The Great Escape: John Sturges’ magnum opus is the ultimate WWII POW Escape adventure that made stars out of Steve McQueen, James Garner and Charles Bronson

The Great Escape (1963), directed by John Sturges from the eponymous non-fiction book by Paul Brickhill, features Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Garner, Richard Attenborough and others as Allied POWs involved in the greatest escape attempt from a POW camp in Germany during WWII.

Director John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963) marks the zenith of the large-scale, all-star cast, WWII action adventure picture that originated around the same time as America’s entry into WWII and peaked in the 1950s and 60s with classics like “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Guns of Navarone.” As the title suggests, the film provides a fictionalized account of the true events surrounding the greatest escape attempted from a German POW camp during WWII. “Stalag Luft III” was the biggest POW camp built by the German Lufthansa to house the Allied Air force prisoners- they took all the most accomplished Allied escape artists from their various POW camps and put them into this one camp so they can be observed very closely; in their words, all the rotten eggs in one basket, which they intend to watch closely. But what it ended up doing was allowing these POWs to pool in their talents and affect the biggest escape during wartime. Under the aegis of the “X” organization, the Allies manage to break out almost 100 prisoners from this prison camp; scatter them all over Germany, ensuring that a lot of the German resources that can be used on the warfront was deflected to hunting down these escaped POWs. One of the inmates of Stalag Luft III was Australian fighter pilot. Paul Brickhill. He participated in the escape plan but was debarred from the actual escape on grounds of claustrophobia. Brickhill, who was a journalist before and after the war, wrote down this escape story in 4 different versions, but it was the one in Book format that was published in 1950 that caught the attention of film director John Sturges. At that time Sturges was a B movie director toiling on the fringes at MGM studios. He tried to get the studio interested in purchasing the rights to the book, but the studio was not interested as the project appeared to be too expensive. It would take more than ten years for Sturges to finally bring the book o the screen. By then, he had emerged as one of the top action-directors in Hollywood; having helmed such commercially and critically successful films like “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “Gunfight at the OK Corral” and “The Magnificent Seven.” After the worldwide success of the “Seven”, Sturges had enough clout to make a film out of his telephone directory, and he used it to impress the “Seven” producers, “The Mirisch Brothers Company” to put “The Great Escape” into production. The fact that both “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Guns of Navarone” had become huge international blockbusters in the interim also helped Sturges’ cause. After deciding to shoot the film entirely in Germany, Sturges decided to cast the film with much of the actors who had already worked with him in “Seven”: Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, all rising young stars at the time and who had made a great impact in “Seven”, were joined by the likes of James Garner- fresh off the success of his Western TV series “Maverick”- and respected British stars like Richard Attenborough and James Donald. Though the subject matter of the film was considered commercially risky, mainly due to the fact that the story has a downbeat ending and the film had no female characters, Sturges ended up making one of the most popular and iconic films in movie history, and certainly his career-best.

Sturges begins the film with precision and economy- the film opens exactly at the point when the allied prisoners are arriving in this newly built maximum security POW camp. Within the first 15 minutes, Sturges manages to give us a clear overview of his sprawling cast and the main traits of the characters they play; as well as the geography of the camp. And keeping in with the ‘ensemble piece’ nature of the film, none of the actors are given any star treatment or big introduction scenes- the actors just wander in and off the frame observing the camp as ordinary soldiers would do. Another thing common with all the prisoners is that they all attempt to escape immediately on arrival- they’re all intercepted by the German soldiers and brought back; in scenes providing much humor and lighthearted banter. We have Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen), an incorrigible escape artist, who right on arrival, manages to spot a blind spot within the goon towers and attempts an escape. He is caught, of course, and is thrown into the ‘cooler’- more for his defiant insolence rather than the escape attempt. We get to meet the other prisoners like Danny Velinski  (Charles Bronson), the tunnel King, who starts combing the place for tunneling. We also get to meet the strict but sympathetic camp supervisor, Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger (Hannes Messemer) and the Allied commanding officer Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald). The main plot kicks off with the arrival of RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), known as the “Big X”, the leader of the “X” Organization. Bartlett has planned and executed several escapes throughout the course of the war, and hence is a thorn in the flesh of the Gestapo and the SS. Despite being warned by the Gestapo- that if he attempts one more escape he will be shot & killed, Bartlett mounts an audacious plan to tunnel out of the camp and break out 250 men, not just to escape, but so that as many troops and resources as possible will be wasted on finding POWs. To this end, he proposes to build 3 tunnels- “Tom”, “Dick” and “Harry”; so that if one is discovered by the Germans, then they can move on to the next one without any delay. This is an unprecedented and monumental undertaking (and hence termed “The Great Escape”), which requires careful planning, not only in designing and building the tunnels, but also in hoodwinking the German guards and accumulating the ‘supplies’ required for the escapees.

