The Great Escape (1963)   2 comments

great esc poster

Throw a bunch of American, British, and Commonwealth Air Force officers into a German prisoner of war camp and what do you get?  You get hundreds of guys who want to get back to fighting and family and home.  THE GREAT ESCAPE, based on the true story of a major British escape from a German prisoner of war camp serves as a kind of survey course on that escape.  Yes, it’s a glossed-over version of events, but it’s such a terrific watch, you don’t really care.

love
“Ya vas lyublyu.”

The all-star cast of American and British actors get a chance to fight the good fight while looking cool.  Part World War II movie/part drama/part procedural, THE GREAT ESCAPE shows us the steps leading up to the break-out along with the escape itself and its aftermath.

meetingrogerbushell_350
Left: Richard Attenborough as Big X outlines his escape plan.
Right: the real Big X, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, Royal Air Force

We watch as the men survey the camp, dig the tunnels, and gather tools, clothes, and identity papers for their time on the lam.  Big X (Richard Attenborough), the leader of the escape committee, assigns James Garner to scrounge materials.  He has Steve McQueen go over the wall and get caught purposely so he can map the countryside.  He gets engineers and manufacturers David McCallum and James Coburn to design the tunnels and pumps to keep the men safe while digging.

coburn
“Enough hot air for you, Roger.”

He asks Donald Pleasence (a P.O.W. in Germany during the war), and his crew to forge permits and train tickets.

shrike
Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) uses art class as a cover for his forgers.

He puts Charles Bronson and John Leyton in charge of the tunnels and has Gordon Jackson drill the men on procedure and the German language so they don’t get tripped up by the locals.  It’s a fascinating process that allows us to meet each character and get to know him.  Director, John Sturges captures the many moods of these men.  The funny ruses the men arrange to fool their captors along with their anxiety about being locked up all come across well.

20feet
“You’re twenty feet short.”

Sturges is not a flamboyant or arty director, but he is able to move from a moonshine-fueled July 4th celebration to a poignant act of desperation seamlessly.  The classic Elmer Bernstein score doesn’t hurt.  Like John Williams, Bernstein can express lightness and frivolity, tense action, and heartbreaking sadness all within the same musical passage.

MCQUEEN_TAYLOR_GARNER_JULY4SCENEpiglet
From high to low in moments.

Paul Brickhill, an Australian prisoner at Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Germany, now part of Poland, where the real escape took place, wrote the book based on his own experience.

brickhill
Australian author and fighter pilot, Paul Brickhill

The screenplay by W.R. Burnett and James Clavell, also a P.O.W. in WWII, is economical and sharp.  We like these men.  We’re elated when it looks like some will make it, and heartbroken when we realize many won’t.  It’s an entertaining film with heart.  Oh yes, Steve McQueen jumps a motorcycle over a barbed-wire fence.

jump
You wish you were this cool.

In the film, Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald), the Senior British Officer, listens to the Kommandant (Hannes Messemer, a German P.O.W. in a Russian camp in WWII), as he warns the SBO about attempting to escape.  He replies, “Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape.  If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.”

film-bus scene 07
“Englander?”

According to Paul Brickhill, five million Germans spent time (often weeks) looking for the seventy-six escaped prisoners.  They eventually recaptured seventy-three.  Of those, the Gestapo executed fifty.  While the number of Germans searching for the men may be an exaggeration, that’s still a whole lot of troops NOT out bombing London.  Take that, Hitler!

harry
Harry, the tunnel 76 men used to escape Stalag Luft III.

The50Memorial
Dedicated to the fifty.

After the war, the Royal Air Force Police investigative branch launched an investigation into the execution of the fifty escaped officers.  As a result, the allies hanged or imprisoned many of those responsible for the murders.

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2 responses to “The Great Escape (1963)

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  1. Excellent Kerry, Excellent !

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