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. 

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.

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.

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.


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