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The Great Escape: Reliving WWII woes



‘The Great Escape’ (1963) is an insider’s account by Australian writer, Paul Brickhill of the 1944 mass escape from the German prisoner of war camp – Stalag Luft III – for British and Commonwealth airmen. As a prisoner in the camp, he participated in the escape plan but was debarred from the actual escape, along with three or four others on grounds of claustrophobia.

The film was to a significant extent fictional, though based on real events. A number of changes were made to increase its drama and appeal, as also a vehicle for its box-office stars. While some of the characters in the film were fictitious, most were amalgams of several real people. In reality, there were no escapes by aircraft or motorcycle; the motorcycle sequence in the film being asked for by actor, Steve McQueen, a keen motorcyclist, who did the stunt riding himself except for the final jump done by Bud Ekins. Nor were the recaptured prisoners executed at the same time.

Interestingly, the story was sold to producer and director, John Sturges on his assurance to remain faithful to the actual event however, he did not remain completely truthful to the depiction of a mass escape from a Nazi prisoner of war camp. Nevertheless, Sturges ensured that the film had in its favour a wealth of bravado stunts, exciting action scenes, suspenseful moments of deception and discovery, incidental humour, appealing performances, and noble sentimentality that guaranteed its run as not only one of the most successful motion pictures of 1963 but one of the best-liked adventures of all time.

McQueen, in a role based on at least three pilots, David M Jones, John Dortch Lewis and William Ash has been credited with the most significant performance in the film. In fact, he had served in the US Marines after WWII. Richard Attenborough, who served in the Royal Air Force during the WWII, was cast as Sqn Ldr Roger Bartlett RAF (Big X), a character based on Roger Bushell, the South African-born British prisoner of war, who was the mastermind of the real great escape. Group Captain Ramsey RAF (the SBO), played by James Donald was based on Group Captain Herbert Massey, a WWI veteran who had volunteered in WWII. Flt Lt Colin Blythe RAF (The Forger), a role enacted by Donald Pleasence was based on Tim Walenn. Pleasence himself had served in the Royal Air Force during WWII. Charles Bronson had been a gunner in the United States Army Air Forces and was wounded, but had not been shot down. Like his character in the film – Danny Valinski – he was a coal miner and suffered from claustrophobia. Actor, James Garner had been a soldier in the Korean War and was twice wounded. He was a scrounger during that time, as is his character Flt Lt Hendley.

The film was made at the Bavaria Film Studio in the Munich suburb of Geiselgasteig in rural Bavaria, where sets for the barrack interiors and tunnels were constructed.

Sturges and his crew arrived at Geisel Gasteig Studios in rural Bavaria in April 1962 and the art director, Fernando Carrere immediately began designing the tunnel sets on the studio’s sound stages. The camp was built in a clearing of the Perlacher forest near the studio. Many scenes were filmed in and around the town of Füssen in Bavaria, including its railway station. The nearby district of Pfronten with its distinctive St Nikolaus Church and scenic background also features often in the film. Numerous scenes involving the railway were filmed near Deisenhofen station and on the Großhesselohe-Holzkirchen line.

The motorcycle chase scenes with the barbed wire fences were shot on meadows outside Füssen, and the barbed wire that Capt Virgil Hilts played by McQueen crashes into before being recaptured was simulated by strips of rubber tied around barbless wire, constructed by the cast and crew in their spare time.

Composer, Elmer Bernstein’s score for ‘The Great Escape’ made the soundtrack recording very popular, and his main theme has become iconic for the action genre, receiving frequent air play at the time of the film’s release. In England, it has been a common theme at football matches. In fact, Bernstein had cleverly weaved together military marches, taut suspense music, and a title tune one could whistle in his score. The musical theme, as well as direct references to scenes and motifs in the film – especially parodies of McQueen repeatedly throwing the baseball against the wall while in solitary – has turned up in advertisements for beer, Hummer automobiles, Shell Oil, and others.

‘The Great Escape’ had its Royal World Premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square in London’s West End on June 20, 1963. At the premiere, Sturges received the highest civilian honour – Friend of the Royal Air Force – from the British Air Force. Five Royal Air Force bands paraded in front of the Strand Theatre at the opening and jets buzzed in formation, overhead.

The critical and public response for the film was mostly enthusiastic, with the film grossing $11.7 million at the Box Office, as against a budget of $3.8 million, thus becoming one of the highest-grossing films of 1963, despite heavy competition.

The WWII adventure drama was entered into the 3rd Moscow International Film Festival where McQueen won the Silver Prize for Best Actor, while Ferris Webster was nominated for the Academy Award in the Best Film Editing category.

In the years since its release, the audiences of ‘The Great Escape’ have broadened, cementing its status as a cinema classic.



