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The Great Escape (film)

The Great Escape is a popular 1963 war film about the 250 Allied prisoners of war escaping from a German POW camp during World War II. Produced and directed by John Sturges from a screenplay written by James Clavell, W. R. Burnett and Walter Newman (uncredited), the film stars Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough, and features James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence and James Coburn as well as Gordon Jackson and David McCallum.

The film was based upon the factual book of the same name by Paul Brickhill, who observed the actual events as a prisoner, as did George Harsh who supplied the introduction. Harsh, one of the few Americans in the British section of Stalag Luft III, died in 1980 at age 72.

The Great Escape is regarded as a classic and frequently repeated on television. The film's best remembered action scene is McQueen's attempt to cross the German border on a motorcycle; he also did many of his own stunts. The march tune that serves as the film's theme, written by Elmer Bernstein, has also become a classic, particularly in English football.

Plot

Upset by the soldiers and resources wasted in recapturing escaped Allied prisoners of war, the German High Command concentrates the most-determined and successful of these prisoners to a new, high-security prisoner of war camp that the commandant, Colonel von Luger (Hannes Messemer), proclaims escape-proof.

The Gestapo deliver to the camp the most dangerous prisoner of all, "Big X", Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), warning him that he will be shot should he ever again escape. Locked up with "every escape artist in Germany", Bartlett immediately plans the greatest escape attempted — a tunnel system for exfiltrating 250 prisoners of war.

The first escape attempt, conceived whilst in the cooler, is by USAAF Capt. Virgil Hilts (McQueen) and RAF Flying Officer Archibald Ives (Angus Lennie); they are caught and returned to the cooler. Later, when the three Americans in camp (Hendley, Hilts, and Goff) are celebrating American Independence Day with the other (mainly British) POWs, the guards discover tunnel "Tom". Because of that, the depressed Ives climbs the barbed wire fence to escape, while in view of the tower guards. Hilts notices and runs to stop him, but is too late as Ives is machine-gunned dead on the wire.

Teams of men are organised to survey, dig, hide soil, manufacture civilian clothing, forge documents, provide security and distractions, and procure contraband materials. The worst of the work noise was covered from the men choir singing, and dirt from the tunnels was concealed in the mens' trousers and emptied in the gardens. Flight Lieutenant Hendley (James Garner), "the scrounger", finds ingeniously devious ways to get whatever the others need, from a camera to identity cards. Australian Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick (James Coburn), "the manufacturer", makes many of the tools they need, such as picks for digging and bellows for pumping breathable air into the tunnels. Flight Lieutenant Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson), "the tunnel king", is in charge of digging, despite having a fear of dark enclosed spaces. Forgery is handled by Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence), who is sent nearly blind from the highly intricate work by candlelight (progressive myopia); Hendley takes it upon himself to be Blythe's guide in the escape. Meanwhile, Captain Virgil Hilts "The Cooler King", irritates the guards with frequent escapes and irreverent behaviour. Bartlett persuades Hilts to reconnoiter the immediate vicinity of the PoW camp during one of his escapes, then allow his recapture, allowing the cartographers to create guide maps of the local area, including the nearest town and railway station.

The prisoners work on three escape tunnels ("Tom", "Dick", and "Harry") simultaneously. After the first tunnel is discovered by one of the Guards, Werner (Robert Graf), the prisoners abandon the second tunnel and put all their efforts into completing the third. The last part of the tunnel is completed on the night of the escape, but is found to be twenty feet short of the woods that would provide cover. Nevertheless, seventy-six men escape before one is finally spotted coming out of the tunnel.

After various attempts to reach neutral Switzerland, Sweden, and Spain, almost all of the escaped PoWs are recaptured or killed: Hendley and Blythe steal a trainer aeroplane, intending to fly over the Swiss border; the engine fails and they are forced to crash-land en route. Soldiers arrive at the crash site, shooting Blythe dead while Hendley surrenders. Flight Lieutenant Cavendish (Nigel Stock), having hitched a lift in a truck, is captured at a checkpoint, discovering another fellow PoW, Haynes, captured in his German soldier disguise.

