A series where Failed Critics contributors look back on a particular decade in the world of cinema, choosing their favourite films from each year of that decade.
It’s been a while since we last revisited this series but we’re back! Sort of. James Diamond has had a great escape of his own and ducked out of the 1960’s for now, returning shortly to write up the next in our ‘noughties’ series. In his place, Owen Hughes hops back in time from the 1970’s to enlighten us on what he thinks are the five best films of 1963.
“Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.”
John Sturges’ almost 3 hour long war drama about some POW’s in World War II provides us with many of the most iconic moments in cinema’s history. Whether it’s Steve McQueen triumphantly riding his, er, Triumph T6 down German country lanes, or the quick shimmy of a dusty boot as a prisoner drops some sand through his trouser leg, or its almost whimsical and instantly recognisable regimented brass theme tune (aka the unwanted England football team national anthem). If you grew up in the UK and belong to a certain generation, then you will already know that The Great Escape is itself as inescapable as the Stalag Luft III prison. (As I’m sure listeners to the podcast will be aware of, given Steve’s penchant for recommending it on ITV2, ITV3 or ITV4 every other week.)
There is a genuinely good reason for that, which is quite honestly the fact that there are hardly any other films that are as suitably entertaining to stick on the TV on a lazy Sunday afternoon, with your roast dinner on tray, as this classic. Despite being an American film, it’s become as much of a British institution as complaining about the weather forecast during the week before a bank holiday or tweeting about Mark Lawrenson’s football commentary.
Yes, it may seem a tad jingoistic by modern standards. But then, it is set during a war with its basis in a true story. Some allowances have to be made. Just sit back, open your TV planner of choice, find out when it’s on this weekend (and it will be on some channel or other within the next seven days) and set a reminder. Even if you watch just the last hour or so, it will be an hour well spent relaxing in front of the quintessential war movie.
Let’s get this one out of the way early. No list of the best films from 1963 would be complete without the inclusion of Italian director and writer Federico Fellini’s self-reflecting, surrealist, widely accepted masterpiece. To call it simply influential would be one of the understatements of the decade. Not only is it sitting comfortably at #196 on the more populist IMDb Top 250 list, but it is also recognised as one of the greatest ever achievements in motion pictures by critics and film makers alike.
Upon release, it rightfully picked up award after award (including winning two Oscars in 1963, one of which was the best foreign language film and it was nominated for three others) and even now it remains unmoved from the Sight & Sound top 10, ahead of the likes of Breathless, Battleship Potemkin, Seven Samurai and even The Godfather. That is how much this film has changed the landscape of cinema since Marcello Mastroianni first lowered those thick rimmed glasses of his and ogled a lady or two.
Mixing fantasy with reality, Fellini attempts to subtly disclose to the audience the inner most fears and desires of his profession. Exposing what it really means to be the man behind the camera on a personal and individual level, striving for inspiration. Its dreamlike sequences, often involving gorgeous women distracting Mastroianni as much as they are motivating him, are brilliantly performed spectacles that imbue the film with a strange and bizarre aura.
This is the point in the article where I take a little break to remind you how much of a contrary wanker I am. I can absolutely 100% appreciate just how important and seminal a piece of art that this truly is. I enjoy the occasional meandering, philosophical, ponderous and absurd drama as much as the next cinephile. However, if I told you I enjoyed every minute of 8½ and that it’s my favourite film of 1963, then I’d be lying and doing it just to look cool. You don’t need me to tell you that I’m not cool. (Not that anybody else only says it to look cool, by the way!)
I did like it. In patches. The concept was quite intimidating and a little off-putting, but executed as close to objective perfection as can be said. It makes the cut on this list ahead of the likes of two John Wayne films (McLintock! and Donovan’s Reef), two Peter Sellers films (Pink Panther and The Wrong Arm of the Law) and one of the most grandiose big-budget films of its time (Cleopatra) etc on merit, not just because other people say it is better. It’s also one that is worth watching for anybody with any real interest in unlocking the secrets behind what makes film so attractive as a medium. But as much as this will aggrieve some folk, it is not getting any higher than 4th on my list.
3. The Birds
How do you follow a film like Psycho? Well, according to Alfred Hitchcock, you don’t immediately. Instead, you wait a few years, do some TV shows in the meantime and then try again to create something that will terrify your audience and leave your critics dumbfounded. Unfortunately, what terrifies Hitchcock (police officers tapping on your shoulder, non-blonde actresses and birds) does not always translate to the screen fantastically well.
