The Great Escape Film

There are many detractors from this classic movie. Everyone is entitled to their own opionion on both the movie itself and the story it seeks to tell. Taken as pure piece of film making there is little doubt that it is a fine piece of cinematography which keeps the viewer gripped and no one who has watched it can deny the impact it has on the viewer both in terms of the enthralling story line and tragic end. TV audiences are treated to an airing every single Christmas time and it remains a family favourite for many households. In a 2006 a poll in the United Kingdom, regarding the family film that television viewers would most want to see on Christmas Day, The Great Escape came in third, and was first among the choices of male viewers. The movie was never meant to be a piece of documentary film making accurately portraying a sequence of events as they unfolded. Movies do not do this. They are meant to entertain, educate and capture the imagination of the viewing audience. It is hard to deny this is the case with this classic movie.

Here at MHT we thought you would enjoy these movie facts:

The Great Escape is a 1963 American film about an escape by Allied prisoners of war from a German POW camp during World War II, starring Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough. The film is based on the book of the same name by Paul Brickhill, a non-fiction account of the mass escape from Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Żagań, Poland), in the province of Lower Silesia, Nazi Germany. The characters are based on real men, in some cases composites of several men. The film was made by the Mirisch Company, released by United Artists, and produced and directed by John Sturges.

Awards:

  • Nominated Academy Award for Film Editing (Ferris Webster)
  • Nominated Golden Globe Award for Best Picture
  • Winner Moscow International Film Festival Best Actor (Steve McQueen)
  • Nominated Moscow International Film Festival Grand Prix (John Sturges)
  • Selected National Board of Review Top Ten Films of Year
  • Nominated Writers Guild of America Best Written American Drama (James Clavell, W.R. Burnett) (Screenplay Adaptation)

Cast:

  • Steve McQueen as Capt. Virgil Hilts
  • James Garner as Flt. Lt. Robert Hendley
  • Richard Attenborough as Sqn. Ldr. Roger Bartlett
  • James Donald as Gp. Capt. Ramsey
  • Charles Bronson as Flt. Lt. Danny Velinski
  • Donald Pleasence as Flt. Lt. Colin Blythe
  • James Coburn as Fg. Off. Louis Sedgwick
  • Hannes Messemer as Col. von Luger
  • David McCallum as Lt. Cmdr. Eric Ashley-Pitt
  • Gordon Jackson as Flt. Lt. MacDonald
  • John Leyton as Flt. Lt. William Dickes
  • Angus Lennie as Fg. Off. Archibald Ives
  • Nigel Stock as Flt. Lt. Dennis Cavendish
  • Robert Graf as Werner
  • Jud Taylor as 2nd Lt. Goff
  • William Russell as Sorren

Casting:

Steve McQueen with Wally Floody, a former Canadian POW who was part of the real Great Escape and acted as a technical advisor in production of the film.

Steve McQueen, in a role based on a pilot named David M. Jones, has been credited with the most significant performance. Critic Leonard Maltin wrote that “the large, international cast is superb, but the standout is McQueen; it’s easy to see why this cemented his status as a superstar.”

Richard Attenborough was cast as Sqn Ldr Roger Bartlett RAF (“Big X”), a character based on Roger Bushell, the South African-born British POW who was the mastermind of the real Great Escape. This was the film that first brought Attenborough to wide popular attention in the United States.

Flt Lt Colin Blythe RAF (“The Forger”) was based on Tim Walenn and played by Donald Pleasence. Pleasence himself had served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He was shot down and spent a year in German prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft I.

James Garner had been a soldier in the Korean War and was twice wounded. He was a scrounger during that time, as is his character Flt Lt Hendley.

Hannes Messemer was cast as the Kommandant of Stalag Luft III, “Colonel von Luger,” a character based on Oberst Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau.

Angus Lennie’s Flying Officer Archibald Ives, “The Mole”, was based on Jimmy Kiddel, who was shot dead while trying to scale the fence.

The film is accurate in showing that only three escapees made home runs, although the people who made them differed from those in the film. The escape of Danny and Willie in the film is based on two Norwegians who escaped by boat to Sweden, Per Bergsland and Jens Müller. The successful escape of Coburn’s Australian character via Spain was based on Dutchman Bram van der Stok.

