The Great Escape: Captivity, Freedom, Exile and the Holiday Christmas Movie

Juletræet2A few weeks ago I was watching Trevor Noah interview Lupita Nyong’o about her role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, when she made an otherwise throwaway comment I found quite striking:

I grew up watching Star Wars. It was a part of my life. It came on TV on public holidays, so I thought of Star Wars as time off of school.

This struck me so strongly because of an eccentric personal interest I have in the fact that The Great Escape is a Christmas movie in England. I learned about this cultural phenomenon after moving over there years ago, and spending expat Christmases watching this great movie – about Allied POWs trying to escape from a Nazi prison camp – with friends I made there. While there is apparently a popular myth that The Great Escape is always shown on the BBC at Christmas, it’s oddly not one I ever heard in my nine years in the UK. Rather, the classic war movie was one that I noticed somehow always managed to find its way onto my friends’ TVs in late December on DVD, as a matter of tradition.

Over the years, The Great Escape became for me just as emotionally definitive of “Christmas” as any carol or pop song or proper Christmas movie, like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol and Scrooged, or any of other movies that make it onto lists like these.

Year after year I asked people who brought up The Great Escape during the holidays what they thought the source of this tradition was. I’m not sure why, but I never really looked into it more formally (sort of like another quest I had, for the various oral histories around the then-ubiquitous 11pm closing hours for English pubs), and just limited myself to asking people where the movie’s Christmas association came from. I got a lot of answers, none of them satisfying, which I suppose is why I kept nurturing my seasonal obsession with the mystery.

I think I find this phenomenon so interesting because of my own shared preference for the kind of Christmas movie that may or may not actually be set at Christmas time, and isn’t really about the religious holiday in any direct sense, but nonetheless evokes a definitive if neglected side of the Christmas spirit. I’m thinking in particular of movies like Die Hard and Die Hard 2, The Wizard of Oz, Trading Places, Empire of the Sun, Oliver!, and of course The Great Escape, amongst a few others – but if you’ve seen even a few of these movies, you get the picture.

Of course there is a sense in which the association of these movies with Christmas can initially be quite arbitrary. For Christmas movies like Die Hard, for example, the movie release and television broadcast timing, like the Christmas setting in the movie itself, is a mixture of genre contrast and clever marketing.

There’s another category of Christmas movie where the initial connection to Christmas can be even more arbitrary, or even essentially accidental. Just like there’s probably no particular reason Star Wars was shown at public holidays in Kenya when Lupita Nyong’o was growing up, there’s no deep reason why my brother’s partner associates Christmas with Star Trek movies, or some people see it as the proper time for a James Bond marathon. It’s just something that kind of happened, and the initial association neither bears nor requires any specific explanation.

But however arbitrary the initial association, in either case, over time the connection of these movies with the Christmas holiday season becomes a natural one, much like it is with, say, coloured lights, or pumpkin spice lattes. Where the theme of the movie is in some way related to its significance as a Christmas movie, this association becomes especially strong over time.

Thinking more about The Great Escape and Lupita Nyong’o’s comment about how she associates Star Wars with being home from school, I’m now convinced that I’m as close to the answer as I’ve ever been: the common characteristic of the kind of Christmastime movies I referred to earlier, like The Great Escape and Die Hard, is the paradoxical association of the movie both with a holiday and with going home, however much of a stretch that might seem at first.

The holiday aspect of these Christmas movies is easiest to see in the theme of escape. In the West at least, Christmas is really the primary holiday that represents not just time off, but an extended period of time away from your daily institutional boundaries that coincides with an artificial transformation both of private and public space, and yet is in many ways not a vacation, because it is a time when families gather, not when they disperse.

Curiously, this is true just as much for adults as it is for children, thanks to the way we’ve chosen to structure almost all labour and schooling along the lines of nineteenth-century factory labour. Just consider for a moment whose life the following description applies to:

Five days a week for most of the year you have to go to a building and be there from some time in the morning to some time in the afternoon, or you’ll get in trouble. You get an hour off for lunch at the same time as everyone else, as well as two 15-minute breaks. You have no responsibility for the building’s existence or purpose or persistence, and during your time there you do what you’re told, or you’ll get in trouble. You get a seasonal break in summer and public holidays off, but the biggest holiday of the year, when you can leave and sleep in and do what you want, is Christmas.

Add to this the daily stresses of commuting, competing, and incessant evaluation, and it’s no wonder that so many movies we come to associate with Christmas, regardless of how they enter the late-December viewing window – let’s call them “Holiday” Christmas movies – place such an emphasis on being a prisoner or a hostage, and fighting for escape or rescue.

On a more personal level, however, this escape from the institutional nets that bind us also manifests itself, naturally and paradoxically, as an escape from the family. In a very practical sense, of course, all Christmas movies represent an escape: it’s a couple of hours when, thank God, you don’t have to talk to your family over the holidays.

In a broader sense, this makes The Wizard of Oz the canonical “Holiday” Christmas movie: it’s a profound rebuke of the family and an expression for a desire to get out of the drab limitations of the lives most of us are born into and kept caged in.

But what makes The Wizard of Oz such a profound movie is the fact that it ultimately represents Dorothy’s escape as a form of exile. In the end, her Christmas experience in Oz is really an idealized version, formed by a child’s imagination, of her family; and in the end what she really wants, she realizes, is the real thing.

Personally, I’m ambivalent about that reading of the black-and-white final sequence in the movie. It strikes me as profoundly conservative, and it does not seem to acknowledge the true danger and deprivation of Dorothy’s real home. Certainly her family loves her, but is her family’s love for her sufficient justification for the claims they make upon her? Everyone who’s grown up in a place they did not belong struggles with this problem, and the ending of the movie is in this sense, well, complacent.

It’s this ambivalence that lies at the heart not just of the Holiday Christmas movie, but the holiday Christmas itself. If you’ve travelled from the home you normally go to work or school from, to the home of, say, your parents or in-laws, you’ve escaped, but really just from one prison to another.

On that note, John McLane’s heroic rescue of his captive wife in the first Die Hard and his desperate attempt to stave off terrorists before her plane lands in Die Hard 2 strike me as pretty apt metaphors for a spouse’s relationship to the in-laws at Christmas, at least in one’s fantasies. The Great Escape can also be read in this way as an escape from school or the factory, with the war looming over everything, like your parents’ troubled relationship when you’re young, or troubles in the economy when you’re older.

It’s not a movie anyone takes seriously, but from this perspective Home Alone is the perfect Holiday Christmas movie (curiously, it strikes me as a child-friendly version of Jamie Graham’s adventure in Empire of the Sun). In Home Alone, Kevin McCallister is away from school, but more or less trapped in his house. Inside it, however, he’s free to indulge in fantasies and rare freedoms, like Dorothy does in Oz, but ultimately he knows it’s an empty life that just can’t go on forever. Without his family there, in a sense he is not at all at home, and with the menacing villains coming after him again and again, he is not at all alone.

Essentially, Kevin is more like a “free captive”, alternately enjoying himself in a childish way, and at the same time ruthlessly defending himself from clumsy, brutish, and, in a sense I think we all can understand, personal but not genuinely threatening attacks – just like the rest of us, when we go home for the holidays.


Image credit: “Juletræet” by Malene Thyssen – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –