The Coolest Guy Movie Ever (2018) REVIEW – Not That Cool
The Coolest Guy Movie Ever documentary about The Great Escape feels more like a featurette than its own worthwhile thing.
Documentaries break ground in search of the truth, or at least a truth. They are a vivid and realistic style of genre whether on their own or worked into narrative fiction somehow — dramatic reenactments, interviews, raw real footage, etc. Netflix — through original series’ such as Evil Genius and The Toys That Made Us — and the likes of Ken Burns continue to prove documentaries and docuseries are a resonant mode of education and storytelling.
Then you have outliers like The Coolest Guy Movie Ever produced and directed by Christophe Espenan. The film goes to Bavaria to explore the locations where The Great Escape was filmed in 1962. Retracing the steps of those involved in the making of the movie, a group of fans and historians tour and discuss places where actors and filmmakers worked and stayed.
Taking a walk through the woods in the beginning, they try to find the location where the POW camp was constructed for the film. Those sets and buildings unfortunately are primarily gone, bulldozed and overtaken by the surrounding forest. Consequently, they share a story from Great Escape’s production; the crew had to actually level some trees to clear an area and build the POW camp 50 years ago under an agreement they’d plant two in their place after they wrapped. So sets were then destroyed immediately for the forest to regrow, and it did over the years unabated.
The central location of filming for both the doc — and Escape itself — is the town of Fussen outside Munich, Germany, which has changed but enough is the same for the sojourning filmmakers to ID spots where pivotal scenes were shot and stunts were performed. Descendants of crew and locals are interviewed about the Hotel Alpina where star Steve McQueen, director John Sturges, and others stayed with their families, complete with records, letters, and paperwork from director and cast. The hotel is still in business and everyone expresses a cheerful reverence for its part in production, a common reaction for several background buildings, especially churches they use as landmarks to find where chases took place and a plane crashed.
They spend a great deal of time on the motorcycle stunts and chases down the German country roads, taking into account the smallest details — models of the bikes, stuntmen on them and so on. For a bit, they study the scene where James Coburn (who played Sedgwick the Manufacturer) stole a conventional bicycle to get away. An interview clip with Coburn talking about his understated method in playing the scene rolls in a Brady Bunch-like square over the actual footage for comparison. Interviews with actors are archival and that’s how they are thrown in between play-by-play by other interviewees of McQueen’s motorcycle stunt work.
Narrated by the late Lawrence Montaigne, an actor known for Star Trek with a small part in the film (Canadian officer Haynes, who dies at the end), he can certainly speak with authority on the subject. He talks about Great Escape with passion and aplomb, calling it a benchmark for action and war movies. Montaigne notes the film’s inimitable ensemble including Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Donald Pleasance, calling Great Escape the “coolest guy movie ever” (and giving the doc its title). Montaigne doubles down and makes the challenge — “If it’s not the greatest guy movie, tell me what is.”
Now, its quality and timelessness can’t be denied, but ultimate or “coolest guy movie”? Generations later, that is fairly debatable. Don’t get me wrong, Great Escape’s place in history is firm but when the likes of Taxi Driver, Jaws, Terminator, Die Hard, The Matrix, and Marvel movies come out in the years after, your competition gets pretty stiff. One affirmation of that fact is the existence of more fascinating and engaging making-of documentaries floating around on home video and the airwaves. A good example, I recommend Jaws: The Inside Story, a two-hour special brimming with inside stuff about the most famous shark ever to hit screens.
Coolest Guy Movie, meanwhile, at an hour long, plays like an entry in a documentary series you might find in the archives of A&E or PBS. I say “the archives” because documentary filmmaking is held to such a high standard today that structure and form which may have worked on public TV or basic cable don’t really fly as artful anymore. Keeping it simple and sticking to interviews and first-hand experience without much flair might be educational, but what you get is little more than a featurette belonging on a special edition DVD or box set. Good for that or a museum, not as much for a festival or wide release.