Bartlett, and Mac (Gordon Jackson), are recognised at a railroad station by a Gestapo agent, but manage to slip away after fellow PoW Eric Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum) sacrifices himself by killing the Gestapo agent and letting himself be chased and killed by soldiers. Bartlett and Mac attempt to board a bus in the town, but Mac is tricked into revealing his nationality with the same trick he had warned Haynes about before the escape — a German speaks to him in English and he responds in his native tongue. They both flee but Mac is caught shortly after; Bartlett having escaped over rooftops. However, after Bartlett fools some pursuing Gestapo, he is recognised by his previous captors. Lastly, Hilts attempts to jump the barbed wire Swiss-German border fence with a stolen Wehrmacht motorcycle but his petrol tank is hit and he becomes entangled in the wire.

Only three evade capture and make it to safety. Velinski and Flight Lieutenant Willy Dickes (the tunnel kings) steal a rowboat and proceed downriver to the Baltic coast, where they successfully board a Swedish merchant ship. Sedgewick hides in a boxcar and makes it all the way to France, and while resting in a café the local Resistance stages a drive-by shooting of some German officers. After realising he is an Allied PoW, the Resistance enlist the help of a guide to get Sedgewick into Spain.

As for the others, 48 of the re-captured PoWs, including Bartlett, Mac, Cavendish and Haynes, are shot dead execution-style after they are told to get out of the truck transporting them and "stretch their legs" in a field - this brings the total of those shot dead to 50 (including Ashley-Pitt and Blythe). Meanwhile, Hendley and Sorren and a small group of others are returned to the stalag. The Senior British Officer, Grp Cpt Ramsey (James Donald) hears of the massacre of the 50 dead from von Luger, who has been relieved of command and is swiftly driven away to face the consequences of failing to stop the breakout.

Hilts is brought back alone to the camp, and subsequently to the cooler. His fellow American officer Goff throws him his baseball and glove as he walks into solitary confinement. As the guard locks him in his cell and walks away, he hears the familiar sound of Hilts bouncing his baseball against the cell walls. The film ends with this scene under the caption "This picture is dedicated to the 50."

Cast

Actor Role(s)
Steve McQueen Capt Virgil Hilts "The Cooler King"
James Garner Flt Lt Anthony Hendley "The Scrounger"
Richard Attenborough Sqn Ldr Roger Bartlett "Big X"
James Donald Gp Capt Ramsey "The SBO"
Charles Bronson Flt Lt Danny Velinski "The Tunnel King"
Donald Pleasence Flt Lt Colin Blythe "The Forger"
James Coburn Fg Off Louis Sedgwick "The Manufacturer"
Hannes Messemer Col von Luger "The Kommandant"
David McCallum Lt Cmdr Eric Ashley-Pitt "Dispersal"
Gordon Jackson Flt Lt Sandy MacDonald "Intelligence"
John Leyton Flt Lt William Dickes "The Tunneler"
Angus Lennie Fg Off Archibald Ives "The Mole"
Nigel Stock Fl Lt Denys Cavendish "The Surveyor"
Robert Graf Werner 'The Ferret'
Jud Taylor Goff

