film, explained that though there is a lot of fun and laughter in the film, it is not the comedy caper, some might expect.

‘There's a lot of deep, deep feeling', Parker recalls. 'There's a minefield there. It could be a bit cheesy and a bit too feel-good. There's nothing wrong with feeling good, but you need to earn it and with this story, I felt like there were potential pitfalls.' However, Parker was reassured when he read William Ivory's script.

Not only did Ivory have a ‘fantastic connection to the characters’, but the script was ‘extremely skilful and opened up the film to other layers' that Parker hadn't anticipated. 'He writes with real passion and with real anger. There's teeth in this story, which make it that bit more multi-dimensional, and gives it real credence.'

While, The Great Escaper, is a classic story of a British underdog battling against the odds, it is also about the aftermath of war. As Parker, explains, the survivor’s story ‘offers a powerful counterbalance to the cheeky chappie story’.

And who better than Michael Caine to give such a multi-dimensional performance? Caine noted that when he received the script, he was 89, the same age as Bernie at the time of his expedition. At first, Caine turned the script down because he had retired from acting two and a half years previously. However, there was one scene between Bernie and a group of German soldiers, where they share a moment of mutual understanding that he found particularly moving, giving the story ‘an extraordinary depth’. This convinced him to take the part. Parker also says of the scene, ‘the sheer pathos in that exchange is a symbol of what the film is trying to do.’

Asked why Caine was so perfect for the role, Parker explains: 'One thinks of Michael as nearly always in control. He's so cool. He's the epitome of that ‘60s, understated kind of self-confidence. And this film is very much about a character being brave enough to lose that control. And he was wonderful at it.'

Bernie’s adventure, spanning a mere 48 hours, also marked the twilight years of his 60-year marriage to Rene, played by Glenda Jackson who passed away in 2023. 'She was a delight to work with', remembers Parker. It was a shock for everyone involved in the film when she passed away. 'We were bloody thrilled that we managed to get a chance to work with her because I think the performance is astonishing.'

2024 marks the 10th anniversary of Bernie’s ‘Great Escape’ and D-Day’s 80th anniversary. Next year's celebrations will be more muted given how few D-Day veterans are still around. However, with their passing, we can rely on films such as The Great Escaper to keep their memories alive. As Parker puts it, the film is about ‘the importance of remembering, not burying the memories, not hiding them, but looking at him square in the eye’.