John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963) is a grand old example of the even grander and older idiom of ‘life imitating art’ or vice versa; a celebration of the heroic exploits of a group of enterprising Allied POWs who never accepted their plight as absolute, even under the most daunting circumstances. The film accurately depicts the realities inside Stalag Luft III – a meticulously engineered prison built to house the most daring of captives and managed by the German Luftwaffe; often referenced as ‘the least Nazi-fied’ of Adolph Hitler’s military blitzkrieg forces. Although life inside the camp could hardly be considered ideal, it did almost achieve a social atmosphere of mutual camaraderie between the prisoners (primarily comprised of British, American, Canadian and Australian men) and their Nazi captors.
The Great Escape is based on a novel by Paul Brickhill, an Australian pilot downed in Tunisia in 1943 and made to sit out the duration of the war until 1945 in Stalag Luft III. Brickhill was a patriot first and foremost. After the war he was inundated with offers to transform his novel into a movie. But Brickhill didn’t want Hollywood horning in on a story he regarded as quite personal for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, the author proved no match for director John Sturges’ – as bull-headed as he was committed to making certain his finished film accurately depicted the events that had taken place in Bavaria during the war. Brickhill had been an integral part of the planning process; a plan that included three tunnels in simultaneous construction thirty feet beneath the base camp and an ambitious dedication to move 250 POWs in one daring midnight push to freedom right under the Nazi’s ever vigilant watch. Ultimately, only 79 prisoners ever saw the other side of that double-barbed wire fence; three captured on the spot, and fifty assassinated at the behest of Adolph Hitler – who broke the Geneva Convention to prove his point.
Initially, Sturges had shopped the idea for the film to MGM; a project all but dismissed by L.B. Mayer who thought history’s narrative too confusing and the budget for such a project to astronomical to commit his resources. That was in 1949. However by 1960 Sturges was a free agent. He also had proven his filmmaker’s merit and cache with the release of The Magnificent Seven (1960) – arguably, the greatest ensemble western ever made. Quite simply, Sturges had a way with directing male-driven ensemble melodramas – achieving a cadence and a tempo that gave all of the stars their moment to shine while drawing an immersive connectivity from the material and the presence of such overpowering heavy hitters. Sturges’ driving initiative on The Great Escape was always firmly grounded in his own recognition of the nobility and bravery of these daring escapees.
To flesh out the story – and to add the essential ‘Hollywood flair’ - Sturges turned to two playwrights; first W.R. Burnett – a writer renown for hard-edged thrillers like The Asphalt Jungle, and who had also written ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s’ – an unproduced play that eventually became the movie ‘Casablanca’. For authenticity, Sturges employed James Clavell, himself a POW during the war. But Sturges went even further, contacting Brickhill to be The Great Escape’s technical adviser. Regrettably, by the time the movie went into pre-production Brickhill was quite ill and unable to make the journey to Bavaria; recommending Canadian Wally Floody instead – the man who had actually help design ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’ – the so nicknamed triage of escape tunnels built under Stalag Luft III.
In retrospect, The Great Escape is an exemplar of the Hollywood war movie. Moreover, it remains one of the most faithfully adapted real life adventure yarns ever put on film; its one forgivable – though arguably, egregious ‘mistake’ under the rubric of ‘artistic license’ being keeping the Americans in the show long after the real U.S. POWs had actually been separated, and then moved, by the Nazis to another base camp. Historians are sticklers for the truth. But movies, when done properly, are an art – the two quite often irreconcilable with reality. The Great Escape doesn’t sin too much, however. In fact, under Floody’s careful articulation and Sturges’ committed search for verisimilitude, the film is more highly regarded than just a snapshot of this daring history brought vividly and thrillingly to life.
After shopping his script around to various studios, Sturges secured a deal with United Artists (UA) and the Mirisch Company. But the project reached an early snag when preliminary scouting in the U.S. failed to drum up a single viable location. Eventually, Sturges relented to the fact that no amount of fudging on his native soil could fake the rolling hills of Germany, and so the entire production moved to a small studio in Bavaria where an exact replica of a single compound from Stalag Luft III was recreated. In reality, the camp in Sagan, roughly 100 miles south of Berlin, had housed more than 10,000 prisoners in seven compounds surrounded by nine foot tall barbed wire fences and towers of armed guards.
The Great Escape is an American show for obvious reasons – star power to draw in the audience. At least one key player on the roster was filled by a legitimate Brit. The character of Roger Bartlett, (eventually played by Richard Attenborough), actually based on Roger Boshnell, a 33 yr. old South African pilot who had played a decisive role as the escape’s master planner. Attenborough brought an air of stoicism to this role that was quite authentic. Sturges rounded out his cast with stellar performers, including James Garner, Charles Coburn, Charles Bronson, David McCallum and Donald Pleasance. But the film arguably belongs to Steve McQueen – then, still, a relative unknown despite having appeared in the 1958 cult sci-fi classic The Blob and in a pivotal role in Sturges’ own ensemble driven The Magnificent Seven. With The Great Escape, McQueen would graduate to the upper echelons of super stardom – the self-professed ‘king of cool’ herein cast as Hilts; the unrepentant and defiant ‘cooler king’ who spends a good portion of the movie in solitary confinement for his antagonisms and antics.
