WolfmanOz at the Movies #63


Tom, Dick and Harry

Were the names given to the three tunnels that were used in the mass escape by British and Commonwealth POWs from the German POW camp Stalag Luft III. The film of course is The Great Escape (released in 1963) which depicts a heavily fictionalised version of the escape, with numerous compromises made for its commercial appeal, for example, focusing more on the American involvement in the escape, but regardless, the film stands as one of the great entertainments in movie history that is beloved by so many.

At the film’s beginning, the Germans move the most troublesome Allied POWs to a new, maximum security camp supervised and run by the Luftwaffe.  The prisoners establish an escape committee, the “X” Organisation, led by “Big X”, RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (played by Richard Attenborough) and based on the real-life mastermind of the escape, Roger Bushell. Bartlett proposes an audacious plan: to tunnel below the fence of the camp into the forest, to break out 250 men. 

https://youtu.be/c5dLKSZTO6o

While the characters are fictitious, they were based on real men, in most cases being composites of several people; but the one thing the film does stick relatively close to the known facts is how the tunnels were planned and dug including how the escape was finally discovered by the Germans.

https://youtu.be/MeMAR3QmKZE

The Great Escape also saw a re-teaming of many who were involved in the classic 1960 western The Magnificent Seven – Director: John Sturges, Composer: Elmer Bernstein, Editor: Ferris Webster and Actors: Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn.

The large, international cast is superb, but the standout is Steve McQueen; it’s easy to see why this movie cemented his status as a major movie star. This film established McQueen’s box-office clout and superstar status.

Of the 76 men who originally escaped from the camp, 3 managed to finally make it back home. However, 50 were “shot” aka murdered by the Nazis on the direct orders of Adolf Hitler. The film depicts this as three truckloads of recaptured POWs splitting off in three directions. One truck containing a number of the prisoners are invited to stretch their legs in a field, whereupon they are all machine gunned in a single massacre, with the implication that the other two are also done in the same manner. In reality, most of the POWs were shot individually or in pairs. Therefore, although not accurate in terms of the specifics, the film’s depiction still captures the appalling nature of this horrendous war crime.

But as an intended mass entertainment, ending the film on such a downbeat manner would probably have been disastrous for its box-office success so the film-makers had the last scene with a re-captured Hilts (McQueen) returning to the POW camp and being placed in the cooler defiantly with his baseball glove and ball all to the sound of Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent music. It certainly never happened but really who cares, it’s simply a wonderful coda with its final “this picture is dedicated to the fifty” as a fitting tribute. For me it’s one of the most perfectly realised endings in film history.

https://youtu.be/lcCuknMIdmo

The film’s enduring appeal lies in a number of factors – the bravery and defiance of a group of men placed together in incredibly trying circumstances;  the viewer marvelling at the ingenuity and seemingly unbreakable spirit of the imprisoned soldiers; a cast to die for; a terrific music score that perfectly captures the mood of the film; and, finally, there is no sermonising, no soul probing: simply the film is great escapism.

I’ll always remember when I first saw this movie on re-release in the mid-1970s. It was at a suburban cinema in Auckland where the seating was benches, and an extremely large Maori sat in front of us and the whole family (all 4 of us) had to get up and move along to the right.

Enjoy.

and the tease for next weeks post . . . Not a lot of people know that.


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Cassie of Sydney
March 23, 2023 7:31 am

The Great Escape, one of my all time favourites. I watch it every year. Superb casting, and great story. A nice summation Wolfman.

calli
calli
March 23, 2023 8:15 am

After Ben-Hur, this is the one my son and I always used to watch whenever it came on tv. A great movie for little boys to feast on, with heroism and determination to aspire to, and also to learn that not all worthy human endeavours have a neat, happy ending.

Every actor played his part with gusto – beaut performances all round. Even the very peculiar “Australian” Coburn. Pleasance was also a stand out.

Roger
Roger
March 23, 2023 8:16 am

As “boys’ own” entertainment this film is about as perfect as it gets.

Petros
Petros
March 23, 2023 8:52 am

Were there any Americans in that camp in the real story?

WolfmanOz
WolfmanOz
March 23, 2023 9:08 am

A few but their involvement was very minor.

