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What's the big deal?
The Great Escape is an epic war adventure film released in 1963 and is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Paul Brickhill. Directed by John Stuges, the film's ensemble cast includes Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, James Coburn and Gordon Jackson. The film depicts a group of Allied prisoners of war notorious for escaping POW camps in Nazi Germany who are transferred to a brand new camp purposely built to prevent any further escapes - not that this stops them from trying. The film makes a number of changes to the story to make the film more mass-appeal such as increasing American involvement in the plot and is famous for the iconic theme music by composer Elmer Bernstein. The film remains popular among critics and audiences and has become a staple of TV viewing in the UK while the theme tune has become synonymous with the England football team. The film made just under $12 million worldwide (worth about $113 million in 2022) and has influenced a number of other filmmakers over the years.
What's it about?
In 1942, a number of prisoners-of-war have been recaptured and rounded up by the Nazi forces in Germany after spending a considerable amount of time and resources to do so. To prevent any further such break-outs, they are all sent to the maximum security Stalag Luft III camp where the camp's Kommandant von Luger insists that any escape attempt will be futile. However, almost immediately, a number of Allied soldiers try their luck but are quickly thwarted.
It's only after the arrival of a prisoner known as Big X, Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, that serious plans are put into place. Using a variety of officer's unique skills, Bartlett plans on playing along with their captors while secretly digging a number of tunnels underneath the camp to escape to some nearby woods and ultimately continuing to cause as much havoc as possible for the Germans. While Group Captain Ramsey organises the men for their tasks, the arrival of cocky American pilot Captain Virgil Hilts not only encourages other Americans to join in with the effort but also serves as a useful distraction with his anti-authoritarian behaviour.
What's to like?
If your expectation of this is a harrowing, Schindler's List-style experience then forget it because this film is about as light-hearted as you can be without being an outright comedy. While the film takes plenty of effort to maintain authenticity, the film has a jaunty atmosphere throughout which is exemplified by Bernstein's classic theme. Shot in bright colours and with plenty going on, the film slowly builds the tension of the escape attempt for most of its running time before spending the rest of its running time following our characters as they attempt to keep themselves absconded. There might not be much in the way of danger in the film but for once, this is a war film you can enjoy with younger viewers as there isn't much in the way of violence or bloodshed.
McQueen, arguably one of the most charismatic stars in history, steals the film as Hilts who seems to consider his time in the camp as little more than an inconvenience from just being cool. Assisted by co-stars Garner and Bronson, the three Yanks do a fine job of giving the film its sense of personality. Attenborough is also fantastic as the buttoned-up Bartlett, feeling like a prototype James Bond at a time when 007's assault on cinemas was just getting going. Yet, for all the levity on display, the film does an excellent job of creating real tension during the escape and afterwards. Credit to Stuges for juggling the various egos among the cast and still delivering a gripping film, one full of beautiful scenery and exciting action when it comes. The highlight, of course, is McQueen's motorcycle jump over a barbed wire fence but the pursuit through narrow streets and alleyways is just as thrilling in my opinion.
- The famous motorbike stunt of McQueen leaping his way towards the border was actually filmed by stuntman Bud Ekins although McQueen reportedly attempted the stunt purely for fun. McQueen only accepted the role on condition that he could show off his motorcycle skills and caused much of the film to be rewritten to account for this. He also played the German bike rider who crashes on the road. Unfortunately, McQueen was one of a number of cast and crew members caught speeding by the German police during filming and was briefly in prison for real.
- Chicken Run, Top Secret!, Charlie's Angels, The Parent Trap and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult all contain references to this film, as do TV shows like Monty Python's Flying Circus, Red Dwarf, The Simpsons, Archer and Shaun The Sheep. Video game designer Hideo Kojima has even cited the film as one of the main influences on his legendary Metal Gear series.