McQueen only agreed to make The Great Escape if he could show off his prowess on a motorbike; hence the iconic and daring stunt work on a scene totally fabricated for the movie; Hilts’ white-knuckled – though failed – victory ride to freedom; eventually becoming trapped between two fences of barbed wire in the neutral zone, apprehended and taken back to Stalag Luft III to wait out the duration of the war. The movie faithfully recreates the vast resources spent by the Nazis to devise a seemingly impenetrable and inescapable base camp for Allied POWs. Overseen by Kommandant Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger (Hannes Messemer) the camp is the last stop for these gallant men of the air. In fact, von Luger tells senior British Officer Group captain Ramsey (James Donald) that “There will be no escapes from this camp” to which Ramsey politely informs him that it is a prisoner’s first duty to attempt escape anyway.
After several botched, uncoordinated – and decidedly third rate – attempts the camp crackles to life with the rumor that the Gestapo has captured RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett – a.k.a. ‘Big X’ (Richard Attenborough). Indeed, only a short time later Barlett is brought to Stalag Luft III by Herr Kuhn (Hans Reiser) who orders von Luger to place him under maximum security confinement – a direct order which Luger takes only a passing interest in before allowing Bartlett to rejoin the general population. Kuhn warns Bartlett that if he is discovered trying to escape again he will be shot despite the articles of the Geneva Convention. Instead, and almost immediately, Bartlett begins making plans for his most daring Houdini act yet – a complex excavation of three simultaneously constructed tunnels to evacuate 250 men and really send the Nazi high command into a tizzy.
Although virtually all of the central characters in The Great Escape are composites of various POWs, rather than homages to a single man, the film accurately depicts how each ‘team’ of escapees organized their manpower to meet the demands of such a daring plan of action. The men are particularly skilled at making civilian clothes from their military uniforms, using blankets and bed sheets as well, forging documents by bribing some of the guards and outright stealing passports and papers from others, exploiting their care packages from the Red Cross and YMCA, utilizing food stuffs and other non-essentials in creative ways, all in service of the master plan. Flight Lieutenant Robert Hendley (James Garner), an American flying for the RAF is affectionately dubbed ‘the scrounger’; Australian Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick (James Coburn), ‘the manufacturer’. Together, these men steal and build the necessary implements to construct the underground tunnels; pulleys and tracks for transportation of men and materials below ground; taking mattress slats to shore up the soft sandy walls of these claustrophobic tunnels. Meanwhile, Flight Lieutenant Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson) and William Dickes (John Leyton) become ‘the tunnel kings’ – part gofer/part architect – ever advancing beneath the ground toward their rendezvous with freedom.
The film also accurately depicts how the prisoners used bags built into their trousers to release ground excavated from the tunnels into the gardens undetected by the Nazis. In the movie this invention is accredited to one Lieutenant commander Eric Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum) of the Royal Navy. Other duties are handled by Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasance) – the forger who regrettably develops progressive myopia and has to be led to safety by Hendley after the escape. For several months the prisoners diligently toil on these three tunnels, affectionately nicknamed ‘Tom’, ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’. However, when Tom is discovered by the Nazis Bartlett elects to abandon the other tunnel and focus all of their efforts on Harry instead.
The chief fly in the Nazi’s ointment is undeniably USAAF Capt. Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen), the elected and self-professed ‘Cooler King’ who repeatedly and deliberately irritates the guards with his very sloppy escape attempts. At first Bartlett is outraged by Hilts’ audacity, believing that his shoddy defiance will only serve to exacerbate the Nazi high command and draw attention to their more plotted plan of escape. But then he thinks better on Hilts interference. Perhaps with so much time and effort being invested keeping their eyes on Hilts the Nazis will be less suspicious of the real efforts going on right under their noses.
Hilts makes another escape attempt – this time deliberately half-hearted so that he can relay information about their surroundings that will better inform Bartlett and his men of the most direct route to freedom. With the last part of the tunnel completed just hours before the exodus, Bartlett discovers that their tunnel is twenty feet too short of the woods, making the escape even more perilous. Miraculously, 76 make it out before the guards discover the tunnel. Hendley and Blythe steal a biplane to fly over the Swiss border. But their engine fails. As soldiers arrive Blythe stands up from the wreckage and is shot. Hendley willingly surrenders.
In the meantime Bartlett is recognized on a crowded railroad platform by Kuhn, leaving Eric Ashley-Pitt to sacrifice himself for the cause by murdering Kuhn before he himself is killed. In the commotion Bartlett and another escapee, MacDonald (Gordon Jackson) blend into the crowd, but once more are caught while attempting to board a bus. In another part of town Hilts makes his own daring escape on a stolen motorcycle, pursued by German soldiers into the Neutral Zone between Germany and Switzerland and becoming entangled in the barbed wire fence. In short order virtually all of the escapees are rounded up. Still, Bartlett believes his objective has been achieved – to disrupt and distract the high command. But on their trip back to camp the convoy makes an unexpected stop somewhere inside the Black Forest where, under orders, Bartlett and fifty of his men are brutally assassinated. Hendley, Hilts and eight others are returned to the camp and Von Luger is relieved of his command by the SS who are even more determined to maintain order.