Roger
Roger
March 23, 2023 9:15 am

But as an intended mass entertainment, ending the film on such a downbeat manner would probably have been disastrous for its box-office success…

Indeed, I think this would have been at the forefrunt of Strurges’s mind as the ending of The Magnificent Seven had been blamed for poor box office receipts in the US. The film was only redeemed financially because it was a hit in Europe.

duncanm
duncanm
March 23, 2023 11:18 am

Tops film – so many fine actors and moments.

Independence day celebrations with illicit hootch – Bartlett declaring it the most “shattering” thing he’s ever had, while scots MacDonald counters with “I think its rather good”.

Hendley scrounging up everything from poor innocent Werner; ironically, its dumb old Werner who later blows the cover on one of the tunnels.

Danny the claustrophobic tunnel master. A lesson in overcoming fears, knuckling down and doing what you need to do; but it finally breaks him.

Poor blind Blythe – stumbling into soldiers after the plane crash.

The Kommandant – the enemy, but a fair and upstanding soldier who is dishonoured by the executions.

.. and the McQueen bike chase.

vlad redux
vlad redux
March 23, 2023 11:41 am

The film’s enduring appeal lies in a number of factors

Including the cinematography; with so much else to admire and enjoy in it, it’s easy to miss how well photographed it is.

duncanm
duncanm
March 23, 2023 1:52 pm

Including the cinematography; with so much else to admire and enjoy in it, it’s easy to miss how well photographed it is.

great point — the scenery in the bike chase is stunning, and the tunnel cinematography is top notch, considering when it was done.

Bar Beach Swimmer
March 23, 2023 2:32 pm

Thanks, Wolfie, for another great jaunt into the stories and heroics of our yoof.

A few years back, there was a great article in the paper about the movie. David McCallum, iirc, saying that there was a bit of a rivalry on the part of McQueen vs Garner. McQueen wasn’t happy with how much screen time he was getting, which supposedly was the reason for the climax of the motorcycle stunt at the near end of the film.

On the movie: I can’t add any more than what has been said already. A great film with no flaws.

On the clips, I particularly like the lead up to Hilts’ first trip to the cooler and his use of German in the response to the Commandant, which pointed to the large numbers of descendants of German immigrants fighting as US soldiers against their distant relatives.

Perhaps not just a historic fact but a subliminal message that not every German speaker was a Nazi.

Tekweni
Tekweni
March 23, 2023 2:49 pm

As a kid I always remember my father mentioning that one of my mother’s tennis club friends having a brother who was killed in the great escape. My father said he was in the same SAAF 2 Squadron that my father flew in. I assume it was Clement McGarr as he was brought up in Durban where we lived. I played junior tennis for the club my mother played at so I do remember his sister but not her name. It’s small world.

Bruce of Newcastle
Bruce of Newcastle
March 23, 2023 5:21 pm

Loved both the book and the movie! Paul Brickhill is an Aussie who ended up in Stalag Luft III, so as well as being an excellent writer was about as real as you can get.

In the same vein The Wooden Horse and The Colditz Story likewise are excellent. I read both but I can’t remember watching the former fillum.

johanna
johanna
March 23, 2023 6:20 pm

Colditz has a movie and also a mini series, both excellent viewing. The mini series is on youtube (or was, last time I looked.)

The Great Escape is another of those movies which are able to be enjoyed again and again. I don’t think it will ever go out of fashion.

Bruce of Newcastle
Bruce of Newcastle
March 23, 2023 7:14 pm

Paul Brickhill also wrote the very readable Dam Busters and Reach For The Sky. Two more fine movies!

Given how well such movies do (looking at you, Top Gun:Maverick) I’d love to see more of them. Even the Star Wars fillums are in the genre, sort of. The novel I’m reading in between Cat refreshes is an Honor Harrington book: it is a dream of mine that some of those stories might be made into a movie.

Unlikely unfortunately, they and David Weber their author are righty. Hollywood would never accept such uncouth unprogressive stuff…although I suspect the movies would reap billions, like Maverick.

Bruce in WA
March 23, 2023 8:37 pm

Given how well such movies do (looking at you, Top Gun:Maverick) I’d love to see more of them. Even the Star Wars fillums are in the genre, sort of.

