The Great Escape (1963)

Director: John Sturges

Producers: John Sturges, James Clavell (The Mirisch Corporation)

Writers: Paul Brickhill (book), James Clavell, W.R. Burnett (screenplay)

Photography: Daniel L. Fapp

Music: Elmer Bernstein

Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, Hannes Messemer, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, John Leyton, Angus Lennie, Nigel Stock, Robert Graf, Jud Taylor, Hans Reiser, Harry Riebauer, William Russell, Robert Freitag, Ulrich Beiger, George Mikell, Lawrence Montaigne, Robert Desmond, Til Kiwe, Heinz Weiss, Tom Adams, Karl-Otto Alberty

Pop in any MGM DVD these days and you’ll see a quick collection of some of history’s most famous movie images — Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lectar in a straight jacket, Sylvester Stallone running the Rocky steps, Marilyn Monroe blowing a kiss. And right there in their midst, catching your eye is a spectacular stunt in the most famous scene of The Great Escape — Steve McQueen jumping his motorcycle over a barbed wire fence.

Needless to say McQueen rode that bike into immortality. How fitting that Escape be directed by John Sturges, whose name evokes the famed Sturgis bike rally, for these are the people who love his movies. If George Cukor was the proud maker of women’s pictures, Sturges made them for men. Not that women don’t enjoy them (I know some who love them), but these are films about macho camaraderie — Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape. All three are great pictures sporting the chiseled faces of Lancasters, Bronsons and McQueens. But if one were to choose the emblem of Sturges’ career, it’s gotta be Escape, ranking #40 on Men’s Journal’s 50 Best Guy Movies and #27 on Maxim Magazine’s 100 Greatest Guy Movies Ever Made.

Based on the real-life Allied escape from Nazi POW camp Stalag Luft III in 1944, The Great Escape opens with the arrival of truck loads of Allied soldiers to the “inescapable” camp. As the camp Kommandant Von Luger (Hannes Messemer) says, “This is a new camp. It has been built to hold you and your men. It is organized to incorporate all we have learned of security measures. And in me, you will not be dealing with a common jailer, but with a staff officer personally selected for the task by the Luftwaffe high command. We have in effect put all our rotten eggs in one basket. And we intend to watch this basket carefully.”

These rotten eggs are a collection of British and American troops with heavy track records of escape attempts, each nicknamed with his area of expertise as they conspire to dig their way out of the camp — Captain Hilts (McQueen), “The Cooler King,” a troublemaker with 18 prior escape attempts who spends all his time in “the cooler” (solitary confinement) after conducting fake escape attempts to divert attention away from the real tunnels; Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), “Big X,” the leader of the bunch and the mastermind of the escape; Flight Lt. Hendley (James Garner), “The Scrounger,” who specializes in being able to get things inside the prison walls (think Red in The Shawshank Redemption); Group Capt. Ramsey (James Donald), “The SBO” or Senior British Officer, in charge of all the British POWs in the camp; Flight Lt. Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson), “The Tunnel King,” the lead digger of the tunnels who’s ironically claustrophobic; Flight Lt. Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence), “The Forger,” specializing in making counterfeit documents, and a gentle soul who loves bird watching but who is also going blind; and Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick (James Coburn), “The Manufacturer,” who builds whatever’s necessary, including disguises for after the escape.

All these men gather around Big X who organizes a massive escape attempt aiming to move out 250 men, each with proper identification, a change of clothes, maps, and timetables for trains. The plan is to dig three tunnels, nicknamed Tom, Dick and Harry, so that if the Nazis discover one, they have two other options. They are each dug 30 feet deep to evade German sound detectors and extend hundreds of feet. Underground, the tunnelers shore every foot of the dig (building a wooden structure to prevent the dirt from caving in) and they create a cart track to wheel the men through. Meanwhile, the men outside sing Christmas carols to cover the sounds of the dig, and create a complex signaling system to shut down digging operations when the Nazi guards approach. (E)?