Location & Set Design:

The film was made at the Bavaria Film Studio in the Munich suburb of Geiselgasteig in rural Bavaria where sets for the barrack interiors and tunnels were constructed. The camp was constructed in a clearing in the Perlacher forest near the studio. The German town near the prison camp, called Neustadt in the film, was really Sagan (now Żagań), Poland. Many scenes were filmed in and around the town of Füssen in Bavaria, including its railway station. The nearby district of Pfronten with its distinctive St.Nikolaus Church and scenic background also features often in the film. Many scenes involving trains and stations were filmed near Deisenhofen station and the rail lines Großhesselohe – Holzkirchen.

The film depicts the tunnel codenamed Tom as having its entrance 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 next to a stove chimney. The motorcycle chase scenes culminating in the jumping of the barbed wire were shot on meadows outside Füssen, and the “barbed wire” that Hilts crashed into before being recaptured was actually strips of rubber tied around barbless wire, constructed by the cast and crew in their spare time. The jump scene was performed by stuntman Bud Ekins in place of Steve McQueen. Other parts of the chase scene were done by McQueen playing both Hilts and the soldiers chasing him because of McQueen’s ability on a motorcycle.

Adaptation:

The story was adapted by James Clavell, W. R. Burnett, and Walter Newman from Paul Brickhill’s book The Great Escape. Brickhill had been a prisoner at Stalag Luft III during World War II.

The film was to some extent a work of fiction, based on the real events but with compromises made for purposes of commercial appeal, serving as a vehicle for its box-office stars. While many of its characters were fictitious, most were amalgams of several real characters and many were based on real people. There were no escapes by motorcycle, or aircraft. The screenwriters increased the importance of the roles of American POWs; the real escape was by British and other allied personnel, none being American. While Americans in the POW camp initially helped build the tunnels and worked on the early escape plans, they were moved to their own compound seven months before the tunnels were completed. Hilts’ dash for the border by motorcycle was added by request of McQueen, who did the stunt riding himself except for the final jump (done by Bud Ekins).

Ex-POWs asked filmmakers to exclude details about the help they received from their home countries, such as maps, papers, and tools hidden in gift packages, lest it jeopardize future POW escapes. The filmmakers complied.

In reality Canadians played an important role in the construction of the tunnels and the escape itself. Of the 1,800 or so POWs in the compound, 600 were involved in preparations for the escape; 150 of these were Canadian. Wally Floody, an RCAF pilot and mining engineer who was the real-life “tunnel king”, was engaged as a technical advisor for the film.

Plot:

In 1944, having expended enormous resources on recapturing escaped Allied prisoners of war (POWs), the Germans move the most determined to a new, high-security prisoner of war camp. The commandant, Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger, tells the senior British officer, Group Captain Ramsey, “There will be no escapes from this camp.” Ramsey replies that it is their duty to try to escape, to which von Luger replies with exasperation over the numerous escape attempts performed by the new arrivals. When Ramsey reasons with the commandant that officers will not forget their duty, even in prison, von Luger calmly replies by pointing out the various features of the new camp designed to prevent escape, as well as the perks the prisoners will receive as an incentive not to try. After several failed escape attempts on the first day, the POWs settle into life at the prison camp.

Gestapo and SS agents bring RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett to the camp and deliver him to von Luger. Known as “Big X,” Bartlett is the principal organizer of escapes and Gestapo agent Kuhn orders that he be kept under the most restrictive permanent security confinement, which Col. von Luger, disgusted by the Nazis and the SS, only makes a “note” of, treating the command with complete contempt. As Kuhn leaves, he warns Bartlett that if he escapes again, he will be shot. Bartlett is then placed with the rest of the POWs, rather than the restrictive holding that Gestapo agent Kuhn had demanded.

Locked up with “every escape artist in Germany”, Bartlett immediately plans the greatest escape attempted—tunnels for breaking out 250 prisoners, much to the surprise of the X organization. The intent is to “confuse, confound and harass the enemy” to the point that as many troops and resources as possible will be wasted on finding POWs instead of being used on the front line.

Teams are organised to tunnel, make civilian clothing, forge documents, procure contraband materials, and prevent guards from discovering their work. Flight Lieutenant Robert Hendley, an American in the RAF, is “the scrounger” who finds what the others need, from a camera to clothes and identity cards. Australian Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick, “the manufacturer,” makes tools such as picks for digging and bellows for pumping air into the tunnels. Flight Lieutenant Danny Valinski and William “Willie” Bix are “the tunnel kings” in charge of making the tunnels. Lieutenant CommanderEric Ashley-Pitt of the Royal Navy devises a method of hiding bags in the prisoners’ trousers and spreading dirt from the tunnels over the camp, under the guards’ noses. Forgery is handled by Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe, who becomes nearly blind due to progressive myopia caused by intricate work by candlelight. Hendley takes it upon himself to be Blythe’s guide in the escape.

