I love movies in which a team of talented individuals get together to achieve a common goal. Such examples include thieves trying to rob a casino, black ops soldiers trying to destroy enemy weapons, or Tom Cruise and company trying to break into CIA headquarters during an impossible mission. John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963) stands out in this category because here the group in question is not trying to break into a place, but break out. Specifically they are a group of POWs trying to escape a massive Nazi prison camp in order to distract German troops while the Allies are getting ready to invade. The film may have its share of historical inaccuracies, but it is a historical piece of filmmaking since its cast is made up of some of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time.
Although it was released in the early 1960s The Great Escape has endured the test of time, first by becoming many grandfathers’ favourite movie, and then by influencing many filmmakers to come. Quentin Tarantino (of course) has his characters name-check it in Reservoir Dogs, The Simpsons spoofed it, and what is Chicken Run if not a stop-motion version of The Great Escape with chickens as the POWs? It took me a while to finally see it, but when I rented it on DVD about ten years ago I was familiar with the premise and knew some of the big names among the cast. What I did know at the time, and eventually learned by doing some research, is that in real life Canadian prisoners played a crucial role in the prison break. Yet there are no Canadian characters in The Great Escape, so where’s our movie with our heroes?
That being said, if you go into this story without too much historical knowledge it is one entertaining ride that first grabs you with that iconic score by Elmer Bernstein. The set-up of the movie is laid out by Colonel Von Luger (Hannes Messemer) the Kommandant of a Nazi prisoner of war camp in 1943. He tells a British officer, group captain Ramsey (James Donald) that this camp has been specifically designed to guard some of the Allies’ best escape artists. As he puts it, the Nazis have put all of their bad eggs in one basket. To discourage Ramsey and anyone who listens to him, he explains the many security features of the camp and how it is their best interests to be model prisoners.
However from Ramsey’s point of view the best behaviour a prisoner of war can have is to actively try to escape. Upon leaving Von Luger and reuniting with his fellow allies a plan is hatched: they will attempt to escape this camp, not one or two prisoners a week, but 250 all at once. To do this they will dig three tunnels called Tom, Dick, and Harry, right under the noses of the guards. Once all of those prisoners have escaped the Nazis will spend considerable time and resources trying to get them back, which will distract them while Allied troops are attacking elsewhere.
For this massive undertaking you of course need a team of individuals with their own unique set of skills. RAF Squadron leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) a.k.a “Big X,” is the man in charge of planning the operation. Flight lieutenant Robert Hendley (James Garner) is the “Scrounger,” who can get his hands on anything inside the prison. Australian flight officer Louis Segwick (James Coburn) is the “Manufacturer,” in charge of making the tools needed for digging. Lieutenant Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) is the “Forger,” who makes fake documents for the men once they get to the border. To dig the tunnels you have lieutenants Danny Velinsky (Charles Bronson) and William Dickes (John Leyton), known as the “Tunnel Kings.” Then of course you have Steve McQueen as captain Virgil Hilts, whose main skill seems to be annoying the guards and being thrown into solitary confinement, earning him the nickname the “Cooler King.” Appropriate, since in his day McQueen was known as the “King of Cool.”
He was so cool that it was his idea to have a sequence in which Hilts tries to escape the Nazi troops by speeding away on a motorcycle, and of course he did most of the stunt riding. Again, historically inaccurate, but it looks cool as can be and you really root for Hilts to escape. That seems to be the key to this movie: you meet these characters who face incredible odds, you get to like them, and then no matter how unbelievable the story gets you are cheering them on. The true story is somewhere in the history books, but if what you are looking for is a fun dramatization of WWII events, then you will find it in The Great Escape.