In the end, 76 total escape the compound and attempt to flee Germany via train, bicycle, motorcycle, truck, boat, airplane and foot. After a massive chase, all but three are captured, 50 of them gunned down by machine guns and the rest returned to the camp. If the end feels a little too Perfect Storm-ish, I remind you it could end in no other way. This is how it really happened. As the film states from the outset, “This is a true story. Although the characters are composites of real men, and time and space have been compressed, every detail of the escape is the way it really happened.” And in the end, it proudly states, “”This picture is dedicated to the 50.”

Screenwriters W.R. Burnett and James Clavell (a real life POW in a Japanese camp) drew the task of adapting Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book of the same title. Brickhill had been flying a Spitfire aircraft over Tunisia when it was shot down in March 1943. He was taken to Stalag Luft III in Germany, where he assisted in the escape preparations. (A) Clavell and Burnett absolutely capture the essence of the introduction of Brickhill’s book, written by real-life prisoner George Harsh: “In one magnificent gesture the seventy-six ragged, verminous men of all nationalities who climbed out of that stinking hole in the ground in Silesia on that windy March night in 1944 thumbed their collective nose at the entire Third Reich and all it stood for.” (B) ?

One of the best scenes of the entire film has to do with this concept, where Bartlett and Hendley discuss the why of the escape. On one hand, there is the patriotic idea that “it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape” and “start another front, to foul up the Germans behind the lines.” On the other hand, there’s the very human urge to return home to family and friends. ? These realistic motives are what make The Great Escape so compelling. Yes, there is great drama in watching men try to escape a prison, but there is equal joy in watching the men bond, helping eachother through their fears and shortcomings — be it Hendley sticking up for the blind Blythe, or the way Willy (John Leyton) helps Danny cope with his claustrophobia. There’s no way that viewers aren’t all-out rooting for the captives by movie’s end. We root because we like these characters, but most of all we root because we know that these men, however exagerated, actually existed in real life. In our eyes, these are real heroes performing real heroics.

Sturges wanted badly to maintain the authenticity of the real events. Thus the film was shot entirely on location in Europe, with a complete camp resembling Stalag Luft III built near Munich, Germany. Exteriors for the escape sequences were shot in the Rhine Country and areas near the North Sea; McQueen’s motorcycle scenes were filmed in Fussen (on the Austrian border) and in the Alps; and the train sequences were shot on a single rail line between Munich and Hamburg. All interiors were shot at the Bavaria Studio in Munich, as well as the woods outside. The film also brought in authentic WWII German military equipment, including vintage 1940s trucks, cars, motorcycles and a 1937 Bucker airplane that was reconditioned so it could be crashed into the Bavarian woods. Wally Floody, the real-life “Tunnel King” (transferred to another camp just before the escape), served as a technical consultant, almost full-time, for more than a year, and said the film achieved an “authenticity that was too close for comfort.” (E)

Aiding the cause was the fact that several cast members had been actual POWs during the war. Messemer had been held in a Russian camp, while Til Kiwe and Hans Reiser had been prisoners of the Americans. (E) Then there was Pleasence, who kindly offered advice to Sturges, only to be politely asked to keep his “opinions” to himself. Later, when another star informed Sturges that Pleasence had actually been a RAF Officer in a WWII German POW Stalag camp, Sturges requested his technical advice and input on historical accuracy from that point forward. (A) Many of you will recognize him from John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).

Meanwhile, James Garner developed his “Scrounger” character from his own personal experiences in the military during the Korean War. (A) Garner was already well known from his role of “Bret Maverick” in the popular TV series Maverick (1957), a show that ended its run a year before The Great Escape. He would return to huge success in TV with the title role in The Rockford Files (1974), and today’s audiences may know him as the father of Mel Gibson in the movie version of Maverick (1994).

Charles Bronson brought his own unique experience to the set, having been a coal miner before turning to acting. He gave Sturges advice on how to properly move earth, and is said to have also suffered from claustrophobia just as his character had. (A) It was Bronson who whould go on to most embody the macho elements of actors, appearing in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and seen compiling a high body count regularly these days in regular AMC airings of his violent Death Wish action series (1974-1994).