In 1943, having expended enormous resources on recapturing escaped Allied prisoners of war, the Germans move these large number of escape-prone Allied Air Force officers to a new German maximum-security prison camp at Sagan; “all the rotten eggs in one basket” as the Nazis observe. The camp Kommandant, Colonel Von Lugar (Hannes Messemer) tells senior Allied officer, Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald) that the prisoners should quit trying to escape, sit out the war and enjoy the relatively comfortable camp facilities. Ramsey reminds him that it’s an officer’s sworn duty to try to escape. Sqn Ldr Roger Bartlett ‘Big X’ (Richard Attenborough), the officer in charge of co-ordinating escapes has just endured three months of Gestapo/ SS torture; he plans to strike back with a mass escape of 250 men. Most of the prisoners are British, including Canadians and Australians; there are a few Americans, including Flt Lt Robert Hendley ‘Scrounger’ (James Garner) and the authority-snubbing Capt Virgil Hilts ‘Cooler King’ (Steve McQueen). The Polish prisoner, Flt Lt Danny Velinski ‘Tunnel King’ (Charles Bronson) is expert in digging the tunnels. Flt Lt Colin Blythe ‘Forger’ (Donald Pleasence), Fg Off Louis Sedgwick ‘Manufacturer’ (James Coburn), Griffith ‘Tailor’ (Robert Desmond), Flt Lt William ‘Willie’ Dickes ‘Tunnel King’ (John Leyton) and Lt Cmdr Eric Ashley-Pitt ‘Dispersal’ (David McCallum) are the other prisoners of war.

The men proceed with escape plans, knowing that if they’re caught making any more escapes it could cost them their lives and it might cause command of the camp to be transferred from the regular German Air Force to the SS. The plan advances with sacrifice: the fiercely independent Hilts agreeing to do a one-man escape and then let himself be recaptured so he can give recon information to the planners of the mass escape; and Velinski digging seventeen escape tunnels, including three massive ones in the new camp even though he’s claustrophobic. The ingenious methods of hiding the tunnel dirt, creating civilian clothes and forged papers, and bribing/ blackmailing German guards for needed supplies are also adopted. The last part of the tunnel is completed on the scheduled night of escape, but it proves to be twenty feet short of the woods outside the camp. Knowing there are no other options, Bartlett orders the escape to go ahead, and Hilts improvises a signal system to allow them to exit the tunnel between sweeps of the guards on patrol. In all, 76 prisoners manage to escape however, Griffith impatiently exits the tunnel in view of the guards and the escape is discovered.

After attempts to reach neutral Switzerland, Sweden, or Spain, almost all the POWs are recaptured or killed. Hendley and Blythe steal a plane to fly over the Swiss border, but the engine fails and they crash-land. Soldiers arrive and Blythe, his eyesight damaged, stands and is shot. Hendley surrenders as Blythe dies.

When Bartlett is identified in a crowded railway station by Gestapo agent Kuhn (Hans Reiser), Ashley-Pitt overpowers and shoots him with his own gun, but is killed by soldiers while attempting to escape. The resulting confusion allows Bartlett to slip away, but is later caught while boarding a bus. Hilts steals a motorcycle and is pursued by German soldiers. He jumps a first-line barbed wire fence at the German-Swiss border and drives on to the Neutral Zone, but becomes entangled in the second line of the barbed fence and is captured.

Three truckloads of recaptured POWs are driven down a country road and split off in three directions. One truck, containing Bartlett, MacDonald, Cavendish, Haynes, and others stops in a field and the POWs are told to get out and “stretch their legs”. They are shot dead under the pretense that they were trying to escape. In all, 50 escapees are murdered, while Hendley and nine others are returned to the camp. Von Luger is relieved of command of the camp by the SS for having failed to prevent the breakout.

Only three POWs make it to safety: Danny and Willie steal a rowboat and proceed downriver to the Baltic coast, where they sneak aboard a Swedish merchant ship, while Sedgwick slips through the countryside on a stolen bicycle before hiding aboard a freight train to France, where he is guided by the Resistance into Spain. Hilts is returned to the camp alone in handcuffs and taken back to the cooler – ironically just as Von Luger is relieved of his command. Lieutenant Goff, one of the Americans, fetches Hilts’ baseball and glove and throws them to him when Hilts and his guards pass by. The guard locks him in his cell and walks away, but momentarily pauses when he hears the familiar sound of Hilts bouncing his baseball against a cell wall.



The real-life escape on which the story of ‘The Great Escape’ is based took place on March 24, 1944, while actor, Steve McQueen was born on March 24, 1930.

In 2009, seven prisoners of war returned to Stalag Luft III for the 65th anniversary of the escape and watched the film. According to the veterans, many details of the first half depicting life in the camp were authentic, such as the machine-gunning of Ives, who snaps and tries to scale the fence, as well as the actual digging of the tunnels. In 2014, the Royal Air Force staged a commemoration of the escape attempt, with 50 serving personnel carrying a photograph of one of the men shot.

During production of ‘The Great Escape’, Charles Bronson met actor, David McCallum’s wife, actress Jill Ireland, and joked to his co-star that he was going to steal her away from him. McCallum and Ireland divorced in 1967 and she married Bronson.

The cinematographer of ‘The Great Escape’ was Daniel L Fapp, who had previously won an Academy Award for ‘West Side Story’ (1961) and was nominated six other times, including for his work on Sturges’s film, ‘Marooned’ (1969).

The execution of the fifty recaptured escapees – which didn’t happen as one mass murder as depicted in the movie – was one of the charges at the Nuremburg War Crimes trials of former Nazi leaders.







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