CHRISTMAS time is traditionally a time of year when we look for guidance, when we stare up to the stars in search of a saviour to lead us in the right direction.

Boy, are we looking up at the heavens right now, a nation trapped in abeyant darkness, hoping all will be well. But in light of that guiding light not appearing anytime soon there is reassurance yonder in the glass-covered heavens that is television.

And the stars will guide us – in the form of McQueen, Garner and McCallum.

Yes, The Great Escape is to be screened yet again.

Thankfully, the BBC plans to broadcast John Sturges’ 1963 POW classic again this Christmas day. We currently live in a political world of collapsing tunnels and probing searchlights, held captive by the ineptitude of those in the machine gun towers of indecision. We’re up against seemingly insurmountable odds whereby almost everyone is an enemy.

However, The Great Escape, a tale of abiding, unrelenting hope, will remind us of the qualities that make us human. It’s a story that reminds us not everyone is wrapped up in power struggles and solipsism.

The film opens with dark skies, revealing the stank depression of the prison camp (an apposite metaphor for modern times) which is suddenly contrasted with the mesmeric blue eyes of heavenly Steve McQueen, in the earthly form of Captain Virgil Hilts.

Hilts leads by example, a man who knows where he’s going (free). But imbued in Hilts is the sense of self-sacrifice. At one point, he escapes, then gives himself up to his captors so others can have the chance of freedom. Hilts even has his crown of thorns moment, when his Triumph 650 launches him onto the flesh-tearing barbed wire – yet we learn his valiant spirit survives unscratched.

Indeed, the theme of self-sacrifice criss-crosses the film like the three escape tunnels which run under the prison camp, whose creation demands sharing skills and solidarity. James Garner’s Hendley, for example, is a scrounger, an opportunist, yet he’s more; under pressure he comes to the aid of a blind friend. Donald Pleasence’s character, Blythe, became blind thanks to the efforts to help his friends escape. (In fact the entire escape plan was an exercise in self-sacrifice, the intent not to simply break free but for the collective to score a major PR victory against the Nazis.)

The Great Escape is not just a movie. It’s a parable for how we should live our lives; sometimes we need to use our own initiative, to clear out the dirt we accumulate, to take a pair of wire cutters to a random bicycle chain if it means personal freedom. It doesn’t necessarily suggest stealing motorbikes and riding roughshod over someone’s freshly cut field is always the way to go, but there are times when we need to open up the throttle to feel the wind of challenge in our faces, to tackle it head on.

Yes, The Great Escape has had its critics. It’s too long (two hours and 53 minutes), it plays a little fast and loose with true events and some of its characters are composites. But none of that matters. It works as a film classic because it’s a story of continuous suspense in which every scene reveals a new jeopardy (reflective of what politics has brought to our lives right now). And at its heart it is most certainly not a story about patriotism or nationalism – it features an international cast – and it also plays up the strong character traits of the different nationalities. (For example, Dickie Attenborough’s Bartlett reveals a polite but commanding Englishness and Hilts’ American sang-froid.)

What is also true of the escape from Stalag Luft 111 is that several of the German (anti-Nazi) guards were complicit in the escape attempts.

Can there be a true film classic in which only one sex is represented? (United Artists at one point insisted one of the escapees is filmed canoodling with a beautiful women in a low-cut blouse. (Sturges shot that idea in the head.) Well, that argument is now redundant, given the sapphic element of so many modern movies and TV series. And it has to be added the film does contain a love story of sorts; Angus Lennie’s Ives is clearly besotted with Hilts.

What should also be noted is the making of the film is in itself a great exemplar for determination. (It went through six writers and 11 drafts, and was still a work in progress when shooting began.)

Yet, you may wonder where is the positivity in a film in which 50 good guys are machine-gunned by Gestapo while stretching their legs? Well, their attempts to escape were heroic. And death is a reality of life.

And life, like The Great Escape, is a series of dispiriting setbacks, of anti-climaxes, of having your hidden drain sump discovered when you least expect it.

Yet, there’s even more to be gleaned from this movie. Not only does it teach the value of learning foreign languages, it’s life affirming. It says sometimes you will tunnel and you will come up short. But if we keep digging together we will eventually make the trees.