My Top 60-No 9: 'The Great Escape' (1963)
Just a few days ago (24th March to be precise), I was fortunate enough to go along to commemorate the 75th anniversary of one of the greatest WWII escapes, that at Stalag Luft III in Poland in 1943. This resulted in 76 Allied Prisoners of War (POWs) escaping from the camp, however only 3 POWs successfully returned home. Of the remaining 73, 50 were callously murdered on the instructions of Hitler known as ‘The 50’ with the others returning to the camp.
That event was immortalised in both the 1950 book by Paul Brickhill (who was himself incarcerated at the camp and was due to escape if it was not because of his claustrophobia- he also wrote Reach for the Sky-1956 and The Dambusters -1955) and the 1963 classic movie The Great Escape (1963). And it was a re-showing of that movie in amazing 4K technology that was the main feature of the 75th commemoration.
Around 3,000 people at the Eventim Hammersmith (Odeon and Apollo as was) enjoyed the movie as well as an educational series of talks surrounding the true life events which included one of the original stars of the film John Leyton, the grandson of perhaps its main British star Richard Attenborough, and one of the original motor bike stunt drivers who doubled for Steve McQueen as he rode the Triumph TR6 Trophy (made in Solihull) so thrillingly towards the film's climax.
So on to the film.
The Great Escape is still a magnificent movie that is the first thing to say. You also have to say that is also loosely based on the original book and actual events but certain major liberties were made to make the film more commercial especially in the USA. So you have a number of American prisoners such as Virgil Hilts (‘The Cooler King’) played by Steve McQueen & Robert Hendley (‘The Scrounger, by James Garner), who did not exist and the camp did not have any USA POWs. The film also underplays the role played by Canadian prisoners (over 150 of them were part of the escape plans) and interestingly a number of true life events that formed part of the escape were excluded at the direct request of a number of POWs who were concerned that they might impact any future escapes in new conflicts. But I think these are minor points because The Great Escape has what I would call ‘the greater Truth’-it is broadly accurate in what was planned and what happened.
For those who have not had the pleasure of seeing it, the movie opens to a searing Elmer Bernstein theme as German troops bring allied troops to the camp. It doesn’t take them long to try to escape. Within a few minutes the Polish ‘tunnel king’ Velinski (Charles Bronson), Australian Sedgwick ‘The Manufacturer’ (James Coburn with an awful aussie accent), Dickes (John Leighton) and Ives ‘The Mole’ (Angus Lennie) all hide in workmen’s trucks before they are found out almost immediately.
The action though really starts when Roger Bartlett (‘Big X’ or the Mastermind of escapes) is escorted to the camp by the SS/ Gestapo and it is clear that he has been beaten to a pulp by them. Attenborough turns in an outstanding performance as Bartlett who was de facto the real Sqn Leader Roger Bushell. He is the heartbeat of The Great Escape as Bushell was for the real event. Early on when meeting the Senior British Officer at the camp (James Donald), he delivers one of the finest pieces of dialogue in any war movie:
“Look sir, you talk about the high command of the Luftwaffe, then the SS and the Gestapo- to me they’re the same, we’re fighting the bloody lot. There’s only one way to put it, Sir. They are the common enemies of everyone who believes in freedom. If they didn’t approve of Hitler, why didn’t they throw him out?”
That sets the tone for the POWs to dig not just one tunnel but three and to get not just a few men out but 100, 200 or 300.
The movie is a long one (170 minutes) but it does not feel like one. Part of that is down to a very rich and colourful script written by James Clavell (also a POW and writer of another great war movie 633 Squadron) and WR Burnett the veteran American screenwriter (Little Caesar & The Asphalt Jungle). They infuse the film with some great pithy dialogue (Virgil Hilts to the Commandant: “I haven’t seen Berlin yet, from the ground or from the air, and I plan on doing both before the war is over” & Hendley (James Garner) to Blythe (Donald Pleasance): “Blythe, what are you doing here?”, “I am in photo aerial reconnaissance. My own fault really. Went for a joyride to see for myself”. “No, I mean what do you DO here?”. “Oh, I’m the forger”
The relationships between the POWs are also very strong, no more so than between the two opposites of Hilts (Steve McQueen) and Archie Ives (Angus Lenny)- both end up in the cooler several times which Hilts can take (provided he has his baseball glove and baseball) but Ives cannot. In the end, Ives goes mad and ends up being machine gunned down whilst trying to get over the barbed wire fence. Angus Lenny’s performance as the desparate young Scotsman POW is strong stuff and you believe him too.
The Great Escape has everything really, great humour, great cast chemistry, a tremendous musical score and some very fine acting by a stellar (mainly British) character actor cast –Nigel Stock, David McCullum, Gordon Jackson and Tom Adams to name just a few.
It is also very poignant – the film is “Dedicated to the 50” who were so cruelly murdered. A postscript to that war crime is that following news of what happened to them, there was a post war investigation that led to several Gestapo officers being prosecuted and later executed for their role in the slaughter.