Movie Review: ‘The Great Escape’

British theatrical release poster from 1963. Photo Credit: RetroGraphik. (C) 1963 The Mirisch Company/United Artists

The Great Escape (1963)

Written by: James Clavell and W.R. Burnett

Based on: The Great Escape (1950), by Paul Brickhill

Directed by: John Sturges

Starring: Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, James Donald, James Garner, Gordon Jackson, David McCallum, Steve McQueen, Hannes Messemer, Heinz Weiss

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Group Captain Ramsey (BSO): Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then 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. 

On June 20, 1963, The Great Escape, a film made by producer-director John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven) that dramatizes a daring mass escape by Allied prisoners of war (POWs) from a maximum security camp in Nazi Germany during World War II, had its world premiere in London. This was followed by its U.S. premiere on July 4, 1963.

Based on the eponymous 1950 non-fiction book by Australian journalist (and ex-POW) Paul Brickhill, The Great Escape is a fictionalized account of a real event that took place in 1944 at Stalag Luft III near Sagan, in Lower Silesia. (After the war, when many national borders were shifted per the Allies’ agreements at Yalta, Lower Silesia was stripped from the defeated Germany and awarded to Poland to compensate for the Soviet Union’s absorption of Polish territories it had occupied in 1939. Sagan is now known in Polish as Zagan.)

The best-selling book by Brickhill – who had a minor role in the attempt to break 250 British and Commonwealth POWs but stayed in Stalag Luft III during “the Great Escape” – had already been adapted for TV in 1951 by NBC, but Sturges was determined to bring it to the silver screen as a major motion picture. Most studios rejected his story pitch – the real story of Sagan was too Anglo-centric for U.S. audiences, it didn’t have the requisite Hollywood ending, and it didn’t feature any female stars or romantic scenes – but The Mirisch Company, which had released Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven in 1960, agreed to produce it, and United Artists signed on as the distributor.

The Mirisch Company and Sturges originally planned to shoot The Great Escape in California to keep expenses low. However, after location scouts told Sturges and Walter Mirisch that there were no locales in the state with thickly-forested areas that could pass for 1944-era Germany, the entire production crossed the Atlantic and set up shop in Bavaria Film studio, located in Geiselgasteig, a suburb of the southern German city of Munich.

The screenplay was written by screenwriter-novelist James Clavell – best known for his novels King Rat and Shogun – and W.R. Burnett. (A third and uncredited writer, Walter Newman, also contributed material to the script.) Wally Floody, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot who was a prisoner of war at Sagan and participated in the escape attempt, was brought in as technical adviser.

: How many you taking out?

Bartlett: Two hundred and fifty.

Hilts: Two hundred and fifty?

Bartlett: Yeh.

Hilts: You’re crazy. You oughta be locked up. You, too. Two hundred and fifty guys just walkin’ down the road, just like that?

The Great Escape’s plot is straightforward: It’s 1944, and the Germans have built a new  Stalag (prisoner of war camp) with the sole purpose of gathering the most troublesome captured Allied personnel. Most of the prisoners are British and Commonwealth airmen, with a few American officers tossed into the mix.  All of these POWs have, as the German commandant says early on in the film, “escaped, been recaptured, escaped, recaptured.”

Even though the Luftwaffe officers in charge of the camp understand that the Allied officers and airmen have a “sworn duty to escape,” they are also being pressured by Nazi authorities in Berlin to crack down on escape attempts, or else the SS and Gestapo will take over administration of the camp.

The Allied prisoners are equally determined to escape from this new German Stalag, not only to rejoin their forces in England and elsewhere, but to create as much trouble for the enemy. By forcing the Third Reich to divert thousands of troops and security officers on a countrywide dragnet for the escapees, the P.O.Ws hope to tie up reinforcements that Germany desperately needs in the front lines in the Italian peninsula, the Balkans, and the Eastern Front.

With this purpose, the brilliant Wing Commander Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), also known as “X,” conceives the most ambitious escape attempt yet: 250 men will tunnel their way out from the new camp and make their way to England across Germany and occupied Western Europe. 

Bartlett’s escape committee includes the Senior British Officer (SBO),Group Captain Ramsay (James Donald); Blythe, “The Forger” (Donald Pleasence); Hendley, “The Scrounger” (James Garner); Danny Velinski, “The Tunnel King” (Charles Bronson); Sedgwick, “The Manufacturer” (James Coburn); Ashley-Pitt, “Dispersal” (David McCallum); MacDonald, “Intelligence” (Gordon Jackson); and Hilts, “Cooler King” and unrepentant frequent escapee (Steve McQueen).

