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Old 07-10-2013, 11:03 AM
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The Great Escape (1963)

THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)
Directed by John Sturges.




THE LUDOVICO FILM INSTITUTE VOL. XV
Jail Break


"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."

To kick off this month's "Jail Break" series, I've picked a film that is near and dear to my movie-loving heart. John Sturges' The Great Escape is quite simply one of the best classic Hollywood epics ever produced. There is just so much that I adore about this film that I can't even begin to cover all of it. It's exciting, it's witty, it's suspensful, it's engrossing, it's everything you could want in a WWII adventure. It's also one of those films that, no matter how glum or moody my day may be, the instant I pop the DVD in and hear that opening theme song composed by the great Elmer Bernstein, I immediately cheer up. Indeed, of the four films selected for this series, this one is the most purely entertaining.



It tells the true story of one of the most daring and successful POW camp escape efforts orchestrated during the war. In 1943, the German Luftwaffe put all of their most notorious escape-minded Allied Forces prisoners into one camp, a compound specifically designed to hold these troublemakers. When Squadron Leader Bartlett, known as "Big X" (the great Sir Richard "Welcome to Jurassic Park" Attenborough) arrives, he immediately sets about organizing a select crew to construct three tunnels (nicknamed "Tom", "Dick" and "Harry") in a bold plan to move all 250 men under the camp and out into the surrounding forest.



The team includes Capt. Virgil Hilts (the ultra-cool Steve McQueen, in the role that would solidify his superstar icon status), an American pilot who, thanks to his tireless efforts in trying to escape on his own, earns himself the name "The Cooler King" because of the amount of times he is relegated to isolation as punishment for his endeavors, and whose knowledge of the layout of the surrounding country is crucial to their planning.



Also key to the effort are, among many others:

-Hendley, aka "The Scrounger" (James Garner, in his charming and suave prime), who has a unique ability to obtain essential supplies and who, in one of the film's funniest scenes, blackmails a novice guard for needed items.



-Colin Blythe, aka "The Forger" (Donald Pleasance, in a truly endearing performance), who can fake right down to the tiniest detail any documents needed for official passage across Nazi Germany.



-Sedgwick, aka "The Manufacturer" (James Coburn), an officer in the RAAF, and who is in charge of constructing the various tools needed for the operation, including an ingenious air flow system for the tunnels. Coburn, like everyone else in the cast, is extremely likeable here and his humor and enthusiasm is infectious. (His smartass response to a guard's query as to why he's hanging about in the men's shower room is one of my favorite lines in the film.)



-Danny Velinski, aka "The Tunnel King" (Charles Motherfuckin' Bronson, one of my all-time favorite movie stars), who is in charge of the construction of the underground tunnel system, and who develops acute claustrophobia after nearly being buried alive during the dig. (His character's nickname was also, as you may recall, the inspiration for one of the best and most vulgar lines in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.)



The mission is not merely intended to get the men out and get them home, but instead to disrupt and cause chaos amongst the German police and military personnel in an effort to focus as much attention away from the front lines and into the pursuit of the escapees as possible. But the SS is wise to this goal and has warned "Big X" through torture and intimidation that should he pursue this effort, he will be shot. Which only serves to motivate him even more.



What I love so much about this film is that it takes this fascinating piece of history and quite cleverly turns it into a marvelously entertaining caper film. The conception of the plan, the execution of the operation, and the resultant race across enemy territory are all handled and paced so deftly by Sturges and screenwriters James Clavell and W.R. Burnett that you find yourself completely engrossed in every single element, from the smallest details (the way they brilliantly dispurse all of that dirt they're moving, how they handle the tunnel support issue, the tailoring of their clothes to help disguise them on the outside) to the various edge-of-your-seat getaway attempts (when Cavendish trips coming out of that hole, I gasp every time). The film is nearly 3 hours long but seems as if it runs only half of that.

The cast for this film may just be my favorite ever assembled. It's a great "hang out" film. You get to know and like these characters so well that you feel as if you're one of the team while watching. Much like Jaws and The Magnificent Seven (another Sturges production that features a few of the same cast members), everytime I see it, I feel like I'm visiting old friends. They're just that cool.