There is a good case for seeing Star Wars and TG: Maverick as one and the same, or at least mirror images, especially the spacecraft/jets down the tunnel/river and the rocket/bomb down an almost impossibly small target underground/inside the Death Star — and the mantra: “Don’t think. Just feel” in Top Gun and “Use the Force” in Star Wars.

Bruce in WA
March 23, 2023 9:52 pm
Pogria
Pogria
March 23, 2023 11:27 pm

Bruce in WA,
you bugger, you beat me to it. Although, I was simply going to write “Maurice Micklewhite”. 😀

Maniac
Maniac
March 23, 2023 11:31 pm

Drove all the way to Vermont to pay my respects to Bronson a few years ago. One of my favorites.

Johnny Rotten
March 24, 2023 5:12 am

Very, very well said Wolfman and how many German POW prisoners in England tried to escape? Makes you wonder doesn’t it. A magnificent Film.

Jock
Jock
March 24, 2023 8:30 am

From the times the made movies about real heroes. Not sporting or “super” people.

Bear Necessities
Bear Necessities
March 24, 2023 10:56 am

Agreed Wolfman. A great escapist adventure. I also like sendups of these type of movies. The best sendup I’ve seen is in Ripping Yarns “Escape from Stalag Luft 112B”.

From the wiki:

Major Phipps “was the only man never to escape from Stalag Luft 112B”. He returns to England but dies a broken man within three months. Two years after his burial at Totnes, a hole is found dug from his grave to the cemetery fence: his final escape was his “greatest”.

duncanm
duncanm
March 24, 2023 11:33 am

Even the Star Wars fillums are in the genre, sort of.

Star Wars works so well because its an opera.

All the major characters have their own tune. The baddie wears a big black cape and a mask. The only part missing is singing.

duncanm
duncanm
March 24, 2023 12:08 pm

Though singing can, of course, be added:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eT4shwU4Yc4

(* apologies for the derailment)

Anchor What
Anchor What
March 24, 2023 4:46 pm

Steve McQueen is famous for his role in this and other movies, but the question has to be asked:
Was he elevated because he “looked cool”? He certainly wasn’t a great actor.

Pedro the Loafer
Pedro the Loafer
March 24, 2023 6:06 pm

Donald Pleasance should have won an Oscar for his performance as the half-blind “Forger” in that film.

Boambee John
Boambee John
March 24, 2023 6:26 pm

Donald Pleasance was chilling as Himmler in The Eagle Has Landed. He also looked the part.

Diogenes
Diogenes
March 25, 2023 9:40 am

I hadn’t seen it for a while, and didn’t remember it as being all that good.

Given all the love I thought I should rewatch it. No, still not feeling it.

Real Deal
Real Deal
March 25, 2023 1:16 pm

Great summary Wolfie, you have a great skill for this. It is a favourite movie of mine. We have watched it semi-regularly with our kids for quite a few years. A wonderful ensemble cast.

For me the standouts are McQueen (obviously) but also James Garner (my late mother adored him), Dickie Attenborough, Gordon Jackson and many others. Some years ago She’ll did an advert with a McQueen lookalike riding the motorcycle, filling it up with Shell and actually jumping the fence. A classic.

I visited the camp in 2014 with my family. My father actually escaped from the Army part of the complex. There is a very good little museum there near Zagan in Poland.

Real Deal
Real Deal
March 25, 2023 1:17 pm

Shell, not she’ll.

Real Deal
Real Deal
March 25, 2023 1:26 pm

Agreed Wolfman. A great escapist adventure. I also like sendups of these type of movies. The best sendup I’ve seen is in Ripping Yarns “Escape from Stalag Luft 112B”.

My late father (who was a POW) loved that episode, particularly the C.O. Biffo.

Salvatore, Understaffed & Overworked Martyr to Govt Covid Stupidity

Alas I’m currently too busy to give this thread & the event the movie depicts the carefully considered comment it deserves.

Salvatore, Understaffed & Overworked Martyr to Govt Covid Stupidity

My father actually escaped from the Army part of the complex.

Real Deal, please tell us a little more about this.

Salvatore, Understaffed & Overworked Martyr to Govt Covid Stupidity

Pogria says: March 23, 2023 at 11:27 pm
Bruce in WA,
you bugger, you beat me to it. Although, I was simply going to write “Maurice Micklewhite”.