The prisoners work on three tunnels simultaneously, calling them “Tom,” “Dick” and “Harry.” Work on Harry and Dick is stopped so that more work can be performed on Tom. The work noise is covered by the prisoner choir led by Flt. Lt. Denis Cavendish, who is also the group’s surveyor.

USAAF Captain Virgil Hilts, “the Cooler King,” irritates guards with frequent escape attempts and irreverent behavior. Hilts and RAF Flying Officer Archibald Ives conceive of an escape attempt through a short tunnel at a blind spot right near the edge of the camp, a proposal which is accepted by Bartlett on the grounds that vetoing every independent escape attempt would raise suspicion of the collective escape attempt they were planning. However, Hilts and Ives are caught and returned to the cooler. Upon release from the cooler, Bartlett requests that Hilts use his next escape attempt as an opportunity for surveillance for the other prisoners; a request that Hilts refuses. Meanwhile, Hendley forms a friendship with German guard Werner, which he exploits on several occasions to smuggle documents and other items of importance to the prisoners.

While the British POWs enjoy a 4th of July celebration organized by the three Americans, the guards discover tunnel Tom. The mood drops to disappointment and hits Ives hardest. He is drawn to the barbed wire that surrounds the camp and climbs it in view of guards. Hilts runs to stop him but is too late, and Ives is shot dead near the top of the fence. The prisoners switch their efforts to Harry. Hilts agrees to change his plan and reconnoiter outside the camp and allow himself to be recaptured. The information he brings back is used to create maps showing the nearest town and railway station.

End of the real “Harry” tunnel (on the other side of the road) showing how it does not reach the cover of the trees

The last part of the tunnel is completed on the night of the escape, but it proves to be 20 feet short of the woods, which are to provide cover. Danny nearly snaps from claustrophobia and delays those behind him, but is helped by Willie. However, an impatient would-be escapee is discovered while exiting the tunnel and thwarts the completion of the escape effort. On the whole, seventy-six escape.

After attempts to reach neutral Switzerland, Sweden and Spain, almost all the POWs are recaptured or killed. Hendley and Blythe steal an airplane to fly over the Swiss border, but the engine fails and they crash-land. Soldiers arrive. Blythe, his eyesight damaged, stands and is shot. Hendley waves and shouts “don’t shoot”, and is captured as Blythe dies. Cavendish, having hitched a ride in a truck, is captured at a checkpoint, discovering another POW, Haynes, captured in his German soldier disguise.

Bartlett is recognized in a crowded railroad station by Gestapo agent Kuhn. Eric Ashley-Pitt sacrifices himself when he kills Kuhn with Kuhn’s own gun, and soldiers then shoot and kill him. In the commotion, Bartlett and MacDonald slip away but they are caught while boarding a bus after MacDonald blunders by replying in English to a suspicious Gestapo agent who wishes them “Good luck”. Hilts steals a motorcycle, is pursued by German soldiers, jumps a first line barbed wire fence at the German-Swiss border, drives on the Neutral Zone, but becomes entangled in the second line of the barbed fence right on the Swiss-Border and is captured.

Three truckloads of recaptured POWs go down a country road and split off in three directions. One truck, containing Bartlett, MacDonald, Cavendish, Haynes and others, stops in a field and the POWs are told to get out and “stretch their legs.” They are shot dead. Fifty escapees are murdered. Hendley, Nimmo and eight others are returned to the camp. Von Luger is relieved of command of the prison camp and is driven away by the SS for failing to prevent the breakout.

Only three make it to safety. Danny and Willie steal a rowboat and proceed downriver to the Baltic coast, where they board a Swedish merchant ship. Sedgwick steals a bicycle, then rides hidden in a freight train boxcar to France, where he is guided by the Resistance to Spain. Hilts is returned to the camp alone and taken back to the cooler. Lieutenant Goff, one of the Americans, gets Hilts’s baseball and glove and throws it to him when Hilts and his guards pass by. The guard locks him in his cell and walks away, but momentarily pauses when he hears the familiar sound of Hilts optimistically bouncing his baseball against a cell wall. The film ends with the caption “This picture is dedicated to the fifty.”

Our final thoughts are simply this: if the movie inspires viewers to go on to read and research about the history of Stalag Luft III in general and The Great Escape in particular then it has served a good cause. So sit back, watch the movie, then go pick up a book or two – or even better go and visit The Great Escape Camp, with MHT of course…

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