There are so many great moments in this film, both big and little. I love the way Col. Von Luger (Hannes Messemer, who would have made a great Brainiac with that huge German dome of his), who is in charge of the camp and who is an obvious Allied Forces sympathizer, gives a half-hearted "Heil Hitler" to the SS stooges barking orders at him. I love the way the prisoners, within about 5 minutes of arriving at the camp, instantly begin scheming to escape. (Which prompts yet another one of my favorite lines in the film when Bronson and Coburn try to blend in with the Russian work detail leaving the camp and Coburn asks Bronson if he speaks any Russian. He knows one sentence, one that probably won't help.) I love the smirky, rebellious detachment of McQueen's "Cooler King" as he gladly looks to make trouble for his captors in any way possible while he casually throws around that baseball of his. (Also fun is the way he uses this baseball as a means to test out a theory he has about the limited visibilty of the guard towers.) And I love the sense of comraderie amongst the men, how they respect each other and the relationships that develop between some of them, the most touching being the way Garner takes responsibilty for the well-being of a nearly-blind Pleasance during their escape.

Spoiler Alert!




It's a real testament to how effective the mechanics of this story are that I find myself, no matter how many times I see it, cheering for their successes and mourning their losses. When certain characters make it out, I still smile everytime. And when other characters meet with a tragic fate, I still feel the heartbreak. Without giving anything away (although if you know the actual facts of the story at all, this isn't a spoiler), the scene that details what happens to "The Fifty" still devastates me every single time I see it. (The look on one particular character's face as he turns and realizes what is about to happen just plain kills me.)



Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Big Moment in the film, the one truly iconic set piece. The moment that has me in near fits of applause every single time. I'm talking, of course, about Steve McQueen's getaway attempt via motorcycle. Of all the great scenes in the film, this is the one that most definitely catapulted it into the Classic status stratosphere.



I can ramble on all day about this film. It is marvelously cast, breathtaking in its pacing, ingenious in its narrative construction, and dazzling in its ability to take one of WWII history's most notorious and unbelievable chapters and make it one of the purest pop movie events of all time.

Did I mention how much I love this film?

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Old 07-12-2013, 02:57 AM
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As I mentioned on another thread, this flick belongs to a certain 'pantheon' of films for me, movies I saw as a kid that struck me as exceptional examples of what the medium could aspire to and films that introduced me to what real 'movie stars' were all about.

I grew up in England with three channels on the telly. One of those channels (BBC 2) broadcast material almost exclusively for the intelligentsia class so as a working class family, we really only had two channels. When there was a good movie on TV, the entire country was watching.

The next day at school, every kid had seen the same flick. This is a concept that doesn't exist anymore in the developed world. If The Great Escape were to play on a television station somewhere in North America tonight, no-one would notice. That wasn't the case where and when I grew up. Everyone noticed.



But looking back, my first sense of what constituted the 'great' films was probably based on the movies that got my Dad excited. So the 'pantheon' of films I'm talking about here include the likes of such testosterone-infused epics as The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, The Dirty Dozen, Cool Hand Luke and The Magnificent Seven. And the first real movie star Gods beamed into our home included the likes of Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Alec Guiness, William Holden, James Coburn, Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin.



And when I think back on these amazing flicks responsible for instilling in me an early love of the medium, the two I've revisited the most include The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and the film we're discussing this week at the Ludovico.

As a completely absorbing exercise in narrative cinema with a stellar cast of wall to wall bonafide 'movie stars' (an extinct species of actor, in my view), The Great Escape knows no equal. When I was a kid, I thought it was the greatest film ever made. As an adult, I'm not sure my opinion has drastically changed. So when Mike Tank selected it this month, I was only too happy to revisit.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Tank
Danny Velinski, aka "The Tunnel King" (Charles Motherfuckin' Bronson, one of my all-time favorite movie stars), who is in charge of the construction of the underground tunnel system, and who develops acute claustrophobia after nearly being buried alive during the dig.
I didn't suffer from claustrophobia as a kid. It's something that kicked in within the last decade or so - but I find the scenes in the tunnel (and the cooler) anxiety inducing.

There's a great moment that I didn't understand as a kid but I totally appreciate now and it's when Bronson flees the tunnel after an attack of claustrophobia and rushes to the cabin window to breathes in a big gulp of outside air.

You see, claustrophobia is not so much a fear of confined spaces as it is a fear of not having an 'escape.' I've had claustrophobic attacks in wide spaces and large rooms when either I've had no escape route or even 'imagined' that I didn't.

The only thing that can calm the sensation of dread is knowing full well that you can get into the wide outdoors, so that moment when he rushes to the window to breathe in the outside air is a powerful one (and a precise observation of how the anxiety plays out.)



