Among my cinematic heroes is Steve McQueen the “Cooler King” of “The Great Escape.”
McQueen plays Hilts, one of three Americans in a German POW camp. Throughout the film, we see him hatch assorted plans to escape. They all fail.
Every time we see the German guards march him back to the camp, we hear a particular refrain of music (Dah-duh-duh-DAH-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh…). Someone throws him his trusty baseball and mitt, and they lead him to his solitary cell—The Cooler—where he sits down, throws the ball against the wall, and catches it, again and again and again. The sound of the ball hitting the ground, the wall, the ground again, and then Hilts’s mitt, repeatedly, becomes a counterpart to the melody that marks his constant return (buh-kuh-koo-THUP, buh-kuh-koo-THUP…).
I love this. It has become the image I fix in my mind when I try something, and fail. Often, I fail miserably; Steve McQueen, in “The Great Escape,” reminds me that I’m in good company.
He just tries so many times, and it becomes running joke. It gets to the point where we see him go before the prisoner board that approves escapes, eagerly giving the details of his current plan. We’re going to tunnel under like moles, he says at one point.
Next shot: the theme. The march to solitary. The mitt. The ball. The Cooler. Buh-kuh-koo-THUP…buh-kuh-koo-THUP.
He never gives, up, Hilts. We never see him lose hope. At one point, solitary gets to be too much for another inmate, and he just runs for the wire; the Germans shoot him to pieces.
Not Hilts. He never cracks. He just keeps trying. And trying. And trying.
In fact, when the commanding officer of the prisoners launches the plan for the escape of 250 inmates, he approach Hilts to perform reconnaissance of the area outside of the camp, so the inmates know where to run after they get out. At first he refuses, saying that when he escapes, he intends to stay free. Then, however, he sees that other prisoner crack, run for the wall, and die, and he changes his mind.
We see the Germans march him back to The Cooler. One of the other Americans tosses Hilts his trusty ball and mitt. As he does so, we realize; he always leaves it behind, because he knows that, in all likelihood, he’s coming back.
Hilts catches the mitt and ball.
“Welcome home, Hilts,” the other American says.
It’s just such a positive take on how to go through life. Keep trying. Fail. Try again. Fail. Try yet again. Fail. Keep trying.
In exchange for his agreement to escape and endure recapture—and another trip to The Cooler—the escape committee gives Hilts a place at the front of the line. Later on in the film, with Germans in hot pursuit, he leads them on a classic cinematic chase in which he races a motorcycle across the country, occasionally jumping over barbed wire fences.
Of course they recapture him. We know they’re going to recapture him.
They lead him past the camp commandant, who high command has stripped of his rank, due to the mass escape.
“It looks like you shall see Berlin before I do,” he tells Hilts.
Hilts smiles, heroic, unbroken.
The German guards march him back to The Cooler.
The other American runs up to Hilts, mitt and ball in hand.
“Hilts,” he says, tossing it.
Hilts catches it without breaking stride. And this time, as they lead him to his cell, we don’t hear the usual musical refrain. Instead, we hear Elmer Bernstein’s memorable main theme.
The Germans guards walk away, stop, and turn around at the sound coming from the cell.
Never, in a movie, has such a mundane sound been so inspiring.