Half a century since its release in 1963, The Great Escape remains a benchmark in adventure cinema, with some memorable performances and perfect music.
“It was cold-blooded butchery,” said the then Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, speaking in The House of Commons on March 25, 1944. Mr. Eden was referring to the tragic end to one of the most ambitious escape sagas in history — first depicted in a 1950 book and then cemented in public memory by a showy motion picture, perhaps even more fantastic than the book.
Half a century since its release in 1963, The Great Escape remains a benchmark in adventure cinema, with composer Elmer Bernstein’s rowdy, exciting, at times bittersweet music complementing the mood perfectly. The story, as will be familiar to most, is about an extraordinary bid to freedom attempted by 600 Allied war prisoners from the German camp Stalag Luft III during the Second World War. This camp for grounded air force servicemen, sardonically dubbed Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Goering’s “luxury camp”, was deliberately sited in the dust-bowl of Silesia, 100 miles southeast of Berlin to preclude escape attempts.
On a bleak and windy night in March 1944, 76 men of different nationalities broke out from Hut 104 in Luft III’s North Compound before the tunnel, nicknamed “Harry”; it was discovered by their German captors. The incident threw Adolf Hitler into a frenzied rage. Around 5,00,000 German soldiers, supervised by Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler’s murderous Gestapo (State Police) and the SS (Schutzstaffel), were engaged in hunting down the escapees. In the end, only three of the 76 made it to freedom, while 50 of the escapers were murdered in cold blood by Gestapo gunmen with a bullet in the back of their heads. Paul Brickhill, an Australian pilot who was part of the escape process, was the official historian of the event, being given full access to official documents of the incident and its grim aftermath.
Brickhill’s book, that came out in 1950 was ripe for conversion into film, especially at a time when wartime ingenuity was the staple of post-war British film industry. Prior to The Great Escape, ‘escape artistry’ was dramatized with tense efficiency and upper-lip panache in British films like The Wooden Horse (1950), Albert R.N. (1953) and The Colditz Story (1958).
The Wooden Horse, from Eric Williams’ thrilling book, depicted an inventive breakout from Stalag Luft III (where ‘The Great Escape’ was later to occur), while The Colditz Story (from Capt. P.R. Reid’s book) deals with escape attempts by prisoners of different nationalities from the supposedly escape-proof Colditz castle.
Stark as these films were, it is The Great Escape that remains the ultimate expression of a collective mass working indefatigably towards a common goal. Steve McQueen’s ‘hit the baseball-on-the-Cooler-wall’ scene and his iconic dash to the Swiss border on a Triumph TR6 Trophy motorbike became visual shorthand for ‘man in confinement’ on film.
While McQueen’s star turn as “Hilts, the Cooler King” solidified his romantic loner persona, it is really the rich ensemble carefully chosen by director John Sturges that makes the film work. With real-life escapees turned into composites for easy comprehension, Sturges milks memorable performances from charming James Garner (as “the Scrounger”), the wonderful Donald Pleasance (as “the Forger”), brooding Charles Bronson as (the claustrophobic “Tunnel King”), canny James Coburn (as “the Manufacturer”) and Gordon Jackson (as “Intelligence”).
But what holds the film together is Richard Attenborough’s memorably steely performance as Roger ‘Big X’ Bartlett, based upon Roger Bushell — the remarkable South African-born leader of the actual breakout.
Sturges, a master action craftsman behind such classics as Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral(1957) and of course, The Magnificent Seven (1960), remains scrupulous in his depiction of the massive escape process, while wringing sound character development within the confines of plot.
The actual escape was a marvel of improvised engineering, what with its intricate tunnelling, the dismantling and conversion of everyday objects into escape articles, the dodging of German “ferrets”, the elaborate security system, the forging of passports, the bribing of German staff.
In this respect, the film shares common ground with very different escape classics, Renoir’s anti-war WW1 meditation Grand Illusion, 1937 (the tunnel digging details prefigures The Great Escape) and Bresson’s awesome, hypnotic masterpiece A Man Escaped (transmutation of the picayune into escape objects).
Despite accurately conveying the spirit of the escape, detours from real events were inevitable in a Hollywood-financed film, with the spotlight shifting on American “heroics” while underplaying the multi-national contribution. Which explains Steve McQueen’s famed ‘border leap’ and James Garner’s flight to freedom – pure artistic fabrications for maximum dramatic impact.
In reality, while the Americans unquestionably played a major part in the preparations, they were segregated out of the Luft III’s North Compound before the actual escape began. At the end, the film subtly touches upon the darker question of whether Roger Bushell’s ‘Great Escape’ was worth its tragic price.
In 1963, the snooty critics of the day typically dubbed the film a noisy ‘boy’s-own-adventure’. Reviewing the film, the witty and sardonic Penelope Gilliatt wrote that “the German who runs the camp is 10 times more sympathetic than his charges, like a weary schoolmaster in charge of a maddening class.”
Ms. Gilliatt and her likes notwithstanding, The Great Escape today remains a textbook in suspense and adventure from which the so-called “action” directors of today, with their mindless CGI-effect-laden sound-and-fury offerings, would do well to take a leaf. More significantly, it remains is an apt and moving tribute to human beings who cocked a snook at one of the most murderous and vile regimes in human history – ordinary people by everyday standards, heroes by every other measure.