Quote:
The film is nearly 3 hours long but seems as if it runs only half of that.
That is absolutely correct and it's a testament to how completely absorbing it is. I've seen this flick an endless number of times and don't think I've ever stopped to ponder the running time.

Angry old man rant begins...

I think I'm old enough to use this well worn phrase with some authority now but 'They don't make 'em like they used to!'

The Great Escape belongs to an era where narrative cinema was a highly developed art form, one dependent on a crack team of expert craftsmen in their chosen professions. And while great films still get made, the medium itself has been severely downgraded by the 'democratization' of technology and the rise of the internet.

Today, almost ANYONE can get a 'director's' credit on the IMDB. The cultural shitegeist is so constructed that blithering chones shooting meaningless piles of amateurish shite on prosumer camcorders now parade themselves as 'directors' self-deluding into believing they share the stage with the likes of Sturges and company.

Of course, the culture supports these delusions because there's a lot of money to be made from narcissistic vanities and a lot of opportunities to exploit those human foibles for cash. (There's a reason why Chonebook is the number one site on the internet and why Mark Schmuckersberg is the youngest billionaire in history.)

So while there's still great movies being made by great talents, the widespread 'respect' for the art of narrative cinema has severely diminished because almost anyone thinks they're qualified to practice it with almost no training or talent required.

And because of my various exploits in film 'journalism' (not to sully the profession by suggesting I belong to it), I am constantly inundated with press releases for upcoming "movies" by independent horror filmmakers.

In the rare occasion I actually click on a link to see a trailer, I'm invariably assaulted with the same crap, over and over again: low grade garbage made by imbeciles with too much access to the technology and resources required to manufacture said crap.

I honestly wish I could write back and tell them to Fuck Off! (but that wouldn't be very nice, now, would it?)

End of rant!

Quote:
Originally Posted by Tank
I love the way Col. Von Luger (Hannes Messemer, who would have made a great Brainiac with that huge German dome of his), who is in charge of the camp and who is an obvious Allied Forces sympathizer, gives a half-hearted "Heil Hitler" to the SS stooges barking orders at him.
He's one of my favourite characters. And I love the mutual respect he and Captain Ramsay have. They're both veteran soldiers and neither begrudges the other his duty.



But The Great Escape is a movie of "pairs," of numerous relationships between two men. Tank's mentioned a few of them but along with Ramsay and Luger, you got Hilts and Ives, Hendley and Blythe, Bartlett and McDonald and the most homo-erotic coupling of the whole flick, Danny and Willie, the tunnel kings.

Whenever they're shown during the post-escape sequences rowing down the river, the music is ridiculously romantic. If Sturges never intended for us to detect a romantic relationship between the two men, then composer Elmer Bernstein sure as hell did!



I believe some of you mentioned you hadn't seen this flick yet so I'm hoping you fix that as soon as possible. This is, quite simply, one of the greatest films ever made.
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Old 07-12-2013, 04:00 PM
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Quote:
But looking back, my first sense of what constituted the 'great' films was probably based on the movies that got my Dad excited. So the 'pantheon' of films I'm talking about here include the likes of such testosterone-infused epics as The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, The Dirty Dozen, Cool Hand Luke and The Magnificent Seven. And the first real movie star Gods beamed into our home included the likes of Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Alec Guiness, William Holden, James Coburn, Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin.
My dad was also my gateway to these classic films. After we got our first VCR, the films you mentioned, as well as pretty much everything that John Wayne appeared in, were on in constant rotation in my household. The Great Escape was one of my dad's personal favorites. He was 13 when it came out, and Steve McQueen instantly became his idol. I even have a pic of my dad around the age of 18, dressed and groomed to look almost exactly like McQueen (around the time the other quintessential Steve McQueen film was released, Peter Yates' dynamic cop thriller Bullitt.) To him, McQueen was the absolute epitome of cool. And I remember how depressed my dad was when McQueen died in 1980 at the too-soon age of 50.




Quote:
But The Great Escape is a movie of "pairs," of numerous relationships between two men. Tank's mentioned a few of them but along with Ramsay and Luger, you got Hilts and Ives, Hendley and Blythe, Bartlett and McDonald and the most homo-erotic coupling of the whole flick, Danny and Willie, the tunnel kings.

