11 April 2024

The Great Escaper: A heart-warming true account of a veteran war hero's missions

| Rama Gaind
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two seated elderly people holding hands

Michael Caine stars alongside the late Glenda Jackson in The Great Escaper. Photo: Supplied.

Wistful, recall, relive, a yearning for times gone by … just some of the reflections that flash through your mind while watching The Great Escaper.

We see Sir Michael Caine and the late Glenda Jackson in their final on-screen film roles. Both the two-time Academy Award winners shine in the film — inspired by a true story — and it is a heart-warming account of a veteran war hero.

Caine, 90, officially retired from acting in October 2023. Jackson died in June 2023, nine months after filming finished for this film. Jackson renounced a successful film and stage career in her 50s to become a member of the UK Parliament before returning to win a Tony Award in 2018.

The British acting legends were first seen together in The Romantic Englishwoman in 1976. The Great Escaper is an engaging exploration of love, loss, memory and trauma.

In the summer of 2014, near-nonagenarian Bernard ”Bernie” Jordan (Caine, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Cider House Rules) is sad to miss out on an official group outing to the D-Day anniversary in France. Encouraged by wife Rene (Jackson, Women in Love, A Touch of Class), he sneaks out from his care home and goes on one last big escapade.

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Bernie made global headlines, having staged a “great escape” from the home to join fellow war veterans on a beach in Normandy, commemorating their fallen comrades at the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

He told his carers he was “popping to the shops”, but instead walked to Brighton railway station, travelled to Portsmouth and bought a one-way ferry ticket to Caen, sparking a police search for him.

A decade ago, Bernie said: “In the months leading up to the anniversary, I was trying to get an official trip to Normandy but I didn’t have the necessary passes.

”Then, the day before D-Day, I saw all the TV coverage and thought, ‘I have to go and be part of it.’ I was naughty and secretive.”

He died a year later, aged 90, and his wife Irene, or Rene (in the film), died just a week later.

It was a story that captured the imagination of the world as Bernie embodied the defiant, “can-do” spirit of a generation that was fast disappearing. However, it wasn’t the whole story. It was an inspiring but disinfected retelling of one man’s need to come to terms with the lasting trauma of war.

The adventure by former Royal Navy Lieutenant Bernie Jordan, spanning a mere 48 hours, also marked the culmination of his 60-year marriage to Rene.

The Great Escaper celebrates their enduring love, but always with an eye to the lessons we might learn from the ”greatest generation”.

As Rene says: “You cling to every second and every second is worth clinging on to.”

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Shortly after filming, Caine explained: “Mentally, Glenda and I hadn’t aged. To us, we were still young and having fun and ready for a laugh.”

Asked why she agreed to play the part of Rene, Jackson said: “I thought it was an excellent screenplay. The story is more important in a way than their love for each other. I think it has a wider relevance because their concern and their care extend beyond just themselves.”

The Great Escaper, directed by Oliver Parker, Transmission Films, is screening now

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