“We have in effect put all our rotten eggs in one basket. And we intend to watch this basket very closely.” ~ Von Luger
“Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, 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.” ~ Ramsey
“Afraid this tea’s pathetic. Must have used these wretched leaves about twenty times. It’s not that I mind so much. Tea without milk is so uncivilized.” ~ Blythe
“Blythe’s not blind while he’s with me. And he’s going with me.” ~ Hendley
“I haven’t seen Berlin yet, from the ground or the air, and I plan on doing both before the war is over.” ~ Hilts
“If you’re asking me how far a commanding officer is allowed to go, or dare go, or should be permitted to play God, I can’t answer you.” ~ Bartlett
The 1963 war drama The Great Escape adapts the story of the true escape of British and Commonwealth prisoners of war from Stalag Luft III, a German POW camp in what is now Poland, during the Second World War. Adapted from the book written by Paul Brickhill, one of the members of the escape, the film weaves together one of the best casts assembled for a film. While certain names are changed, other characters are composites of several people, and there are dramatic licenses taken (such as the fact that there were no Americans in the camp at the time of the breakout in reality), the film takes great care to present the details of the escape as accurately as possible. It comes from director John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven, Gunfight At the O.K. Corral, Hour Of The Gun).
In 1943, the most troublesome Allied prisoners of war are being brought to a newly constructed prison camp, headed by a Luftwaffe colonel, Von Luger (Hannes Messemer). He meets the largest group of arrivals personally, informing the senior commander, a British group captain named Ramsey (James Donald) that they should give up their attempts to escape. Among the early arrivals in the camp are two Americans, Hendley (James Garner) and Hilts (Steve McQueen). British servicemen include Blythe (Donald Pleasence), Cavendish (Nigel Stock), Macdonald (Gordon Jackson), Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum), Ives (Angus Lennie) and William Dickes (John Leyton). The Australian Sedgwick (James Coburn) and a Polish pilot, Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson) are also among the early internees at the camp. An additional arrival turns up courtesy of the Gestapo, Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), a British pilot with a reputation for masterminding multiple escapes and a chip on his shoulder where the Nazis are concerned.
The prisoners settle in after some first day escape attempts. Hilts and Ives get tossed into solitary confinement for their initial escapes and get to know each other during their time in what’s referred to as the cooler. Bartlett begins making plans to engineer a mass escape and takes stock of the particular skills of the prisoners within the camp. Some he knows, others he makes their acquaintance, and it’s his concept that leads to the digging of tunnels. Bartlett not only wants to escape- he wants to open a whole new front in the heart of occupied Europe and make life hell for the Germans.
The screenplay by James Clavell, W.R Burnett, and Walter Newman adapted the book recounting the events of the escape. They chose to make composites of certain real men while telling the story, as well as producing a screenplay that would be a star vehicle for some of the lead actors. There are aspects of the film that didn’t happen in real life. The fact that many of the prisoners were Canadian, for instance, is not touched on, and the nationalities of the three prisoners who did make it all the way to freedom were in fact Norwegian and Dutch. The sequences involving an airplane and a motorbike were also dramatic license for the story. The screenplay does honour the details of the escape by 76 POWs though, and grounds itself in strong characterization. There’s also humour added into the mix of the screenplay where appropriate, as well as the swinging back and forth between despair; while the ending might seem initially downcast, the very last moments of the film bring an optimistic tone of defiance and resilience that makes it work beautifully. We get to know the characters gradually as the film unfolds and as they get to know each other, and that’s one of the strengths of the screenplay.
Sturges filmed both on set and locations in Germany – the camp interiors and the tunnel sequences are all done on set, while the exteriors of the camp were erected near the studios. Local villages and towns also featured prominently in location shooting. The set construction by the crew particularly pays off- the interiors of the prison camp huts look as Spartan and of the time as you would expect, and the tunnels feel claustrophobic- very fitting considering one of the chief diggers is secretly terrified of closed in spaces. The exterior construction of the camp also has an accurate feel- it looks much like we would see in World War Two POW camps, barbed wire and all. The place has an oppressive, dreadful feel. The uniforms, props, and various other equipment are very much of the time, giving the film an authentic sense of time and place. Sturges also brought composer Elmer Bernstein in for the score. Bernstein, who had composed works such as The Ten Commandments, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven, and Thoroughly Modern Millie among his many credits throughout his career, composed one of his finest scores for the film, with cues that mirror the themes of the film- oppression, defiance, hope, and exhilaration.