As for Attenborough, Sturges made sure to put scarring around his eye in tribute to the man he’s based on, Roger Bushell, a British officer who was executed for organizign the real-life escape. Attenborough was one of the great character actors, appearing in such British films as A Matter of Life and Death (1946) before acoming to America for films like The League of Gentleman (1960), which he also produced. It is as director and producer that he is most remembered, first helming Magic (1978), then winning Best Picture and Best Director for Gandhi (1982). Still, most of you remember him as the scientist behind the theme park in Jurrasic Park (1993).

Rounding out the star-powered cast are Coburn, who went on to play for Peckinpah in Major Dundee (1965) and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), and won a Supporting Actor Oscar for Affliction (1997); Donald, who had played Major Clipton in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957); and Gordon Jackson, who went on to win a Primetime Emmy for Upstairs, Downstairs (1971).

Still, without a doubt, the film’s biggest star was Steve McQueen, who was just hitting his stride in 1963, three years after Sturges made him a star in The Magnificent Seven (1960), three years before his sole Oscar nomination for The Sand Pebbles (1966) and five years before famous performances in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and Bullit (1968), arguably his most iconic.

When I think back on McQueen’s career, I can’t help but picture him here in The Great Escape, the original Cool Hand Luke, constantly thrown in the cooler and passing the time by bouncing a baseball against the wall and casually catching it in his mit.? Ironically, McQueen was reluctant to even do the film, because his two previous roles had both been WWII films that both flopped at the box office. After Sturges pushed him to read an early draft of the script, McQueen agreed to the part on one condition — that his character would get to escape by motorcycle in the end. So Sturgres rewrote the script to please McQueen, and the famous 60-foot motorcycle leap was born. In fact, Sturges allowed McQueen to ride (in disguise) as one of the pursuing German soldiers, so that when edited together, he’s actually chasing himself! Note that it’s also McQueen who plays the German cyclist who wrecks over the wire that he has just laid across the road as Hilts. He did all his stunts except for the actual fence jump, which was performed by McQueen’s bike shop friend Bud Ekins, who launched a new career as a stunt double, doubling for McQueen on Bullitt and doing much of the bike work on TV’s CHiPs (1977). (E)

McQueen’s casting was just one example of Sturges constructing a familiar team. Back with him from The Magnificent Seven were McQueen, Coburn and Bronson, editor Ferris Webster (who earned The Great Escape’s sole Oscar nomination) and composer Elmer Bernstein. Of course Sturges would want all his best people around him — The Great Escape was his dream project. ? He had first read Brickhill’s book in 1950, but tried for 13 years to get it made. It was turned down by Louis B. Mayer at MGM, and the common criticisms among producers were the lack of a female love interest and the argument, “What’s so great about an escape where only three people get away?” It was only after the success of The Magnificent Seven that Sturges had the clout to get The Great Escape made. The result was a July 4th release and loads of money at the box office. (E)

In history, Sturges is less remembered than the much more lauded Preston Sturges (no relation). John Sturges only earned one nomination for Best Director — for the engrossing Spencer Tracy film Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) — and will never be considered among the elites. He made too many bad pictures. What he could do, however, was entertain the masses. The Great Escape boasts only a few moments of sheer directorial technique — a shot above the camp craning down to look at the prisoners through the wire; compositions where prisoners lean up against a barracks in the foreground as Nazi guards approach in the background — but Sturges’ chief accomplishments come in those intangible elements of pacing and tone. Not only does he keep us engrossed for close to three hours, he maintains a fun, light-hearted atmosphere amidst so much oppression and death. How can so many characters die and still send us out of the theaters smiling? Because Sturges makes it so.

Granted, the director owes much of his tone to Bernstein’s score — a delight from the opening credits. It came at the height of the composer’s career, three years after his most famous score on The Magnificent Seven (1960) and just one year after his most beautiful score on To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). While both of those made the AFI’s 25 Greatest Scores, at #8 and #17, respectively, The Great Escape didn’t make the cut. That doesn’t make it any less great. On the contrary, it may be the peppiest, catchiest war tune since The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). It’s a travesty that it did not even get an Oscar nomination.