IIRC he changed his name a few years ago & is no longer Maurice Micklewhite.
(After a lifetime of vowing to always be his real name except in credits or public appearances)

Salvatore, Understaffed & Overworked Martyr to Govt Covid Stupidity

Petros says: March 23, 2023 at 8:52 am
Were there any Americans in that camp in the real story?

Yes, quite a few according to Bram Vanderstok, (a Dutchman & one of the three “home runs” of the breakout) as detailed in his book written some 40 years after the escape, (The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III)

According to Dr. Vanderstok, the majority of the Americans were moved to another dedicated “American” compound some time before the escape. The disappointment & chagrin of the Americans can be imagined, having contributed to the planning & escape effort, then to not be able to participate.

I’ve been castigated on this site before for quoting Vanderstok*, though according to him there were more Americans than Paul Brickhill’s book led us to believe.

(*Not by any sensible or historically minded Cats)

Salvatore, Understaffed & Overworked Martyr to Govt Covid Stupidity

Boambee John says: March 24, 2023 at 6:26 pm
Donald Pleasance was chilling as Himmler in The Eagle Has Landed. He also looked the part.

In 1988 Donald Pleasance also played Himmler, very chillingly & masterfully, in The Great Escape II – the untold story (starring Christopher Reeve & streaming in two parts on Amazon Prime)
The movie covers the planning & escape, though not in the detail of the movie this thread is about.
It principally deals with the events after the escape, including the murders of escapees, which are covered far more accurately. Some of the events during time on the run, or during successful home runs, are so amazing & incredible that until I corroborated them (easily done online) I was sure some of them were obvious bullshit, just fanciful yarns made up to secure TV ratings.

Salvatore, Understaffed & Overworked Martyr to Govt Covid Stupidity

I’ve hundreds of pages of information on the years of investigation & manhunt for the murderers of the 50, written by the RAF officer who took on the task of tracking down the murderers.
As mentioned above, I’ve not time to make the in-depth comment that this deserves (the extensive investigation & hunt for the murderers also depicted somewhat accurately in The Great Escape II – the untold story)

I’ve not the time to dig through Bram Vanderstok’s work, however Eric Williams (who got out of Stalag Luft III via the Wooden Horse, before the Tom/Dick/Harry great escape) makes mention in his after-war writings of a significant American compound at Stalag Luft III.
Eric Williams does say there were no Americans in the British compound. Excepting those who were in British service, i.e. those who joined British Commonwealth forces prior to the US entry into the war.

Eric Williams does also mention that despite there being similar number of US prisoners-of-war in German hands, very very few made any attempt to escape. He recounts this as being pointed out to him by post-war American servicemen he was lecturing to in Germany, who enquired of him for his thoughts & opinion on why in diametric contrast to the plucky Brits (& Commonwealth), very few Americans tried to escape. While he diplomatically pointed out that Britain has “more experience” in war, this much agreed by the Americans in his lecture audience, he also pointed out to them that the Americans, while not actually soft, had been conditioned to small comforts & were thus less likely to forgo what limited comforts there were in a p.o.w. camp for the rigours & hardship of months on the run as an escapee.

His full explanation to the Americans in Germany is to be found on pages 169 & 170 of Complete and Free, his account of motor touring with his wife in post-war Europe.

Real Deal
Real Deal
March 28, 2023 6:27 am

Real Deal, please tell us a little more about this.

He’s long dead Sal, much of it is his word soley. We do have a list he wrote for some authority post war. Near the end of the war he was in Poland with some also escaped South Africans. More I could tell. Admittedly it is his story with no correlation. However, he talked little about the war, was not an embellisher of stories and was deeply traumatised by his experiences till the day he died.

  1. Knuckle Dragger May 26, 2024 11:43 pm Headline of the day:The Matildas and Arsenal weapon tasked with filling Kerr-sized hole…

  2. Headline of the day: The Matildas and Arsenal weapon tasked with filling Kerr-sized hole Fnarrr.

  3. And puts lie to the media’s claim that he held a firearms licence “for recreational purposes”.

  4. The word doing the rounds (as yet unsubstantiated) is a total ban on “recreational” firearm use. Can see a lot…

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