John Sturges’ The Great Escape tells the true story of the daring prison break attempt at the German Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp in March 1944.
The film opens with Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger (Hannes Messemer) informing the prisoners there will be no escapes from his maximum security camp and the Allied soldiers immediately informing him it’s their duty to try to escape. With each failed attempt the stakes increase, and the Allied leadership meets again in secret to concoct their next top secret plan.
Royal Air Force leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) is notorious for his numerous escape attempts. In an effort to put an end to these attempts and also send a message to other prisoners in the camp, Bartlett is to be put in a highly restrictive section of Stalag Luft III. However once he arrives, von Luger decides to allow Bartlett to remain amongst the general population, but with a caveat: if he tries to escape again, he will be shot.
Bartlett immediately meets with his fellow Allied officers in the camp where he quickly learns the prison is filled with some of the best escape artists in the entire war effort. Showing no fear, Bartlett decides to plan the most ambitious escape to date, one that if caught would not only mean his death, but also the death of many Allied soldiers. Knowing the risk, Bartlett and his officers draft a plan to dig three tunnels out of the camp: Tom, Dick, and Harry. His goal? Free every Allied POW in the camp.
Meanwhile, American soldier Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) is also notorious for his own attempts to escape. Hilts prefers to stay on his own and seems to enjoy agitating the German soldiers. Most of his time is spent in the Cooler, chucking a baseball against his cell wall. He’s the cool guy in the camp, the one with the swagger and the “don’t give a fuck” attitude. Bartlett tries to recruit Hilts for the plan, even using his escapes to try to gain some intelligence about the surrounding area. Hilts declines participation (which means losing a place in line for the escape), but later comes around to the idea.
The starting lineup:
Hilts spends the majority of his time at the camp in the Cooler. Although he is a bit of a lone wolf, he joins in on Bartlett’s escape plan and is a major force in helping many of the men escape Stalag Luft III. Hilts’ own escape is quite impressive, and fitting for the Triumph motorcycle loving McQueen.
James Garner is Robert Hendley, an American serving in the RAF. This is the man you go to when you need supplies. Hendley is essential to the escape effort as he is needed to acquire materials to make civilian clothing, passports, and tools for tunneling. He is also incredibly loyal.
When Bartlett arrives at Stalag Luft III he has already been warned against attempting any other escapes. Immediately Bartlett sets out to plan the grandest, most ambitious escape to date. With the help of some of the finest escape artists in the POW camp, Bartlett’s plan is set into motion.
Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson) is the best tunnel digger in the Allied forces. He is one of the most physically strong men in the group and can handle the intense labor. Mentally, Velinski is breaking. Without him the entire operation is in danger.
Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) is a master forger. Once Hendley obtains important documents such as passports, Blythe is able to forge the signatures necessary to make them appear to be legitimate. Blythe also suffers from a degenerative eye disease that he has been able to hide from the rest of his colleagues.
Australian Louis Sedgwick is responsible for making tools, providing metal, wood, and other materials needed for shoring up the tunnels. He also develops a machine to pump air into the tunnels.
David McCallum is Eric Ashley-Pitt, flight lieutenant in the RAF and a key member of the escape plan. With all of the digging there has to be a place for the dirt to go with out the guards noticing. Ashley-Pitt’s job is to find creative ways to dispose of the dirt in the common areas without being detected.
In the years following its release, The Great Escape has been marketed as a Steve McQueen film. Although there are scenes where he is very much in the forefront, The Great Escape is an ensemble film. Matter of fact, it is similar to director John Sturges’ other ensemble film starring McQueen, The Magnificent Seven. Stalag Luft III, the POW camp featured in the film, held Allied forces from several countries including Britain, Canada, Poland, America, and Australia. Although the film is a depiction of real events surrounding the escape, there are some composite characters and certain elements are exaggerated, such as the American effort in the escape. The first time I watched this film, I thought there were far too many light-hearted moments considering the seriousness of the subject matter. Then I realized that it’s needed, and that even the comedic elements are reverent. It’s not like we’re talking Hogan’s Heroes type slapstick here.
Like The Magnificent Seven and The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape is the perfect ensemble film. It’s also the kind of movie you watch with your dad. It’s fun, despite the serious subject matter. Although McQueen maintains his King of Cool image (literally) as “The Cooler King”, this really isn’t his best film. Really the James Garner and Donald Pleasence storyline is one of the best and most captivating.
The Great Escape was just released on Blu-ray by 20th Century Fox. Video and audio is crisp. Some Blu-ray review sites think that the Blu-ray transfer may not be a full restoration, but rather a simple DVD to Blu-ray transfer. Although this may be the case, The Great Escape has never looked better on any home television.