Thursday, April 18, 2013

#ChemMovieCarnival: The Great Escape, or, an excellent in-process check

SeeArrOh is putting together the Chemistry Movie Carnival, which I am more than happy to participate in. I confess that since I've had kids (and really, since I've started the blog), I don't really watch movies any more. I do a lot of reading and that tends to be my entertainment.

But back in the day, I loved watching movies.* One of my favorite movies of all time has to be "The Great Escape." It has adventure, camaraderie and best of all, it is based on a true story of Allied prisoners tunneling out of a German prisoner of war camp. (My UK readers will accurately note that it is dramatized, and the role of American military personnel in breaking out of Stalag Luft III was wildly exaggerated.)

It also contains a favorite scene of chemistry from the movies. It hass two of the movie's stars, Steve McQueen and James Garner**, hiding away from the other prisoners and doing a bit of fermentation chemistry with some potatoes. Best yet, they're doing a distillation....

What do I love about this scene?
  • The dramatic wait for the forerun from a distillation
  • The in-process check to determine product quality
  • How the successful in-process check inspires them to work harder at starting material preparation (I wish I could bottle the feeling of a first successful in-process check of a pilot run.) 
  • The chirpy, whimsical music throughout (I need this while running TLCs or HPLCs.) 
A little nitpick: I've never brewed moonshine before, but doesn't the mash have to ferment for a while before distillation? If so, why were they still peeling potatoes? Perhaps we were witnessing the pilot batch, and Captain Hilts (McQueen) and friends were working on preparing the full-scale run...

Runners up: "Lorenzo's Oil" (still, I say, the best on-screen portrayal of a research chemist at their craft) and "Chain Reaction" (for Keanu Reeves chopping off the valve of a nitrogen cylinder with an ax to blow a hole in a wall.) 

*My favorite movies, I can watch them again and again. And quote long swaths: "It reminds me of the heady days of Yuri Gagarin and Sputnik, when the world trembles at the sound of our rockets... now, they will tremble at the sound of our silence." 
** FWIW, my favorite characters from the movie are neither Hilts nor Hendley, but the forger Blythe and Velinski, the Polish tunneler. 


  1. Lorenzo's Oil was a boring movie, I thought.

    --Unstable Isotope

  2. Dude! I love that scene in Chain Reaction. I use it to show my students how dangerous gas cylinders are.

  3. My personal favorite is still the melting point scene from The French Connection. That's how you know your drugs are good--no melting point depression.


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