Statue or no statue, it’s a score you’ve all heard, if only in a recent Hummer commercial where office workers plot a “great escape” out of an office building and one sits bouncing a baseball against a wall. Today it’s become a common theme for ring tones and often played at English soccer matches. More immediately, the score influenced the TV theme for Hogan’s Heroes (1965), which similarly revolved around a German POW camp. The success of The Great Escape enabled writer Clavell to get his own POW made into King Rat (1965).

Similarities continued in Papillon (1973), also starring McQueen in a prison escape, and Escape from Alcatraz (1979), starring Clint Eastwood. The Monty Python group spoofed the film several times, and a parody of McQueen’s motorcycle jump was done in the Val Kilmer comedy Top Secret! (1984). In The Goonies (1985), when the kids discover the tunnel by spilling water down it, you’ll hear the same piece of music from The Great Escape scene where the Germans discover the tunnel by spilling coffee down it. A made-for-TV version followed in The Great Escape II: The Untold Story (1988), starring Christopher Reeve and Judd Hirsch, and casting Donald Pleasance this time as an evil SS officer.

In the remake of The Parent Trap (1998), Lindsay Lohan’s dual twin characters are marched off to an isolated cabin with The Great Escape theme playing in the background. (C)? Title references appeared in episodes of Batman (1968), Get Smart (1968), Married With Children (1988), Empty Nest (1992), Nash Bridges (1996), Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1997) and Spin City (1999). Mr. Brown mentions the film during his “Like a Virgin” speech in Reservoir Dogs (1992). Maggie launches a pacifier recovery plot to the Great Escape theme in The Simpsons (1992). They reenact a scene in “The Glasses” episode of Seinfeld (1993). In Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994), Leslie Nielsen gets of dirt from the tunnel in his prison cell in a similar way to the film, as does Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption (1994), pockets-full at a time. In the animated Chicken Run (2000), Ginger tosses a tennis ball against a wall in solitary confinement. The film is mentioned in dialogue from Marley & Me (2008). And in Terminator Salvation (2009), a character uses a bike to jump a barbed wire fence, just like McQueen. (D)

It only stands to reason that Quentin Tarantino, the ultimate almanac of pop culture and purveyor of it, voted The Great Escape his #7 favorite movie of all time in the Sight & Sound director’s poll. Because of such popular appeal, The Great Escape does well on those lists with elements of the everyman — as evidenced in the aforementioned lists by Men’s Journal and Maxim Magazine, as well as the Empire Top 201 and the IMDB Top 250 user polls. These rankings are proof the film is beloved even by today’s viewers, who recognize so many seeds of Shawshank.

Still, when you move away from the mainstream and into the academic, The Great Escape is often left out. It receives the same backlash as, say, The Dirty Dozen, as films geared toward the mainstream without a real auteur core. Perhaps it’s also viewed as a lesser immitation of Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), one of the first prison break movies, Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), about escapes at a German POW camp, or David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), featuring escapes at a Japanese POW camp. For whatever reason, The Great Escape is yet to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry, and the AFI only chose it for one list, its 100 Thrills, which is itself a sort of nod to the most mainstream quality of movies — the thrill of the audience.

That said, it still ranked #19 on that list, ahead of High Noon (1952), A Clockwork Orange (1972), Taxi Driver (1976), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Double Indemnity (1944). All those films own The Great Escape when it comes to the total package, for they underly their own thrills with social commentaries, complex characters and/or unique directorial styles. But when it comes to the simple pleasure of sitting down and watching a film for enjoyment, The Great Escape is deservedly right there with them. When you see this movie, you check your academic mind at the door and let your emotions take over. You experience the best in popcorn entertainment, transported to a time, place and scenario that’s a hell of a good time. It’s the magic of the movies at its best, cinema’s great escape. Few films are so aptly named.

CITE B: The Great Escape laserdisc cover
CITE C: TCM’s Pop Culture 101 on The Great Escape (by Rob Nixon)
CITE D: IMDB Movie Connections
CITE E: Great Escape Special Edition DVD booklet

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