Production notes

  • This film shares three of its stars (Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn), its director and producer (John Sturges), its composer (Elmer Bernstein), a screenwriter Walter Newman (uncredited), and its editor (Ferris Webster) with The Magnificent Seven. Both films also feature one of the stars of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: David McCallum appears in this film while Robert Vaughn appears in the earlier one.
  • Steve McQueen, an expert motorbiker, did most of his own motorbike stunts, but some of the more dangerous stunts required a double. Bud Ekins, a friend and fellow motorbike enthusiast, happened to resemble McQueen sufficiently from a distance to do the stunts without detecting the double. Ekins was only on-screen for a few seconds and his few shots were edited with the many individual shots of McQueen riding alongside and between the fences. Ekins performed the 60-foot (≈18 m) jump over the inner Austrian/Swiss border fence. He also did the scene sliding his bike into the outer fence. According to the DVD extra, McQueen did much of the bike work, even doubling twice-once as one of his own helmeted German pursuers-and once as the "rider" whom Hilts hijacks to get the motorcycle. Ekins also later doubled for McQueen in Bullitt.
  • As noted by David McCallum in the DVD extra, the "barbed wire" that Hilts (Steve McQueen) crashed into in the scene above was actually made of little strips of rubber tied around normal wire, and was made by the cast and crew during their free time.
  • Donald Pleasence had served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He was shot down and spent a year in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Screenwriter James Clavell served in the Royal Artillery and was captured by the Japanese. He was interned in Java and later the notorious Changi Prison camp in Singapore. In an archival interview in the DVD special, Pleasence said the prison camp was sufficiently realistic and that it was upsetting at first.
  • Hannes Messemer was also a real-life World War II prisoner of war, a German soldier captured by the Soviets.
  • Several video games were based on the movie, including one in 1986 and one in 2003 which explained more previous escapes of the main prisoners in previous camps and followed the film's main storyline, but altered the prisoner's fates largely.
  • Though the film is today a classic, it was largely ignored at the 1963 Academy Awards. Ferris Webster's editing received the only nomination, though he lost to Harold F. Kress for How the West Was Won.

Sequels and remakes

A highly fictionalized, made-for-television sequel, The Great Escape II: The Untold Story, appeared many years later. It starred Christopher Reeve with Donald Pleasence as an SS villain.

The Bollywood film Deewar: Let's Bring Our Heroes Back is based loosely on the same plot, although it involves a prisoner's (Amitabh Bachchan) son (Akshay Khanna) aiding the escape from within.

Historical inaccuracies

Many elements of the film are factual, but the events and characters are condensed.

