The Great Escape

Released:  1963

Cast:  Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn

Oscar Nominations:  Best Film Editing (Ferris Webster)

SUMMARY:  In 1943, the Germans build a new high-security prison to hold Allied POWs.  The camp is designed to be impossible to escape from, and the prisoners themselves receive various perks for not trying to escape.  The senior British officer tells the Germans that it is a soldier’s duty to escape, and several (unsuccessful) attempts are made on the first day in the new camp.  Not long after, RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) is brought to the camp.  He is well known to the other men in the camp, as he has a reputation for organizing escapes.  When he enters the camp, Bartlett is warned that an escape attempt will result in his being shot.  Despite this, Bartlett quickly starts planning an escape, along with several other key figures.  The plan is to dig three tunnels (named Tom, Dick and Harry), which will allow 250 prisoners to escape at different points.  By using three different tunnels, the prisoners hope that the Germans will waste enormous amounts of manpower and resources chasing them, which will prevent them from being used to fight.  The men are divided into teams to create the tunnels, with several prisoners playing critical roles.  These include Flight Lieutenant Robert Hendley (James Garner), who procures needed material; Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick (James Coburn), who makes tools; Flight Lieutenant Griffith, who creates civilian clothes for the prisoners to change into, and Flight Lieutenant Blythe (Donald Pleasence), who forges all needed documents.  Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) is also involved in the plot, and provides distraction for the guards with his frequent escape attempts and ignoring of camp rules.

On the 4th of July, the German guards discover “Tom”, and the prisoners are forced to abandon it, instead focusing on “Harry”.  Hilts is able to get outside the camp, and uses the opportunity to review the surrounding area before he is recaptured.  From this, the prisoners are able to create maps detailing how to get to the nearest train.  The tunnel is only completed on the night of the planned escape, and the men soon realize that although it goes outside the fence, it is 20 feet short from the cover of the woods.  Bartlett orders the men to continue with the escape, but when one man doesn’t follow the proper precautions, the escapees are discovered by the guards.  Only 76 men manage to get out of the tunnel.  The men try to reach various countries, but most are recaptured (and some are killed).  Hendley and Blythe manage to steal an airplane, but crash when the engine fails.  Soldiers shoot Blythe and take Hendley into custody.  Bartlett and several others are caught at a railroad station; Bartlett manages to escape, but is caught again when trying to board a bus.  Hilts steals a motorcycle and tries to drive into Switzerland, but is caught in barbed wire and recaptured.  Bartlett and many other escapees are eventually driven into a field and shot.  Out of the men who escaped, fifty are killed, while Hendley, Hilts and nine others are returned to the camp.  Only three of the men, one of them Sedgwick, make it to safety.

MY TAKE:  This is a great movie for a couple of reasons.  Obviously, the escape part is entertaining, and the threat of discovery adds tension.  It’s also got some really funny parts, particularly involving the prisoner named Ives.  It’s pretty ingenious how the men create the tunnels:  they devise all sorts of tools to dig with, as well as tracks and a small cart for the diggers to reach the far end of the tunnel; they also come up with great ways to hide the tunnels and the dirt they remove from them.  The whole idea of building three tunnels is extremely ambitious, but it pays off when the guards discover one of the tunnels, as the men do not totally have to start over.  I was really disappointed that only three men were successful in their escape, and that so many were killed by the Germans.  It seems like after all the effort that went in to the escape, the men should be allowed to be free.  Unfortunately, that’s not what happens.  This movie is based on a true story, and one of the men who was part of the actual escape was a technical advisor for the film.

RATING:  Very good, but the ending stinks.


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