“Gentlemen, no doubt you’ve heard the immortal words of our new commandant: devote your energies to things other than escape, and sit out the war as comfortably as possible…well, that’s exactly what we’re going to do. We’re going to devote our energies to sports and gardening; all the cultural pursuits as far as they’re concerned. In fact, we’re going to put the goons to sleep. Meanwhile, we dig.”
Between early 1943 and early 1944, one of the most inspiring stories of the Second World War played out, with Allied prisoners of war putting into motion a grand plan to escape their German captors. The result was one of the most extensive, time and resource-consuming undertakings of its type ever attempted, the basis for several books written by people who witnessed or contributed to the effort, as well as what is my favorite World War II film.
Released in 1963, The Great Escape is based in large part on the 1950 book of the same name authored by Paul Brickhill, himself an officer in the Australian Royal Air Force during the war and a prisoner housed at Stalag Luft III, the camp from which the escape was launched. The film’s story unfolds in fairly straightforward fashion, chronicling the arrival of several hundred prisoners to the camp, brought there from different camps throughout German-occupied territory because they’ve all — to one extent or another — proven to be big pains in the asses of the military through their unceasing attempts to escape and harass German troops and operations. The decision is made by German military commanders to “put all of the rotten eggs in one basket.”
In rapid fashion, we’re introduced to several of the story’s key players as portrayed by notable actors of the day including James Garner, Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, James Donald, Charles Bronson, David McCallum and, of course, Steve McQueen. However, things get kicked up a notch with the arrival of British RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (played to perfection by Richard Attenborough), known among other key officers among the prisoners as “Big X” the leader of the prisoners’ clandestine “X organization” which plans and carries out the various coordinated escape efforts. Bartlett wastes no time putting into motion a massive, bold plan to stage the largest escape attempt ever conceived: unleashing 250 prisoners into the countryside to confuse, confound, and harass the German military on their way to freedom.
The effort will take months to complete, with three tunnels, each of them traversing distances of hundreds of feet beneath the camp and to the surrounding forest, being dug. False identification, travel documents, clothing, rations, and other materials all will be crafted, using only the meager resources the camp itself can provide, and all of it carried out under the ever watchful eyes of the prison guards. If all goes to plan, the resulting chaos will undermine German military morale and perhaps inspire other prisoner camps to unleash similar efforts.
The story itself is amazing, all the more so because it’s true, and The Great Escape as a film does a marvelous job capturing the months of effort leading up to the fateful night of March 24-25, 1944 when Bartlett’s plan comes to fruition. The bulk of the film is devoted to the preparations, showing the ingenuity of the men involved in the planning and activities required to make possible the escape. Everything from the scrounging of materials to the disposal of dirt from the tunnels being dug to watching, controlling and diverting the guards is depicted.
Yes, the film takes several liberties not only with Brickhill’s book but also the true story itself, with characters who are amalgams of several real participants of the actual escape and introducing a few elements which were not part of the true story. There’s even a disclaimer to this effect at the film’s start:
“This is a true story. Although the characters are composites of real men, and time and place have been compressed, every detail of the escape is the way it really happened.”
McQueen’s Captain Virgil Hilts, for example, is a fabrication for the film, his “Cooler King” character having no real connection to any actual persons. The same is true for James Garner’s “Scrounger” character, Robert Hendley. Indeed, no American prisoners were involved in the actual escape attempt, though some did participate in the early planning and tunnel work before all American prisoners were moved to a separate area of Stalag Luft III well before the night of the breakout. Though they’re fun to watch, McQueen’s motorcycle riding and Garner’s commandeering of a plane late in the film did not happen during the real escape.
The rest of the story is fairly well-known. Though they fell well short of the 250 prisoners making the attempt, seventy-six men manage to make it out of the camp once the escape itself is put into motion. According to notes Brickhill includes in his book, upwards of five million German soldiers were redirected to find and recapture the escapees. Only three of the prisoners managed to make it to freedom, with German troops apprehending the rest. Of those, fifty were murdered by the German Gestapo, a brutal example to the rest of the POW population that such attempts would be futile and costly.
Though I was familiar with the real story, I never had seen the film until fifteen or so years ago. I happened across it one Sunday afternoon as it was just getting started on the Turner Classic Movies channel, and I was hooked from those first moments. Upon realizing it was based on a book, I wasted no time tracking down that tome along with others chronicling the events. For those interested, here are a few books (besides Brickhill’s, of course) I recommend if you want to read the real story behind the film:
The Longest Tunnel, by Alan Burgess – Details not only the escape but also the aftermath and the search for those responsible for the murder of “the Fifty.”
The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III, by Tim Carroll – Another detailed accounting of the escape and prep efforts.
The Wooden Horse, by Eric Williams – Recounts another, separate escape effort carried out from the same POW camp. The basis for its own film of the same name in 1950.
Since first viewing it on the fateful Sunday all those years ago, The Great Escape has become my very favorite WWII film. I love to revisit it periodically (It’s running even as I write this), often teaming it up with other classics like The Dirty Dozen, Stalag 17, and/or Von Ryan’s Express. I occasionally happen across a book or documentary I’ve not yet seen, which usually results in my wanting to watch the film again. Despite being rather tame with respect to depicting the treatment of prisoners and the tragic fallout of the escape itself, the story and the characters hold up, owing in no small part to wonderful performances on the part of McQueen, Attenborough, Garner and everyone else. Star Trek fans should keep a sharp eye out for Lawrence Montaigne, aka “Decius” and “Stonn” from the original series episodes “Balance of Terror” and “Amok Time,” as Haynes, the officer in charge of diverting and distracting the guards while other prisoners carried out their work.
Fifty years old, and still a damned fine movie. If you’ve not yet seen it…what the heck are you waiting for?