  • Hendley represents several blackmailers and suppliers; the forger, Blythe, is a composite of at least two men, Tim Walenn and James Hill. One of the organisers, Lithuanian flight captain Romualdas Marcinkus, is unmentioned in the film.
  • Roger Bartlett was based on Roger Bushell, the mastermind of the escape, a brilliant organiser and a natural leader of men. The scar underneath the character's eye is a tribute to Bushell, a competitive skier who suffered an accident on the slopes that scarred him.
  • No members of the American armed forces actually escaped. While many had worked on the construction of both Tom and Harry, by the time of the escape through Harry the American prisoners had all been moved to a separate compound. However, John Dodge, an American in the British Army, was one of the escapees.
  • Steve McQueen's character of Hilts, "The Cooler King", was based on Alvin Vogtle a pilot from Alabama who went on to become the CEO of the electric utility Southern Company after the war. However Vogtle did not escape on this occasion.
  • Hilts's dash for the border by motorcycle is entirely fictional. It was made on the insistence of McQueen, a keen motorcyclist, and has become one of the most famous action scenes of 1960s classic cinema. The motorbike used in the film is a 1960s Triumph 650 rather than an authentic but more pedestrian, BMW R 75 or Zündapp KS 750. Hilts is shown being taken back to the POW Camp after his re-capture; in real life he would probably have been shot for appearing in a German uniform — though since he flashed his air force insignia, he may have been spared for still "bearing" his soldier's uniform.
  • There is also the fact that the figure of 50 was a compromise between Hitler and the German High Command. Hitler wanted all the recaptured POWs shot, but the High Command was afraid of what would happen to German POWs held by the Allies, especially if the Red Cross withdrew its support for German POWs.
  • Three tunnels were dug, shored and lighted as portrayed. The Germans discovered one just before completion (though it was not during 4th of July celebrations). Sand from the tunnels was put in bags hidden in the trousers. The prisoners would wander the camp spreading the dirt. The men doing this job were known as "penguins".
  • The film depicts Tom's entrance as being under a stove and Harry's as in a drain sump in a washroom. In reality, Dick's entrance was the drain sump, Harry's was under the stove, and Tom's was in a darkened corner.
  • POWs who came up with plans to escape needed permission to proceed from the Escape Committee. This was in order to avoid conflicting escape plans from cancelling each other: an escaping prisoner being caught by the guards could cause the alarm to be raised and ruin another escape attempt — thus the scene where Hilts and Ives need Bartlett's permission before proceeding with their plan.
  • Paul Brickhill, who didn't go through the tunnel, claimed that, due to a miscalculation, the tunnel ended short of the tree line. According to Alan Burgess, in The Longest Tunnel (1990, Grove Press), the tunnel did reach the forest, yet it was so sparse it provided insufficient cover. The escape had to proceed or the forged identity and travel papers would become invalid.
  • Only 76 of the projected 200 men escaped while an air raid occurred; only three POWs escaped Germany into neutral territory: the Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Müller who escaped to Sweden, and the Dutchman Bram van der Stok who reached Spain.
  • The Gestapo killed 50 of the recaptured POWs, in breach of the Geneva Convention. Such actions constituted a war crime. Most of the victims were driven to isolated spots in small groups and shot through the back of the head with pistols, rather than being machine-gunned en masse as depicted in the film. After the allied victory in May 1945, a war crimes investigation led to the arrest, imprisonment and in some cases execution of those responsible for the killings. Even before the end of the hostilities, the British Government was aware that 50 recaptured POWs had been killed: Herbert Massey (senior officer at Stalag Luft III) was repatriated to the UK during the war due to serious ill-health. After arriving back in the UK, he immediately informed his fellow officers what had happened. The actual murders, and the manhunt for the perpetrators after the war, is outlined in the book Exemplary Justice.
  • Group Captain Nicolas Tindal was in charge of forging documents for the escapers.
  • Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson) is based principally on Wally Floody, a Canadian mining engineer and pilot, who was a technical advisor for the film. He was transferred elsewhere before the escape occurred. The character also represents F/Lt Ernst Valenta, F/O Danny Krol, and F/O Wlodzimierz Adam Kolanowski who designed and maintained the tunnels. They escaped, but were subsequently recaptured and shot dead.
  • Another inspiration for Bronson's character was Flight Lieutenant (later Squadron Leader) Eric Dowling who earned the nickname "Digger" for his work on the tunnels. He also worked as a forger and map maker. He was very critical of the film, especially the scenes with McQueen on the motorbike.
  • Among the prisoners who tried to escape was Paramasiva Prabhakar Kumaramangalam who went on to become the 7th chief of the Indian army.
  • Though Roger Bartlett in the film speaks of freeing 250 men, there is no account of a target other than 200.
  • The stealing of personal possessions such as boats and bicycles was not recommended since escapers could face criminal charges if recaptured.
  • One important fact kept out of the film was the help the POWs received from outside the camp, some of it from the home countries. POWs received much material from home that proved invaluable for this and other escapes. Acting through secret agencies such as MI9, families from Allied nations would send maps, papers, tools, and disguise material hidden in gifts, books, food, and other objects: for example a map of Germany could be concealed in a pen. Ex-POWs asked the filmmakers to exclude such details lest it jeopardize future POW escapes.
  • For reasons of brevity, only 15 POWs are seen in the film to escape via the tunnel.
  • A scene shows a choir singing to cover the noise of work done for the escape, but, in reality, it was a group of prisoners who formed a musical band and called themselves the "Sagan Serenaders". Future television meteorologist Wally Kinnan, then a First Lieutenant in the US Army Air Corps and Pilot Officer Leonard Whiteley of the British Royal Air Force had organized the group. The Serenaders received musical instruments from aid organizations and whatever the German captors could scrounge. Musicians Tiger Ward, Nick Nagorka and pianist John Bunch were also members of this group.
  • Blythe's blindness would have probably been serious enough that he would have been eligible for the repatriation through the International Red Cross under Articles 68 to 74 of the Geneva Convention of 1929, and thus he would have had no need to escape.
  • The theft of a German airplane (in the film, a Bücker Bü 181) by Hendley and Blythe is also fictitious, although there was a failed attempt by Lorne Welch and Walter Morison to steal a plane following the delousing party escape a year earlier. Likewise the movie shows the plane going over Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle on the way to Switzerland; the 181 range only being about 497 miles- in real life their flight from Stalag Luft III would have gone down at least 50 miles from the Swiss border-instead of going down near the Swiss Alps.
  • The Kommandant of Stalag Luft III, Oberst Von Liedener, was unlike the character portrayed in the film. In the film the commandant was arrested as a result of the escape; in reality his arrest was due to his dealing with black market goods.