Whenever they're shown during the post-escape sequences rowing down the river, the music is ridiculously romantic. If Sturges never intended for us to detect a romantic relationship between the two men, then composer Elmer Bernstein sure as hell did!
I never thought of their relationship that way until you just brought it up, but I have to say...I think you're right!
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Old 07-12-2013, 04:07 PM
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To him, McQueen was the absolute epitome of cool.
Well, your Dad was right!

Quote:
I never thought of their relationship that way until you just brought it up, but I have to say...I think you're right!
You'll never be able to look at it the same way again.
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Old 07-12-2013, 04:50 PM
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In a related note, there was a pseudo-sequel to the film entitled The Great Escape II: The Untold Story. It was produced as a TV mini-series for NBC and it aired in early 1988, on the 25th Anniversay of the release of the original film.

It starred Christopher Reeve, Judd Hirsch and Ian McShane. Donald Pleasance also co-starred, this time as the Nazi villain of the piece!

Part 1 of the mini-series told the same story as the original film, detailing the planning and execution of the escape operation. Part 2 gave a fictional account of the aftermath of the ordeal, as the Reeve character goes on a hunt to bring justice to the German soldiers and officials responsible for the execution of "The Fifty".

I remember watching it as it aired, but I can't recall how effective it was as a revamped retelling of the classic tale. I really want to revisit it, but I cannot seem to find it available anywhere to check out, so if anyone here has any info, it would be much appreciated.



On a fascinating (to me, anyway) side note...

Throughout the 1980's and into the 1990's, the major networks produced a few more of these made-for-TV "special event" sequels to some of the biggest classic Hollywood films of yesteryear.

In 1983, CBS tried to revive the perrenial classic Casablanca as a weekly TV series, with David "Hutch" Soul in the iconic Bogart role, as well as the great Scatman Crothers as everyone's favorite piano player, Sam. It didn't go over too well with viewers, and was quickly canceled.



In 1985, Lee Marvin returned to head up The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission on NBC. Also returning were Ernest Borgnine and Richard Jaeckel. Thanks to huge ratings, the Dozen came back again for The Dirty Dozen: The Deadly Mission (1987), this time with Telly Savalas replacing Marvin, which begat The Dirty Dozen: The Final Mission (1988) (again with Savalas). A short-lived TV series followed, but with an all-new cast.



In 1986, George C. Scott reprised his Oscar-winning role as the title character of 1970's Patton in a 2-part CBS mini-series entitled The Last Days Of Patton.



In 1990, a young Ralph Fiennes took on the role that made Peter O'Toole an icon in David Lean's 1962 big-screen epic Lawrence Of Arabia with the syndicated TV movie Lawrence After Arabia: A Dangerous Man.



And finally there was the fiasco that was Scarlett, a 6-hour "television event" that aired on CBS in 1994 and was, of course, the sequel to one of the biggest, most beloved films of all time, 1939's Gone With The Wind. It starred Timothy Dalton (who, if there were any justice in this world, would have still been playing James Bond at this time) as Rhett Butler and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer (Val's then-wife) as you-know-who. Though it scored big ratings, it was considered a major disappointment by both fans and critics alike.



I would love to get my hands on these pop culture curios, as well. Although I'm sure my life would probably be better if I didn't.
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Old 07-12-2013, 08:09 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tank
I really want to revisit it, but I cannot seem to find it available anywhere to check out, so if anyone here has any info, it would be much appreciated.
I'll see if they have it at Suspect. Of course, that doesn't help you out but at least someone can bear witness!

Quote:
Originally Posted by Tank
I would love to get my hands on these pop culture curios, as well. Although I'm sure my life would probably be better if I didn't.
We could do a whole Ludovico series on just this crap alone.

Then again....

We won't. (Although I am curious about the Dirty Dozen sequels. I think I remember them being on TV.)
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Old 07-12-2013, 08:17 PM
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I'll see if they have it at Suspect. Of course, that doesn't help you out but at least someone can bear witness!
No. That doesn't help me. At all. But...thanks.

Quote:
We could do a whole Ludovico series on just this crap alone.

Then again....

We won't. (Although I am curious about the Dirty Dozen sequels. I think I remember them being on TV.)
If you really want to, then I'm your guy. I live for this kind of stuff. I find ill-advised or lesser-known sequels to films that didn't require one absolutely fascinating. The more head-scratching they are, the more intrigued I get.
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Old 07-12-2013, 10:48 PM
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A short-lived TV series followed, but with an all-new cast.
I remember watching that when it was on. I think it was on Fox.

