The Great Escape (1963) is one of those films that no matter how many times I see it, I find a new way to appreciate it even more. Director John Sturges (Never So Few, The Magnificent Seven) brings to the screen this World War II adventure about allied soldiers who stage one of the greatest massive escapes from a new type of German POW camp.
Steve McQueen (Capt. Virgil “The Cooler King” Hilts), James Garner ( Lt. Robert “The Scrounger” Hendley), Richard Attenborough (Squadron Leader Roger “The Big X” Bartlett), Charles Bronson (Lt. Danny “The Tunnel King” Velinski), James Coburn (Flying Officer Louis “The Manufacturer” Sedgwick) and Donald Pleasence (Lt. Colin “The Forger” Blythe) make up the cast of escape artists.
The German Luftwaffe (Air Force) has created a new type of POW camp in which “all their rotten eggs” can be placed in one heavily guarded basket. Allied POWs have been gathered from all stockades in Germany and are brought to Stalag Luft III outside of Sagan, Germany. The new camp commandant, Col. von Luger (Hannes Messemer) informs the new prisoners that there will be no escape attempts and if any try they will be executed. The senior allied officer, Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald) tells the commandant that it is the sworn duty of every prisoner to try and escape.
Von Luger feels comfortable that the new facility will make it impossible for any to escape. Within the first few minutes of arriving in the camp, the main characters begin probing for weaknesses among the camp’s guards, the wire, and the conning towers which overlook everyone and everything within the camp. Several make attempts to try and escape but are quickly discovered and prove to be a handful for their captors.
The most notable of these attempts is perpetrated by Capt Hilts (McQueen), an American flier who throws his baseball over the “wire of death” which is erected in front of the camp perimeter fence. Hilts informs one of his fellow American inmates that between the two towers at night, makes it almost impossible for them to see someone trying to cut through the fence. He is discovered by one guard and is shot at by another in one of the towers.
Hilts is brought before von Luger to explain himself and tells him that he was trying to escape with a pair of stolen wire cutters. Von Luger finds Hilts to be an ill mannered officer and has him placed in the “cooler” (stockade) for a period of three weeks. Hilts along with another prisoner, Flying Officer Archibald “The Mole” Ives (Angus Lennie) learn from one another while locked up in the cooler on how to escape the camp. A fantastic scene which helps to set the rest of the film in motion.
The arrival of Bartlett “Big X” (Attenborough) brings the whole plot together. Bartlett hopes to have over two hundred and fifty prisoners escape in one shot, the largest ever to “confuse and harass the enemy” in order that the German high command and the Luftwaffe will waste their resources, pulling much needed troops and material off the front-lines in order to nab them up. Bartlett has the most to lose for such a bold plan because if he is captured by the SS or Gestapo once more, he will be shot for orchestrating yet another escape attempt. Bartlett quickly gets operations running to have teams of men construct three tunnels codenamed “Tom, Dick & Harry”. Others are recruited for designing civilian clothes out of their military uniforms, to forge travel papers and other types of documents, to procure contraband, and most importantly, to keep the Germans from discovering the work they are doing.
My favorite part of the movie is the most iconic. Only a fraction escape out of the tunnel codenamed Harry. Many are caught or killed, while several manage to make it to either neutral Spain, Sweden, or Switzerland. Hilts manages to commandeer a German motorcycle at a German depot and races towards the Swiss border which has been blocked off by a double row of barbwire fencing. That classic Elmer Bernstein score builds up as Hilts is pursued by several platoons of German troops trying to catch him before he jumps the wire into Switzerland. A terrific scene which shows off McQueen’s talents on a motorcycle, and cemented him as a Hollywood superstar who became the epitome of cool for future aspiring actors.
The Great Escape was not very well received outside the U.S., especially in Britain who disliked the attention that McQueen’s character received and that the British characters were brushed over. It would take many years for the film to gain a new generation of fans around the world who began to praise the film as a true work of cinematic art from Hollywood’s golden age.
In 2009, a group of several POWs returned to the real Stalag Luft III for the 65th anniversary of the escape and were treated to a private showing of the film. Many vets agreed that the film portrayed a very authentic representation of what it was like in the camp, but some criticized McQueen’s performance for glamorizing imprisonment by the Germans who from time to time, violated several international laws which protect POWs in time of war, most notably the Geneva Convention which was created to give captured combatants the right to fair treatment and protection from their captors.
The Great Escape is a classic film with a cast of superb actors. It is a film which has inspired and has been honored and emulated in many films and television shows such as The Simpsons, Chicken Run, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Top Secret! It’s a film I enjoy from time to time with friends, and it is also a film which has inspired me in studying and writing about these classic war films. A must have for any film buff’s movie library.
The Great Escape is available on DVD through MGM/UA and can be rented through Netflix.