Using tried-and-true movie techniques such as the creation of composite characters, fictitious names instead of the participants’ true names, and time compression, The Great Escape chronicles a series of escape attempts by many of the movie’s POWs. They include, among other methods, hiding under freshly cut trees being carried out in German military trucks, efforts to find the “blind spot” between guard towers at the camp perimeter, and finally, the digging – and concealment – of three tunnels: Tom, Dick, and Harry.

Most of these attempts are frustrated by German efforts to prevent the POWs from escaping, but one of the tunnels remains undiscovered, and eventually, Bartlett leads 73 of his fellow escapees out of Stalag Luft III, prompting a massive German effort – ordered by Adolf Hitler himself – to capture the Allied POWs and mete a savage Nazi-style retribution to the attempt’s ringleaders.

My Take

The Great Escape is the first movie I remember watching in a movie theater. I first saw it in the Teatro San Carlos in Bogota, Colombia some time in 1969; it must have been during a “Return Engagement” re-issue; I was only three months old when The Great Escape was originally released in the U.S. (July 1963), and in those last years before home video became a worldwide “thing,” movie studios often trotted out some of their successful films for theatrical re-release to add to their box office take.  As such, The Great Escape is the first film I remember watching In a theater, although I’m sure that my mother or my grandparents might have taken me to other movies before then.

As a result, The Great Escape made a huge impression on me as a young boy. It was the first World War II movie I remember seeing, and it awoke in me a passionate and ongoing fascination with the war and its history.

Like most war films – and especially those of the pre-Vietnam War era – The Great Escape takes many artistic liberties with the real events that occurred at Sagan and Paul Brickhill’s non-fiction book that chronicles it. The producers and screenwriters had to compress a story that took place over many months into what seems a matter of weeks – the film has a running time of 172 minutes –  nearly three hours – and had to simplify the narrative for the average moviegoer.

In addition, many of the ex-POWs who were consulted by the makers of The Great Escape for accuracy and verisimilitude asked Sturges not to mention many of the escape techniques used in the actual “Great Escape” so that future POWs could still use them if necessary. Sturges and the screenwriters agreed, so quite a bit of historical accuracy was sacrificed, albeit for a good cause.

As was customary in those days, The Great Escape added at least three obviously American characters (Steve McQueen’s Capt. Virgil Hilts, James Garner’s Robert Hendley, and Jud Taylor’s 2nd. Lt. Goff[1]) and cast American actors James Coburn and Charles Bronson – who co-starred with McQueen in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, an earlier film by John Sturges – in the roles of Australian officer Sedgwick and Polish ex-pat soldier Danny Velinski.

The logic behind this casting decision was based on the notion that The Great Escape would not attract American viewers if it stuck to the facts and just featured British or British Commonwealth leads. United Artists, The Mirisch Company, and John Sturges were American, and since in the movie industry most decisions are based on finances, several American characters were created in major lead roles for “audience appeal.”[2]

If you keep these things in mind, you might find The Great Escape to be as exciting and enthralling as I did when I was six years old. Even if names have been changed and many details of the escape dramatized or changed to protect some of the escape methods used in real life, The Great Escape is among one of the best in the “POWs-face-adversity-with-pluck-and-courage” genre, second only to David Lean’s The Bridge Over the River Kwai.

The film is well-written, and the acting is solidly good. Director Sturges keeps the tension ratcheted up throughout the nearly three-hours-long film, and some of the set-piece scenes, such as Steve McQueen’s escape attempt on a motorcycle, are still among the movies’ most exciting and spectacular sequences.

Composer Elmer Bernstein’s score, with its rousing march-like theme that evokes German military marches, is also impressive and memorable. It is one of my favorite film music compositions not written by John Williams, and it is one of the great 1960s scores, bar none.

I own The Great Escape in two disc formats: the MGM-UA 1998 DVD and in the 2014 Blu-ray that is included in the 4-film Steve McQueen Collection set. The DVD doesn’t have too many extras – just a making-of featurette – but the Blu-ray includes a dramatized version of what happened to one of the Nazi SS officers who participated in Hitler’s retribution for the breakout, which entailed the murder of 50 recaptured British and Commonwealth officers. Either disc is good for casual watchers, but I prefer the Blu-ray. It looks and sounds better, plus it has more bonus features.

This is still one of my favorite war films, and I heartily recommend it.

[1] Jud Taylor would soon quit acting and switch over to directing. His career included various TV movies made in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as episodes of various TV series, including Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek (1966-1969).

[2] In the real breakout, there were a few U.S. officers involved, but their roles were relative minor and not movie-worthy.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

8 thoughts on “Movie Review: ‘The Great Escape’

      1. Ha! That’s actually a Once Upon a Time in Hollywood reference. Jake Cahill (Leonardo DiCaprio) supposedly auditioned for The Great Escape and something happened to McQueen that almost made him have to turn down the role. If he had, Cahill could very well have gotten the part.

        It was a hilarious little scene in the movie.

        Liked by 1 person

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