Directed by John Sturges
June 20, 1963 premiere in London) / July 4, 1963 in U.S.
A group of World War II prisoners plot to escape from a high-security Luftwaffe POW camp in this fact-based drama.
This is most definitely one of those must-see classic films. You cannot skip this one if you like great films. It’s a character driven dramatic story that plays more like a World War II adventure yarn than anything else, but the story is well written and expertly directed by John Sturges who was behind many great films such as Bad Day at Black Rock, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the classic western The Magnificent Seven, and Ice Station Zebra.
In this instance calling this film based on a true story might be a bit of a stretch. It is closer to being loosely inspired by a true story. It’s my understanding that there is a heavy amount of fiction in this film because the filmmakers and technical advisers, for whom World War II was still fresh in their minds, did not want to provide a visual guide on how the escape was specifically done should something like WWII occur in the future. There was also the adding in of American involvement to boost commercial appeal.
The film itself draws what it draws from a 1950 nonfiction book of the same name by Paul Brickhill that is a firsthand account of the escape of British POWs from German POW camp Stalag Luft III in what is now Żagań, Poland in the province of Lower Silesia in Nazi Germany. No need to take notes class. This will not be on a test because I am not an accredited teacher.
The cast here is all top-notch and were at the top of their game at the time of this film. There is great acting all around here. There are no slouches to be found even in the minor parts. We have the legendary Steve McQueen in a star making performance as Captain Virgil Hilts called The Cooler King who was one of three Americans in the camp in this film. While McQueen was and still is the epitome of big screen cool, he was a bit too cocky here for the majority of his performance in my opinion. It fit in with the adventure type vibe that the film had in portions, but I think if he had muted the swagger a bit the performance would have had more impact. I say this because his moments with Ives (Angus Lennie), which were more subdued, were very strong and his reaction to the characters death due to Ives trying to escape hits strong. It is my understanding that the Hilts character was a work of fiction and not based on any single individual but rather a bit of a composite character.
James Garner is Flight Lieutenant Robert Hendley whose job is to gather whatever materials the prisoners need for their escape. His character is paired with Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) who is a mild-mannered and good-natured individual with a love of birdwatching who analyzed aerial pictures before getting shot down on his first mission actually in the field.
The story between Hendley and Blythe is perhaps my favorite of the film. You can see the relationship between the two build at first because Hendley kind of likes the guy and then because he understands what is actually going on with his friend. It took me a few viewings to get that Hendley was picking up what was going on myself. Pleasence is playing the character as nearly blind from the beginning of the film. Watch his eyes and how the character acts from the get-go. At first Hendley thinks there is something wrong about the guy and you can see that but eventually he picks up on it and you see the visual cues when that occurs but he never says a thing until he must.
Richard Attenborough as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, or as escape leader Big X, is a bit of a surprise for me. Only because I became truly familiar with him much later in his life and I see him playing Santa Claus in the remake of A Miracle On 34th Street as well as the billionaire mind behind Jurassic Park. In those he was all boisterous and larger than life but here he is, dare I say, subdued in comparison. This was possibly the film that truly introduced the actor to overseas audiences but since it came out before I was born I think I can be forgiven. He was just amazing in this role.
James Coburn acting here was good here as Australian Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick whose job was to make things for the escape. I generally think was always good. Just a great actor to watch, but I hate his accent in this movie with a serious passion. Not every actor can fake an accent well and he was one of them. Based on the general clunkiness of his accent I am guessing he just winged it. The accent he puts on is thicker than peanut butter and faker than a Kardashian’s lips. Other than that, it was a great performance by him.
Charles Bronson on the other hand did a fantastic job of faking his accent as Polish Flight Lieutenant Danny Velinski. He is remembered largely as a movie tough guy, but the man had serious talent. He adds nuance to the character who suffers from serious claustrophobia because of what he has gone through digging 17 previous escape tunnels and I think I understand the character’s thinking. He does not like small places and working in the tunnel is driving him crazy. In his mind he can do it because he is working to get out. I understand that and it is amazingly shown by Bronson here. He has a nice bit of interaction with Flight Lieutenant Dickes (John Leyton) who supports him as he struggles with his claustrophobia and keeps him on track.
James Donald as Group Captain Ramsey is okay and at okay that makes him possibly the weakest character here but there is nothing wrong with leveling out at okay in a great film. An okay in a great film is great in comparison to other movies. He was always good. I have seen him in so much from around that era, but I am blanking on exactly what that all is. For me he is a face I know but I cannot place from where. His character has a cane and is thus unable to join in the escape. Ramsey though interacted a great deal in this film with the camp’s commandant.
I know he was in the enemy army, but I feel kind of sorry for the prison camp Commandant von Luger (Hannes Messemer) at the end of the film. During the course of the film he is not abusive towards the prisoners and treats them as fairly as possible under the circumstances. Von Luger even seems to view Ramsey more as a colleague at times than an opponent. He came off as an individual making the best out of a bad situation. He is no friend to the Nazis and even expresses dislike of both the SS and Gestapo. The escape and its aftermath costs him his command and sends him to the Russian front which is most certainly a death sentence for a man that would probably fit in better with the Allies than the Axis powers. By the end of the film I was hoping for a better outcome for the character.
The talented David McCallum does not get too much to do here as Lieutenant-Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt. His major contribution to the story is figuring out what to do with all the dirt from the tunnels. I’m not sure if his character was even important to the overall narrative considering there was a great deal fiction here and he probably could have been eliminated and his idea credited to another, more prominent character.
While inspired by a true story, it is not an accurate retelling the events. And the film may or may not benefit from that, but it is still a good film nonetheless. It is a solid and well-paced story with tension and exciting moments and even bits of humor in it. Some have complained about this film and its “war-is-fun” attitude. I can see the argument, but this is supposed to be an uplifting story and a mercilessly downbeat film (which probably would have been more realistic) could not have done that. It needed some levity and given the level of fictionalization I think this is acceptable. It is not as if they are cracking fart jokes the whole time.
The film contains a rather iconic motorcycle chase scene featuring Steve McQueen as Hilts as well as at times the soldiers pursuing him. McQueen was a motorcycle enthusiast, and this played into that. Because of insurance concerns McQueen was not allowed to perform the motorcycle leap. This was instead performed by McQueen’s friend Bud Ekin whom McQueen readily credited when asked. Not only was he the King of Cool but he was a cool and standup guy.
The Great Escape is a classic World War II film that should not be missed. It has drama and humor and action and plenty of great performances all while being helmed by a great director. Watch it!