I hadn't seen The Dirty Dozen at that point, but I was aware of it, and even without any knowledge of the source material the TV series seemed like a copy of a copy of a copy.

When I was that age I was hungry to see any kind of action-packed World War II drama, but it wasn't that great. I remember a lot of little moments from it. I think one of the Dozen met his heroic death moments after shouting "Roses are red, violets are blue. You are a Nazi, and I am a Jew!"
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Old 07-13-2013, 02:15 AM
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I vividly remember seeing this for the first time one Christmas. My dad was similarly in awe of McQueen and wore clothing inspired by what he wore in his favourite movies so I saw all of them at a tender age. It's a tremendous film which I've seen countless times. The sort of movie you find these days flicking through the channels on a lazy Sunday and watch once more gleefully.
I discovered myself whistling the theme tune whilst hanging out the washing this morning
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Old 07-13-2013, 10:39 AM
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I think one of the Dozen met his heroic death moments after shouting "Roses are red, violets are blue. You are a Nazi, and I am a Jew!"
Really?? Now I HAVE to see this!
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Old 07-13-2013, 10:42 AM
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I vividly remember seeing this for the first time one Christmas. My dad was similarly in awe of McQueen and wore clothing inspired by what he wore in his favourite movies so I saw all of them at a tender age. It's a tremendous film which I've seen countless times. The sort of movie you find these days flicking through the channels on a lazy Sunday and watch once more gleefully.
I discovered myself whistling the theme tune whilst hanging out the washing this morning
It's one of those films that are like the cinematic equivalent of "comfort food". It makes me forget everything else going on and just allows me to get lost in it for awhile. A true classic.
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Old 07-13-2013, 10:43 AM
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It's one of those films that are like the cinematic equivalent of "comfort food". It makes me forget everything else going on and just allows me to get lost in it for awhile. A true classic.
Exactly.
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Old 07-13-2013, 03:49 PM
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Really?? Now I HAVE to see this!
All I remember from it are those little "moments."

There's a lothario character (he had an accent ... I think French, maybe Italian) who talks about sleeping with another man's wife. He says something like, "She call it many things. Sometimes she call it 'ooh la la, baby.' Sometimes she call it 'Oh yes.' But when her husband walk in she call it 'rape.'"

There's also a guy who was an aspiring male model who punched out his commanding officer for using his special male-model shampoo.
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Old 07-21-2013, 11:50 AM
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Great review, Tank. They had no choice but to make it three hours because you couldn't short change any of the superb actors in this film.

As good as this movie is, my favorite WWII film will always be Where Eagle Dare (1968), because Clint Eastwood is my personal hero, and I love the James Bond aspect to it.
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Old 07-21-2013, 12:11 PM
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And when I think back on these amazing flicks responsible for instilling in me an early love of the medium, the two I've revisited the most include The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and the film we're discussing this week at the Ludovico.
Did I ever share with you my ghost theory for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Feedback? I'm sure I posted it on the board somewhere but I can't find it.
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Old 07-21-2013, 09:19 PM
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I watched The Great Escape last Sunday with my brother-in-law, since he'd never seen it before. I realized that I'd seen more of it than I thought I had. The first time I saw it was on TV, and I probably only missed the first 20 minutes.

It's such a great movie. Totally involving and exciting from the opening credits. Elmer Bernstein's music is a huge part of it, but the dialogue, direction, acting, and story are all just spot-on perfect.

One mark of a great film is that it's still exciting and suspenseful even when you know exactly what's going to happen.
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Old 08-13-2013, 04:21 AM
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Did I ever share with you my ghost theory for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Feedback?
I vaguely recall it.....

Hmmm.

Where did you post it, do you think?
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Old 08-13-2013, 06:54 PM
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I vaguely recall it.....

Hmmm.

Where did you post it, do you think?
I don't remember, and I can only look back to my last 500 posts so it might have been before that.

I'd be happy to explain it again if you are interested.
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Old 08-13-2013, 07:09 PM
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I'd be happy to explain it again if you are interested.
Yeah, let's hear it. Maybe start a new thread on the movie - I don't think we have one for TGTB&TU.
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Old 08-13-2013, 09:40 PM
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Yeah, let's hear it. Maybe start a new thread on the movie - I don't think we have one for TGTB&TU.
You got it.
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