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Sir Michael Caine: Coming Around in a Very Full Circle

Comedian Dennis Miller used to tell a joke in his act that went something like this:  “So I was watching my home movies the other day and I’ll be damned if Michael  Caine didn’t show up in them.” Granted, the snarky humor is a bit of an exaggeration but when considering Caine has appeared in more than 170 TV shows and films, it doesn’t seem to be too far from the truth. In his more than seven decades as an actor, he has made some of the greatest films of all time, albeit also some of  the worst. However, that legendary career has come around to a very full circle with his latest film, the poignant true story of The Great Escaper, to be released on October 6th of this year. Its plot, themes and the character Caine portrays combine to make a perfect fit for the 90-year-old thespian, as will be shown by a brief overview of his work and, most of all, the amount of time he’s played men in uniform and the connection it has to the man himself.  

Caine came into his own in the mid-1960s playing the title role of Alfie (1965) the  charming, womanizing cad who gets his well-deserved comeuppance in the end. That same year he played Harry Palmer as a sort of antithesis to James Bond in The Ipcress File, the first in a series of films that would include Funeral in Berlin (1966), and Billion Dollar Brain (1967). The six-foot-three, wavy fair-haired bespectacled Londoner with the unashamedly thick cockney accent, sleepy eyes, and often laconic delivery proved an unlikely yet popular box-office star from then on. But he certainly did not start out that way. 

He once famously stated, “Sometimes when I’m asked if I believe in God, people are very surprised when I tell them that I do. But if you have lived my life and seen the luck I’ve had from extraordinary circumstances you would believe in Him as well.”

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Caine’s reasoning is sound. He came into the world as Maurice Micklewhite in 1933, born and raised in the poverty-stricken slums of London’s East End. He  claims his first acting role was when he was three years old but not for the kind of pay associated with prodding the boards. His mother taught and rehearsed him to say two simple words in the most emphatic way a child could muster. She stood behind the door when the rent collector knocked and when he inquired, Micklewhite would tearfully respond, “Mummy’s out!” Apparently, the scheme worked well enough to put the debt off a little bit longer. 

He hustled and survived through Britain’s leanest times, including the devastating blitz of WWII. The war atrocities that leveled the country provided a small windfall as  the prefabricated housing hastily constructed by the government gave the Mickelwhites the first new environs they’d ever known. By 1952 he experienced  the following that he described as follows: “After the war, the British government started a scheme in which every eighteen-year-old boy learned to defend his country for two years. They called it National Service. We called it hell.”  

Caine again survived on his wits while trying to remain as discreet and invisible as possible to his commanding officers during the grueling basic training he underwent. Considered a malcontent by his fellow green recruits, he did make friends with five other similar misfits and a pact was created. When their training  and assignments were nearly completed, they were given a choice: stay in National  Service for another year, or get shipped to the battlefields of Korea. “A quick  meeting was held by the five of us and in no time at all we decided we would  rather die than spend another year in the army, so we refused to sign on and were  hastily dispatched to London to join the Royal Fusiliers…the only regiment that  was allowed to march through the City of London with banners unfurled and  bayonets fixed.”  

Following their jaunt through the streets of London, the Royal Fusiliers boarded a troop ship for the long and arduous voyage to Seoul and the harrowing experience  of defending a hill outpost in the midst of constant firefights. The future actor,  nicknamed ‘Mick’ by his cohorts, found his belief in God in good standing as he  survived the nightmare of battle relatively unscathed. “I was standing there in my  usual trance-like state dreaming,” He later wrote, “of becoming an actor in the  glamorous and heroic war films that bore little resemblance to the real thing.” 

He was often on night duty as a sentry, and in the sweaty bowels of the smoke choking nights, Caine knew full well that this skirmish was not WWII and stated, “I  began to wonder exactly what I was doing defending capitalism in a country I had  never heard of against a red menace for four shillings a day. The people who had  the real capital were not here and so far the system I was defending for them had  treated me like shit. I decided then and there that my father’s advice about poker  had been right: if after five hands of cards, you had not figured out who the mug  was, it was probably you. I vowed at that moment that if I survived I would never  be taken for a mug again — and, by and large, I haven’t.”  

Upon mustering out he also laid about briefly until his father wisely advised him,  “Why don’t you get off your arse and get a job!” He then proceeded to work part time in a butter factory while perusing the want ads for anything even remotely  connected to stage work. He worked his way up the theatrical ladder from assistant stage manager to small roles that got bigger over time, as he persisted to the point  his newly acquired agent spoke with him from a phone booth about changing his  name. Peering out of the booth, he saw a movie marquee advertising a revival of  The Caine Mutiny (1954) and decided then and there. He later joked that if he looked further to the right the near-sighted actor would have been called Michael Mutiny.  

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Michael Caine began making regular appearances on the British stage, television,  and eventually film. In fact, an early appearance was in a film entitled Hell in  Korea (1956) in which he erroneously claimed to be an unofficial technical  advisor. His growing popularity in such films as Zulu (1964), Play Dirty (1969), Too Late the Hero (1970), and many more, cemented his reputation as a military hero by appearing in as many war films as John Wayne. His career occasionally took a bit of a dip when he appeared in such all-star epics as The Battle of Britain (1969) and A Bridge Too Far (1977). However, when director John Huston cast him and Sean Connery in Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Caine solidified his reputation as the righteous British scoundrel ’Peachy’ Carnahan  who proudly bellowed, “Detriments? Detriments you call us? Well, I’ll have you  know it’s detriments like us what made the British Army!”  

All of which brings his life and career full circle to The Great Escaper (2023). The  film is the true story of then 89-year-old retired British naval officer Jordan Bernard (Caine) who sought to pay his respects to the many friends and comrades he lost on D-Day when the event is commemorated in France on the seventieth anniversary in 2014. Unfortunately, he and his wife (played by the late Glenda Jackson) are sequestered in an English nursing home and are frustrated by their attempts to attend the event. His wife gives her consent and blessing for him to  surreptitiously escape so he can make his way back to Normandy and the media  discover his journey, dubbing him “The Great Escaper,” making him an  international phenomenon.  

Not only are Jackson and Caine reunited for the first time since they made The Romantic Englishwoman (1975), but the frail yet legendary two-time Oscar winning actress saw the finished film just days before she passed. According to the  film’s director, Oliver Parker, “On one level, she and Michael were quite different  souls,” he said of the two veterans. “But actually it was fabulous. The connections were stronger than the differences, and the differences were exciting. They’re both  working-class heroes, symbols of a spirit of modernity.”  

The Great Escaper: Release date, cast, plot
Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson co-starring in 1975’s drama, The Romantic Englishwoman


The film also combines flashbacks of the two characters in their youth and during  the war with their fellow comrades. For Caine, it might well be the capstone of a remarkably long and luck-filled career. It may even bring his own long-sought Best  Actor Oscar, having won two Best Supporting Oscars for Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and The Cider House Rules (1999). 

The real Bernard Jordan, on whose story the film was based, died peacefully in his sleep at the care facility in January 2015 at the age of 90, with thousands of birthday cards in his possession. Michael  Caine is already 90 and still has projects in the works. Long may he continue to be  a detriment to the British Army.

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