Other 'great' escapes

While 76 prisoners did escape from Stalag Luft III, larger escapes occurred during World War II:

  • A total of 132 Allied prisoners of war were freed by Yugoslav Partisans in a single operation in August 1944 in what is known as the raid at St Lorenzen. Almost all were successfully airlifted to Bari in Italy several weeks later.
  • The Cowra breakout, August 1944, Australia: 545 Japanese POWs attempted escape and/or suicide. 231 prisoners and four Australian soldiers were killed and the surviving escapees were recaptured.
  • At Sobibór extermination camp in October 1943, about 300 prisoners escaped. Only about 50 escapees survived the war. They killed at least 11 SS and Trawniki in the lead-up to the break.
  • The escape from Oflag XVII-A Doellersheim, Germany. Of 131 French soldiers in September 1943 only two succeeded in evading recapture.

The Great Escape in popular culture

  • An ad for beer was made in the early 1990s and shown on British TV. It featured some of McQueen's scenes from the film and included additional surreal footage with Griff Rhys Jones.
  • Some ads for the Hummer H3 in the fall of 2006 played the tune, as the employees of a nondescript company plot a "Great escape" to drive their Hummers, with a parking lot booth attendant mimicking throwing a baseball against the wall like Steve McQueen. The attendant was portrayed by Chad McQueen, who resembles his late father.
  • The animated film Chicken Run (2000) contains many references. The film also references Stalag 17, considered (along with "Escape") to be one of the greatest World War II prisoner-of-war movies.
  • British stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard's 1997 "Dress to Kill" performance included an 8-minute segment about "The Great Escape" in which Izzard humorously questioned the plausibility of the movie's plot and the demoralizing fact that all the British characters ended tragically despite all their cunning and planning while the Americans--notably Steve McQueen--survive. Known for his surrealist, stream-of-consciousness type of stand-up comedy, Izzard would digress often during this particular routine as he tried to remember all the characters and actors. This is exemplified best on the CD version of "Dress To Kill" where Izzard gets heckled by a fan during the Great Escape bit, demanding that Izzard "moves on".
  • The opening scene of Reservoir Dogs features Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino) explaining the premise of Madonna's "Like a Virgin" and referring to a man as being similar to Charles Bronson in The Great Escape stating, "he's digging tunnels".
  • In The Parent Trap (1998), Lindsay Lohan's characters are lead to an isolated camp cabin with the Great Escape march playing over the scene.
  • In an episode of The Simpsons where Maggie tries twice to escape from a Baby sitter school-the theme music from "The Great Escape" is used. in another scene in the same episode, Maggie is placed in "The Pen" after a failed escape and in shown bouncing a ball off the wall, similar to the cooler scenes in the movie.
  • The video game Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, which takes place a year after the movie was released, references The Great Escape in a Codec transmission early in the game. Major Zero, who at the time was using the code name Major Tom, discloses in a conversation to Naked Snake that he chose the name based on what he thought was the tunnels from The Great Escape the prisoners used to escape. He later on learned that he chose the wrong one; the tunnel used in the escape was in fact Harry, not Tom.
  • In the episode Precipice from the reimagined series of Battlestar Galactica there is an ending scene where prisoners are loaded off trucks to be shot by a Cylon firing squad, much like a similar sequence in The Great Escape. Audio commentary for the episode revealed that the scene was in fact inspired by The Great Escape.
  • In the Doctor Who serial The Mind of Evil Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart whistles the theme tune while helping to break the Doctor and Jo Grant out of prison.
  • The theme tune is often adopted by football fans, particularly in England, when their team is fighting to avoid relegation against the odds.
  • Steve McQueen and his character "Hilts" have also been referenced several times on the television series "Supernatural", specifically in the episodes "The Usual Suspects" and "Folsom Prison Blues". The Winchester brothers have been known to use the names to indicate an escape from police custody.
  • In the Red Dwarf episode "Queeg", Cat and Lister whistle the theme tune as they are forced to scrub the floor.

References

Notes

Bibliography

External links

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