It is the story of achievement against impossible odds... And it proves something that I believed then and know now - there is nothing that can stop a group of men, regardless of race, creed, colour, or nationality, from achieving a goal once they agree as to what that goal is. The aftermath may be sheer, stark tragedy - that lies with the gods - but the point is, men working together can accomplish anything.
In one magnificent gesture the 76 ragged, verminous men of all nationalities who climbed out of that stinking hole in the ground in Silesia on that windy March night in 1944 thumbed their collective nose at the entire Third Reich and all it stood for. They triumphed, through the only means left to them, over an idea that was rotten from the core out.
- George Harsh, one of the real Great Escapers, historyinfilm.com
The Great Escape (1963), directed by John Sturges, is set in a German prisoner of war (PoW) Camp during the Second World War, and is based on a true story. Faced with repeated escape attempts from captured airmen, the German authorities decided to put all the 'rotten eggs in one basket' in a supposedly escape-proof camp. The film tells the story of the ingenuity and courage of those imprisoned in the camp, their successful breakout, their attempts to evade capture, and the final tragic consequences of the escape.
Cast and Characters
|Steve McQueen||Captain Virgil Hilts
|James Garner||Flight Lieutenant Bob Anthony Hendley|
|Richard Attenborough||Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett
|James Donald|| Group Captain Rupert Ramsey
|Charles Bronson||Flight Lieutenant Danny Willinski
(The Tunnel King)
|Donald Pleasence||Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe
|James Coburn||Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick
|Hannes Messemer||Colonel Von Luger
|David McCallum||Lieutenant-Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt|
|Gordon Jackson||Flight Lieutenant Andy MacDonald|
|John Leyton||Flight Lieutenant William Dickes|
|Angus Lennie||Flying Officer Archibald Ives
|Nigel Stock||Flight Lieutenant Denys Cavendish|
Why The Great Escape is Great
The Great Escape is more than just a war film - it's a film about human endeavour, determination, and ingenuity: about all that is fine and noble in human nature.
It's about people who could have chosen the easy option, but instead continued to do what they saw as their duty to 'harass and confound the enemy wherever possible' (Group Captain Rupert Ramsey). And most of them pay with their lives at the end of the film.
One of the most striking things about the film is the number of unlikely friendships that form. Virgil Hilts, the cool American stunt motorcyclist and Archibald Ives, an ex-professional jockey, team up in their attempts to escape. Louis Sedgwick, the manufacturer, and Danny Velinski, the claustrophobic tunneller. And perhaps most famously of all, the half-blind fish-out-of-water forger Colin Blythe and streetwise scrounger and blackmailer, Bob Hendley.
Also interesting is the portrayal of the Germans in the film. Rather than resorting to stereotypes (apart from the Gestapo officers), the Camp Commandant is portrayed as a fair and decent man, who is reluctant even to perform the Nazi salute. According to most accounts, his real-life counterpart Oberst (Colonel) Freidrich-Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau was a decent man, and hardly a Nazi. Werner, the hapless guard befriended and then exploited by Hendley, is certainly no genocidal killer. Their discussion of the number of Boy Scout badges they had ('I was working on my 17th when Hitler abolished them.') is particularly poignant.
Great care was made to try to make the film authentic. The film was based upon Paul Brickhill's book The Great Escape, which was a personal account of his time in the camp. Flight Lt Wally Floody, a Canadian mining engineer and wartime Spitfire pilot, who was the real life 'tunnel king', was employed as a consultant. Most events in the film are based closely on real events, though the chronology was different. Many of the characters are based upon real people, or composites of several people. The only out-and-out fabrication is Steve McQueen's famous motorcycle escape, famously ridiculed by comedian Eddie Izzard, who rightly wonders how he got from Poland to Switzerland that quickly and on one tank of petrol. McQueen insisted on the sequence as a condition of his participation in the film, and performs all of his own stunts, apart from the famous final leap, for which he was unable to get insurance!
Elmer Bernstein's music score1 is perhaps one of the most famous in film history; martial, disciplined, defiant, proud, and uplifting. Unbelievably, the score was not even nominated for an Oscar. Indeed, the only Oscar nomination that the film received was for film editing. Now, decades later, The Great Escape has been voted among the top 100 films of all time by users of the Internet Movie Database and was given the accolade of 39th position in the list of the top 100 greatest films of all time by Channel Four in the UK.
Why The Great Escape isn't Great
The film portrays the Great Escape as a predominantly Anglo-American effort, and ignores the brave men of other nationalities who were involved in the planning and the actual escape. In the real Great Escape, the list of those who escaped includes a sizeable contingent of Canadians, as well as New Zealanders, South Africans, Frenchmen, Norwegians, Rhodesians (now Zimbabwe), Czechs, a Belgian, a Dutchman, a Lithuanian, and a Greek. The Great Escape was a far more cosmopolitan endeavour than it appears on film.
A token effort is made in this direction. The sizeable Polish contingent who were captured while flying for the British Royal Air Force are represented by Charles Bronson's Danny Willinski, and James Coburn tries to represent the British Commonwealth/British Empire airman, though his attempt at an Australian accent is widely regarded as ranking alongside Dick van Dyke's attempt at Cockney in Mary Poppins in the annals of cinematic accent atrocities, dialect disasters, and cadence catastrophes.
The role of the American characters in the film is much exaggerated - indeed, they had all been moved to another compound by the time of the escape and absolutely no Americans were involved in the actual breakout. The image of the dynamic Americans helping out the rather more pedestrian British is perhaps a reflection of American perceptions of their role during the Second World War, though a more charitable interpretation is that commercial necessity dictated a more prominent role for Americans. Whatever the reason, the extensive use of creative licence to boost the role of America and Americans in films 'based' upon true stories or events is nothing new.
Derivatives and Spin-Offs
Great Escape 2 - The Untold Story (1988)
Untold because it's not true. By all accounts, this made-for-TV film is an absolute travesty, in which prisoners escape from a prison camp and go looking for vengeance for the murdered escapees of the original Great Escape. It stars lots of people who should have known better, including Christopher Reeve, Ian McShane, and Donald Pleasence.
The Chicken Run (2000)
This is an animated feature film from Nick Park (and the Aardman Studios), the genius behind Wallace and Gromit, in which chickens try to escape from being turned into pies. It's a gentle comedy which spoofs Star Trek as well as The Great Escape. Rocky Rhodes (an American circus Rooster voiced by Mel Gibson) plays the Steve McQueen role.
The England Football Team
The theme from The Great Escape has been heard around relegation-threatened2 football (soccer) clubs in England for many years. It's usually sung in response to a good performance which might (against all the odds) save them3.
Its use spread to the national team when England played an away match against Italy in the World Cup qualification competition, needing a draw to ensure automatic qualification, with the Italians needing victory. Italy were hot favourites, but an unspectacular, hard-working performance by England was just enough to ensure out a draw.
Since then, it has been a regular favourite with England fans, and in particular the small brass band that follows England everywhere! This goes some way towards explaining its popularity as a mobile phone ringtone. Somehow The Great Escape encapsulates something about how the British (and in particular the English) like to see themselves - refusing to give up, fighting against the odds, proud, brave, and indomitable. Alternatively, it's typical of a nation living in the past, and refusing to engage with the modern world, preferring to wallow in xenophobia and past achievements. You pays your money and you takes your choice. Some interesting cultural analysis on the English and The Great Escape (among other films) has been written by Nicholas Cull.