The casting is impeccable, one of the finest casts ever assembled. Hannes Messemer might be the commander of the camp, but he’s not unsympathetic as Von Luger. He’s a disciplined man, trying to keep a camp of POWs under control, trying to be cordial, all while not crossing the line. The actual man the character is based on survived the war, and the testimony of former POWs that he had treated them fairly and within the rules of the Geneva Conventions saw the officer freed. Von Luger doesn’t particularly seem that much of a believer in the Nazi ideology, starkly seen early on during his interaction with a Gestapo officer, who’s clearly a die-hard supporter. He also doesn’t care for the mistreatment of prisoners. He might be a hard man, but there’s an underlying decency in the man, and that’s what Messemer brings across in his performance.
Donald Pleasence gives his best career performance as the soft spoken and calm mannered British officer Colin Blythe, a detail oriented headquarters officer who by a trick of fate has ended up a POW. His skills make him a masterful forger, a vital skill for an escape attempt. Pleasence brought experience to the role, too- he spent a year during the war as a POW in a German camp. Blythe is tremendously sympathetic as a character; as the story unfolds and he faces an unexpected obstacle, Pleasence plays to that sympathy in his performance. Blythe and Hendley find themselves unlikely roommates, and gradually friends. One of the finest moments in the film is the decision Hendley makes to see Blythe out to freedom, and it speaks to the fact that they’ve become such good friends.
Charles Bronson also has the best performance in his career as Danny Velinski, the Polish pilot who is one of the two “tunnel kings” along with Dickes. The two characters are already friends, and do much of the advance work deep in the tunnels, which has involved frequent cave-ins as they’ve worked. Midway through the film, Danny reveals his deep fear of closed spaces to Dickes. It’s a crucial moment for the character and the actor (it seems Bronson had claustrophobia issues himself) as his desire to be free clashes with the fear, and his admission that he worries freezing up in the tunnel will put others in danger. Considering the actor later ended up getting known for playing a lot of tough guy roles, having him admit to a vulnerability that would be understandable to many people is a good measure.
James Donald had a tendency to play authority figures throughout his acting career on stage and screen. He was one of the featured players in The Bridge On The River Kwai, King Rat, and Lust For Life. He plays the senior officer Ramsey with the cool British reserve you would expect of the character. Ramsey is based on the actual senior officer in the camp, an experienced escaper who didn’t take part in the escape and yet had to be briefed in on what was going on. Ramsey comes across as calm under pressure, a steady leader, somewhat pragmatic and with less of a chip on his shoulder than Bartlett where the Germans are concerned.
James Coburn as Sedgwick is one of the quiet pleasures of the film, a charming Aussie who’s the chief manufacturer in the escape attempt. The character’s capable and resourceful, making use of whatever supplies can come his way to aid in the escape. And he shows resilience and calm under pressure as the film unfolds- out on the run and on his own, he shows wisdom in the choices he makes, and takes things in stride when a rather startling event unfolds around him.
Richard Attenborough became well known to audiences in North America because of his role as Big X, aka Roger Bartlett, based on the real mastermind of the breakout. Bartlett is ambitious in his plans for the escape, a resolute leader, decisive, organized, and someone who pays close attention to detail. He also bears a grudge against the Germans, who haven’t been appreciative of his previous escapes, and there’s the sense that the character is out for some payback as much as he wants to get to freedom. He’s not as calm as Ramsey, but we can believe the character as a leader of men.
James Garner is one of the great treats of the film, a charming scoundrel whose skill is at scrounging for the needs of the escape. A skilled pickpocket or negotiator, Hendley is gifted at smuggling what needs to be smuggled, charming, easygoing, and a good liar. The audience might suspect he’d be a pretty good used car salesman- but under the charm is strongly held principle and integrity (which of course would disqualify him from that job). His decision before the escape to help Blythe reach freedom is a clear mark of how decent Hendley is, and Garner plays these qualities throughout the film.
This film solidified Steve McQueen’s status as a superstar in the world of film, and it’s a compelling, tremendously likeable character. Hilts is based on more than one pilot, and is a defiant and irreverent man. When he’s not breaking out of the camp during earlier attempts, he’s an irritant to Von Luger and the guards in general. Of course he ends up spending a good deal of time in the cooler, but solitary confinement doesn’t break his spirit, it just strengthens his resolve. Events lead him to consider the benefits of the larger escape attempt and play a pivotal role in it, and once on the outside, Hilts finds himself on the run, with trouble circling in from all sides. The character is a standout in a film filled with standout performances.
The Great Escape is one of those classic films that never gets old with repeated viewings. Its characters have depth and complexity, and it’s not all black and white as a POW film- the jailer is not entirely without sympathy. The film has a good sense of humour, paces itself well, lets us get to know these men, and then unleashes them in a bid for freedom. While the events that play out don’t go according to plan, there is still resilience in the spirit of the men, and the result is a rousing, tremendously satisfying film. It is a personal favourite film, and a true classic.