For a film that’s today considered the epitome of a Wartime Action\adventure, “The Great Escape” is actually more of an elaborate ‘prison escape procedural’. The action\adventure aspects of the plot does not kick in till the 2 hr. mark of this close to 3 hr. movie. Two thirds of its running time is devoted to prisoners planning and executing the several stages of the prison escape- in which prisoners divided into several groups are involved in separate operations. One team does the digging and tunneling, another group handles the dispersal of the dirt, another goes about with forging documents for the escaping prisoners, while another takes care of their wardrobe, etc. etc. . Apart from the prisoners already mentioned, we get to meet the other escape artists in action:  American Flight Lieutenant Bob Hendley (James Garner) is “the scrounger” and blackmailer, who finds anything from a camera to identity cards. Australian Flying Officer Sedgwick (James Coburn), “the manufacturer”, makes tools like picks and bellows for pumping air into the tunnels. Flight Lieutenant Andy MacDonald (Gordon Jackson), Bartlett’s second-in-command, gathers and provides intelligence. Lieutenant Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum) of the Royal Navy devises a method of dispersing soil from the tunnels under the guards’ noses. Flight Lieutenant Griffith is “the tailor”, creating civilian outfits from scavenged cloth. Forgery is handled by Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasance), “the forger”. The work noise is covered by the prisoner choir led by Flight Lieutenant Dennis Cavendish (Nigel Stock), “the surveyor”. All this goes on like clockwork as Danny and his associate, Willie Dickes (John Leyton), digs the tunnels. It doesn’t help matters that some of these prisoners are suffering from weaknesses of their own- Danny is suffering from claustrophobia and is fearful of tunnel collapses, primarily coming from his previous experience of having dug 17 escape tunnels; while Blythe is slowly going blind.

But still the operation goes on at a relatively good pace, with the prisoners placing a great deal of attention on caution and ruse to deflect German attentions. This is mainly achieved by prisoners involving themselves in much surface activity like gardening and choir practice, which masks the underground work. Also, Hilts and Archibald Ives (Angus Lennie) – nicknamed ‘the Mole,’ and whose fragile mind has been taxed by several years in the camps, especially in the cooler- repeatedly plans escape attempts from the camp that always ends up in failure. Bartlett, though annoyed by Hilts’ arrogance, does not stop their escape attempts, as he believes it will deflect the Germans attention from the massive escape attempt that is going on at full throttle. The escape operation suffers a setback when the Germans discover “Tom”- which is very close to completion- during the “Fourth of July” celebrations. A dejected Ives tries to escape by climbing the barbed wire fence; and despite Hilts’ attempts to subdue the guards, Ives is shot dead. Ives death leads to a spiritual awakening in Hilts; the maverick individualist now decides to become a team player and sacrifice himself for the larger cause: Hilts manages to break out of the camp, but instead of getting away he lets himself be caught so that he can return to camp and provide the escapees with vital information from outside (Hilts had rejected Bartlett’s request for the same earlier- telling him that “I wouldn’t do it for my own mother” ) that will help them make maps to guide the escapees out of Germany. Meanwhile, on Bartlett’s orders, the prisoners had switched to the digging of “Harry,” and the tunnel is completed by the scheduled night, March 24, 1944. But once again misfortune befalls the escapees, as it’s revealed that the tunnel has fallen 20 feet short of the woods due to faulty surveying. Now the tunnel opens out into the open ground between the camp and the trees, putting the escapees in great danger of being discovered. But Hilts’ ingenuity saves the day, and seventy-six prisoners get away, aided by an air-raid blackout. The escape is discovered only when one of the prisoners impatiently exits the tunnel in view of a guard.