- Several members of the cast as actually been POWs during the war including Pleasence, Messemer and Til Kiwe. Others, such as Bronson, Garner and Attenborough saw action on the front lines and like his character, Bronson also suffered from claustrophobia as a result of a childhood spent working in mines. The cast's experience was combined with surviving members of the real-life "X Organisation" including Wally Floody, the inspiration for the character played by Bronson, who served as a technical advisor.
What's not to like?
Firstly, the film is way too long although I understand why - it's difficult to build up the tension the way Sturges does in around two hours and still tell the full story. Speaking of which, the film's ending caught me by surprise. I confess that I wasn't familiar with the actual events so the film's final act came a bit out of nowhere. There was also a couple of cast members who I didn't think pulled their weight. Messemer is a curiously weak baddie, feeling almost sympathetic to those under his jurisdiction and he offers very little in the way of an actual villain. You'd be forgiven for thinking that his prisoner-of-war camp is more like a low budget holiday resort. But the worst cast member is James Coburn, I'm sorry to say - until another character mentions it, I had no idea he was supposed to be an Australian! Frankly, he comes across more as a Cockney with all his "blimeys" and "bloodys".
I realise that The Great Escape is not the first film to rewrite history for dramatic effect but the movie's rough approximation of the facts is infuriating at times and dismissive at others. There is little to represent the numerous German officers who were anti-Nazi and assisted the real prisoners in escaping or the Canadian officers who helped in digging the tunnels far more than the Yanks ever did. I realise that history is often written by the victors or so they say but this is bordering on U-571-levels of ignorance. For a film made the honour those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, it paints a rather distorted picture and feels slightly disingenuous. Of course it's entertaining but a bit more realism wouldn't have hurt, in my opinion.
Should I watch it?
In the unlikely event that this film has somehow passed you by (check your TV schedules around Christmas if you're in the UK), The Great Escape is a bombastic and exciting piece of escapism in every sense. It is about as historically accurate as a copy of the Daily Mail but unlike that newspaper, is a enjoyable and entertaining slice of war-time shenanigans. It also puts into perspective what those poor souls actually went through during their time in captivity and the sheer effort they put in in order to secure their freedom. Perhaps that is a more fitting tribute than anything the film itself manages to achieve.
Great For: enhancing war stories, McQueen's career, German tourism (although the actual camp is situated in nearby Poland), family viewing
Not So Great For: documenting facts, anyone hoping for a happy ending, teaching history in schools
What else should I watch?
Everybody loves a good prison break movie and these can be as different as an animated family comedy (Chicken Run), an dumb-as-rocks action thriller (Escape Plan) or an uplifting, inspirational drama (The Shawshank Redemption). The Colditz Story has the added advantage of also being set in the Second World War and based around the infamous German prisoner-of-war camp at Colditz Castle. Starring veteran British actor John Mills as Pat Reid (one of the few who ever escaped the castle), the film is worth a reappraisal and is certainly a more accurate portrayal of life under Nazi guard.
The Second World War has provided no end of material for filmmakers to adapt, often based on actual events or stories of impossible odds being overcome. From classics like Battle Of Britain, A Bridge Too Far and From Here To Eternity to more recent efforts like Operation Mincemeat, Hacksaw Ridge, The Imitation Game and Dunkirk, it seems that there is no end in sight for films to retell the stories of brave men and women living through the most unimaginable hell. I'm sure all of us are grateful for the many sacrifices made so we can enjoy our lives today.
Virgil Hilts / 'The Cooler King'
Bob Hendley / 'The Scrounger'
Roger Bartlett / 'Big X'
Captain Ramsey / 'The SBO'
Danny Welinski / 'Tunnel King'
Colin Blythe / 'The Forger'
Louis Sedgwick / 'The Manufacturer'
Oberst von Luger / 'Kommandant'
Eric Ashley-Pitt / 'Dispersal'
Andy MacDonald / 'Intelligence'
James Clavell & W.R. Burnett*
Release Date (UK)
8th September, 1963
Adventure, Drama, History
Academy Award Nominations
Best Film Editing
© 2022 Benjamin Cox