Never mind, though. I mean, if your lead actress isn’t naturally blonde, that’s easily fixable. Similarly, if she’s not especially scared of birds, then you can strap some to sticks and waggle them about in her face whilst your colleagues fling others at her, as the delightful Tippi Hedren found out at her expense.
The first Hitch film I remember seeing was The Birds almost 15 years ago. My lasting memory was that it wasn’t scary, there weren’t enough bird scenes in it and that it was hilarious for all the wrong reasons. A hokey contrived romance fluttering through a slow paced, mostly uneventful story. No, the 13 year old me did not really appreciate it. It wasn’t until I rewatched it this year that I truly understood what the master of suspense intended.
Atmosphere. It’s not slow, it’s not tedious, it’s not uneventful. It’s all about the foreboding atmosphere being constructed around a seemingly harmless (if somewhat ham-fisted) romantic tale of a journalism mogul’s daughter (Tippi Hedren) and the lakeside-dwelling family man lawyer (Rod Taylor). A gradually building crescendo of bird attacks leads to one horrific, disturbing and terrifying scene after the other. Ignore the dodgy special effects and get suckered in by the intimidating and tense atmosphere, and you’ll also find that being sentenced to death by swift does not appear to be quite as silly as you’d imagine.
2. The Haunting
Directed by Robert Wise (he of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Sound of Music, West Side Story and “correcting” The Magnificent Ambersons ending fame), no stranger to shocking b-movies, the point of The Haunting is simple but effective; it is designed to scare you out of your wits. This black and white horror, partly inspired by one of the most famous haunted house stories, ‘The Turn of the Screw’, did exactly that to the wimpy little runt I used to be.
Everybody has a film that they recognise isn’t technically one of the greatest ever made, yet for whatever personal reason, they still love it. Often this is associated with films that are considered “so bad they’re good” – or “terribly good” if you work in marketing for the SyFy Channel. Or sometimes it’s used to disclaimer their use of the phrase “guilty pleasure”. However you want to describe it, I have fond memories of watching The Haunting during my cinematic-formative years, the result of which has shaped the way I have viewed horror films ever since.
The basic principles of any haunted house story are: to start with a creepy looking house (in this case an old mansion); start slowly, gently introducing the characters and forming personalities; gradually increase the scares without starting too big; but the main thing is to make the house a character of its own. That’s what the Haunting does. It’s a formula that works and is repeated in various different mediums. I’m sure this is unlikely to be the first ever film to follow this rather conventional method (certain, in fact, knowing that the inferior Vincent Price film House on Haunted Hill came out 4 years earlier), but by Jove, it was the first film that I saw to really nail it.
I’ve revisited it a number of times over the years and despite subsequent rewatches chipping away at the surface a little more each time, revealing the rather crude and rudimentary nature of the story underneath, it still remains one of my favourite movies. If you’re not even just a teensy bit flustered when Eleanor climbs those rickety stairs and inspects the shaft (oi oi leave it), then you are made of sterner stuff than I.
Has there ever been an animator so loved and respected as the late great Ray Harryhausen? His incredible feats of ingenuity in bringing to life plasticine skeletons soldiers, multiple-headed hydras, harpies, giants and a petrifying bronze titan, it was so revolutionary that stop motion was never viewed in the same way again.
I’m fully aware that this isn’t the most sophisticated film on my list. The performance of Todd Armstrong as our titular hero, on a quest to Colchis to find the Golden Fleece, is certainly not the most enigmatic or powerful listed here either. The stuttering disjointed script jumps from one adventure to the next with not a care for logic, grace or consistency. Indeed, looking back on it from our 50″ HD screen dominating living rooms, aside from the beguiling animation, there’s not really a whole lot of spectacular cinematography going on to be perfectly blunt.
But you can be certain that I will stand up and fight any single one of you who derides this dazzling fantastical adventure yarn as anything less than brilliantly good fun. Who among us when they were younger was not entranced by dinosaurs and Greek mythology? Nobody, that’s who. Remember the first time you watched Jurassic Park and simply could not believe the effects you were seeing? Before that, you had Jason and the Argonauts thrilling audiences in a similar way for decades. Just take a moment to look at those skeletons popping up from the ground. Or when the rusty Talos creeks from his pillar and looms over the cliff face at the soldiers below; these playthings of the Gods. It is absolutely mesmerising.
The combination of memorable sound effects, charming animation and a sense of mystical wonder combines to great effect in what is my personal favourite film of 1963.
You can find more of our Decade In Film articles here including the years pre-1963 and Owen’s 1970’s choices.