Of the 76, only Danny, Willie and Sedgwick make it to safety; the first two by stealing a rowboat and proceeding downriver to the Baltic coast, the latter by riding a bicycle, then a freight train into occupied France where he is met by a Resistance freedom fighter loyal to Spain. The morale at the camp sours after Ramsey learns of Barlett and the other’s demise. But ever the devil-may-care optimist, Hilts taunts the guards en route to ‘the cooler’ – his baseball in hand, the guard undeniably perplexed by his prisoner’s attitude as a script appears, dedicating the movie to “the fifty” who gave their lives to the cause.
The Great Escape’s unofficial premiere included a private screening for surviving POWs who instantly declared the movie a factual representation of their own experiences during the war. Sturges could have received no finer accolade, but was afforded an even greater satisfaction when the official June 1963 premieres in New York and Los Angeles marked The Great Escape as one of the truly outstanding war pictures ever made – a box office dynamo that sent cash registers ringing around the world. The movie also shed light on an almost forgotten crusade all but reduced to a footnote after the war: Britain’s fervent quest to seek out the Nazi officials responsible for the mass slaughter and bring them to justice. In 1948, eighteen Germans were put on trial, thirteen executed in Hamburg.
Viewed today The Great Escape holds up as an exhilarating adventure – superbly crafted and expertly played. There is little to deny the impact the film had on Steve McQueen’s movie career. It also gave Donald Pleasance international notoriety and continued the upswing of James Garner and James Coburn’s popularity with audiences. The 1960s arguably marked the dawning of a new type of American star; one generally celebrated for his anti-heroic countercultural approach to life and self-preservation. Seen from this vantage, The Great Escape is very much a throwback to the more gallant war movies of the 1940s, its morality and high ideals grounded in a sort of magnificent valor that remains as intoxicating, nourishing and ultimately satisfying as it was at the time of the movie’s premiere.
It’s very gratifying to see old time stars do what they used to do best – sell themselves as paragons of virtue – a concept utterly lost on today’s angry anti-establishment celebrity-ensconced peons masquerading as stars. The Great Escape endures because it appeals to a higher morality. It makes the claim that, even in war, there are people and causes worth fighting for, worth dying for, because the fate of humanity is more sacred, profound and ultimately treasured than the sacrifices made by many for the good of all. Today, such messages rarely emerge from our cinematic storytellers or, when they do, are somehow misperceived as quaintly apologetic or grossly misguided by the critics. But The Great Escape’s enduring popularity ensures that fundamentally audiences are still suckers for these heroic escapades. And boy, do we need our heroes now!
MGM/Fox Home Video has done an admirable job on bringing The Great Escape to Blu-ray. Is the image perfect? Well, define perfect. I’m not being glib, just realistic. Pristine, finely detailed, razor sharp image quality was never the goal of Daniel L. Fapp’s cinematography. So, does this 1080 rendering accurately recapture the essence of Fapp’s work? For the most part – yes – although I do believe the bitrate on this disc is still rather anemic and could have been greatly improved by housing the nearly three hour feature on one disc and all of its extras on another. We don’t get that here – but a cramming of everything onto a single disc.
I’m not entirely certain the newly adopted ‘teal’ tint to the blue record is accurate either. The Great Escape has long looked rather rough around the edges on home video. The biggest improvements to the image herein are in its overall sharpness and refinement of flesh tones, the latter looking less ruddy orange and more natural. Scenes shot at night look only marginally better than they did on the previously released DVD, but the sequences lensed during the day definitely have considerable more snap and zing to them by direct comparison. As I say, this isn’t a perfect disc and undoubtedly there will be those who find it disappointing because the utmost care has decidedly not been taken to remaster The Great Escape from the ground up in 1080p. But MGM/Fox has done a more than passable job relieving us of the many age related artifacts that plagued their DVD.
The audio gets the biggest upgrade herein, a 5.1 DTS that will have you appreciating Elmer Bernstein’s score all the more. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD, reissued herein in 480i and looking their age. We get Sturges commentary, along with inserts from other cast and crew; the roughly 36 minute The Great Escape documentary hosted by Burt Reynolds, divided into four unequal portions, ‘The Untold Story’ doc, infinitely more pleasing and comprehensive at just under an hour; the half hour homage to ‘A Man Called Jones’ (a.k.a. the real Virgil Hilts), the half hour ‘return to…’ doc. and trailers. Bottom line: The Great Escape is a movie classic that grows more timeless and inspiring with the passage of time. The repurchase on Blu-ray is arguably a no-brainer. Don’t expect it to be perfection itself and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results. Yeah…I know…perfection would have been nice!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)