CLASSIC MOVIES 8: THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)
NO matter how many times you watch The Great Escape, Steve McQueen (Virgil Hilts) always ends up in that second set of barbed wire on the motorbike.
You urge him along but he never quite seems to make it – just as poor old Donald Pleasance always trips over James Garner’s outstretched leg when heading to pick up a pin to ‘prove’ he is not going blind.
The Great Escape, perhaps the favourite war film of many, works, not just because of its star- studded appeal, but because it embodies that unerring support from the audience for the underdog – and the captive one at that, against an imperious foe.
It’s also genuinely exciting – not just in the build-up in the digging of the three tunnels :‘ Tom, Dick, and Harry’ – but in the escape lines which are then followed. The characters are so well known by so many that it’s often fun to try to recall which of our heroes: McQueen, Garner, Pleasance, Richard Attenborough, Bronson, Coburn , Gordon Jackson, John Leyton and David McCallum make it past enemy lines.
Who can forget Gordon Jackson being caught out thanks to a casual remark in English when he is about to board the bus to safety?
Released in 1963, it is also probably ripe for a remake – if classics can ever be remade. One can imagine Kenneth Branagh, Gary Oldman and Benedict Cumberbatch perhaps in some of the roles – but then who, one wonders, might play McQueen, Garner and Bronson in the American parts?
In 1943, having expended enormous resources on recapturing escaped Allied prisoners of war (POWs), the Germans move the most determined to a new, high-security prisoner of war camp. The commandant, Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger, tells the senior British officer, Group Captain Ramsey, "There will be no escapes from this camp." Ramsey replies that it is their duty to try to escape. And so it begins.
Gestapo and SS agents bring RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett to the camp and present him to von Luger. Known as "Big X," Bartlett is introduced as the principal organiser of escapes.
Locked up with "every escape artist in Germany", Bartlett immediately plans the greatest escape attempted — with three tunnels built for the break out of 250 prisoners.
Teams are then organised to tunnel, make civilian clothing, forge documents, procure contraband materials, and prevent guards from discovering their work.
Flight Lieutenant Robert Hendley, (Garner) an American in the RAF, is "the scrounger" who finds what the others need, in his usually engaging laid-back but laconic style.
Australian Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick (Coburn), "the manufacturer," makes tools such as picks for digging and bellows for pumping air into the tunnels.
Flight Lieutenants Danny Valinski (Bronson in an unforgettable role) and William "Willie" Dickes are "the tunnel kings" in charge of making the tunnels.
Flight Lieutenant Andrew MacDonald (Jackson) acts as intelligence provider and Bartlett's second-in-command. Lieutenant Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt (of the Royal Navy devises a method of hiding bags in the prisoners' trousers and spreading dirt from the tunnels over the camp, under the guards' noses.
Pleasance is Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe, who becomes nearly blind due to progressive myopia caused by intricate work by candlelight: Hendley takes it upon himself to be Blythe's guide in the escape in one of the most genuinely touching buddy-buddy relationships in the movies.
McQueen acts as general irritant to the Nazis and is the main box office draw among the stellar cast.
Perhaps the greatest irony with the film is the close connection between some of the actors and their roles in the film, or a least their wartime experiences.
Richard Attenborough as Sqn Ldr Roger Bartlett RAF ("Big X"), was a character based on Roger Bushell, the South African-born British POW who was the mastermind of the real Great Escape.
Group Captain Ramsey RAF (the "SBO") was based on Group Captain Herbert Massey, a WWI vet who had volunteered in WWII. Played by James Donald, Massey walked with a limp, and so did Ramsey in the movie who walked with a cane.
Pleasence had served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He was shot down and spent a year in German prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft I. Charles Bronson had been a gunner in the USAAF and was wounded, but had not been shot down. Like his character, Danny Valinski, he suffered from claustrophobia.
James Garner had been a soldier in the Korean War and was twice wounded. He was a scrounger during that time, as is his character Flt Lt Hendley.
Angus Lennie's Flying Officer Archibald Ives, "The Mole", was based on Jimmy Kiddel, who was shot dead while trying to scale the fence.
Director Sturges directed many training films during WWII for the US Army Air Corps cutting his teeth in action before discovering the wonders of Cinemascope in the 50s.
The film was made at the Bavaria Film Studio in the Munich suburb of Geiselgasteig in rural Bavaria where sets for the barrack interiors and tunnels were constructed. The camp was constructed in a clearing in the Perlacher forest near the studio.
The German town near the prison camp, called Neustadt in the film, was really Sagan (now Żagań), Poland. Many scenes were filmed in and around the town of Füssen in Bavaria, including its railway station.
The film depicts the tunnel codenamed Tom as having its entrance under a stove and Harry's as in a drain sump in a washroom. In reality, Dick's entrance was the drain sump, Harry's was under the stove, and Tom's was in a darkened corner next to a stove chimney.
The motorcycle chase scenes culminating in the jumping of the barbed wire were shot on meadows outside Füssen, and the "barbed wire" that Hilts crashed into before being recaptured was simulated by strips of rubber tied around barbless wire, constructed by the cast and crew in their spare time.
The jump scene was performed by stuntman Bud Ekins in place of Steve McQueen. Other parts of the chase scene were done by McQueen playing both Hilts - AND the soldiers chasing him (!) thanks of McQueen's ability on a motorcycle.
(For those with shorter memories, only three escapees make it. Danny and Willie steal a rowing-boat and proceed down-river to the Baltic coast, where they board a Swedish merchant ship. Sedgwick steals a bicycle and rides through the countryside, then rides hidden in a freight train carriage to France, where he is guided by the Resistance to Spain).
The film is accurate in showing that only three escapees made home runs, although the people who made them differed from those in the film. The escape of Danny and Willie is based on two Norwegians who escaped by boat to Sweden, Per Bergsland and Jens Müller. The successful escape of Coburn's Australian character via Spain was based on Dutchman Bram van der Stok.
Fifty of the escapees are shot in a woodland clearing as seems to be the wont of Nazis in many a war film. In a caption at the end, the film is dedicated to the fifty.
Directed by John Sturges, he had previously directed Jane Russell in Underwater in 1955, Gunfight at the OK Coral in 1957, The Magnificent Seven in 1960, and would later direct Ice Station Zebra and The Eagle Has Landed.
The music – including the infectiously whistly main theme – was by Elmer Bernstein, (as opposed to Leonard Bernstein), that other great composer, though unrelated. Elmer also composed for The Magnificent Seven which has an equally catchy score.