With a desperate search instituted for the escapees now scattered all over the German countryside, the film now becomes a proper WWII Action\adventure. We get a full glimpse of the breathtaking German outdoors, with the prisoners making their way out of Nazi Germany- Some escaping by train, some by road and some by boat. Hilts steals a motorbike (he is an accomplished biker having successfully competed in county fairs) and heads for Switzerland. Hendley and Blythe head for the same destination by plane. Sedgwick rides a bicycle, while Danny and Willie steal a rowboat and proceed downstream; most of the other escapees like Bartlett and McDonald proceed first by train and then by road. But soon, the escapees starts falling into the hands of the German authorities one by one. Two are killed while trying to escape: Ashley-Pitt sacrifices himself to save the life of Bartlett at the railway station, while Blythe is shot dead when the engine of the plane taking them across the border fails, and they crash-land- Hendley is recaptured. Hilts make a valiant charge on his motorbike to get to Switzerland with the German army in hot pursuit, but the soldiers shoot out the bike’s tire, sending him sliding into the wire of the barbed-wire fence where he is recaptured. Bartlett and 47 others falls into the hands of the Gestapo, and making good of their earlier threat to Bartlett, they have him executed along with the other captured prisoners, thus bringing the tally of the total killed to 50. Danny, Willie and Sedgwick manages to escape, while Hendley, Hilts and Ten others are brought back to camp. Meanwhile, Von Luger is relieved as the commander of the camp for his failure to stop the escape. The film ends with an ever-defiant Hilts returning to ‘The Cooler,’ and bouncing a baseball against the cooler cell wall- a recurring habit of his to keep himself entertained as he plans an escape attempt.

“The Great Escape” is the definitive John Sturges movie, and also the director’s masterpiece. All the trademark Sturges themes and filmmaking techniques are fully present here: a tightly plotted, character-driven, purely masculine action drama in which ordinary men bond together to overcome an overwhelming force. The film is dense with solid action set pieces, where the suspense is slowly built up like the turning of a screw. Sturges was at the height of his creative powers when he made this film: despite the film being 3 Hrs. long, and the first two third of the film being a talky, and a very sprawling and eclectic drama that switches moods constantly- one moment it’s very funny & mischievous, the next moment it’s somber & tragic, he manages to keep the proceedings fast-paced and dynamic; the drama never feeling sluggish even for a moment. Sturges is careful with the pace in the first half, allowing the escape plans to develop slowly. Aided by his scriptwriters, James Clavell & W.R. Burnett, Sturges emphasizes the heroism, humor, and character of the prisoners, and thus manages to make an uplifting and rousing drama out of a vey downbeat and tragic story. The easiest thing to do was to make a very dark movie about a failed allied escape attempt in which 50 POWs were murdered, but Sturges has somehow managed to make a ‘feel-good’ movie that leaves the viewer with a sense of exhilaration. The film is truly a testament to Sturges’ skill at staging scenes of camaraderie and courage among a group of disparate soldiers- separated by nationality, culture and their temperament- as they go forth united in tackling a common enemy. The men featured here are at once heroic and vulnerable; courageous and scared, and this allows Sturges ample opportunity in milking them for rich drama. Like the best of Sturges’ films, this ends up as a not so self-serious take on a very serious subject. There is no sermonizing, no soul searching, no speeches about war being hell.. etc.; entertaining the audience is Sturges’ prime motive, and he succeeds totally in creating a great piece of escapist cinema.

Sturges is aided immensely by his technical collaborators in this: The production design is first rate, to the point that former WWI POW, Donald Pleasance felt quite intimidated by the vast set on his arrival. The tunnel is a marvel of engineering ingenuity, with electric lights, a little subway running on wooden tracks, a bellows-operated ventilation system and so on giving it a feel of some underworld fairyland. The scenes set in the tunnel- which is perfect for widescreen framing- shows off Sturges technical wizardry to the full; the scenes of digging, shoring, transfer of dirt and movement of the actors within the tunnel is shot with extraordinary clarity. Sturges knows that these scenes are the heart of the film; if they don’t work then the film wouldn’t work. Daniel Fapp’s beautiful photography shows this and the picturesque German locations off to full effect. The Oscar nominated editing by Ferris Webster ensures that the plot- that’s developing on so many fronts at once- chugs along nicely without confusing the audience. Sturges places as much emphasis on the forging, manufacturing, scrounging and tailoring aspects of the operation as much as the actual tunneling, and Webster cuts these scenes together giving us a good sense of the work involved in every aspect of the Escape operation. But Webster’s tour de force is the editing of McQueen’s final charge on his bike- the famous ‘fence-jumping’ scene performed by McQueen’s double is seamlessly integrated with the bike riding scenes performed by McQueen himself to create an unbreakable illusion that it is McQueen doing the jump. But the lion’s share of the credit for the film’s effectiveness should be given to the brilliant score by Elmer Bernstein. As the narrative swerves between the mischievous and the serious, it’s Bernstein’s score, more than anything else, that helps to set and sustain the mood. Imposing Germanic opera sounds coexist with British flutes and drums in this iconic score, which turned out to be so popular that Bernstein could live out the rest of his life only from the royalties from this score. Bernstein had composed a truly iconic, and one of the greatest Western scores for Sturges’ “The Magnificent Seven,” he somehow managed to match up to that score here.

As for the actors, despite having the least amount of footage among the main leads, it’s Steve McQueen who makes the maximum impact. Not that Garner or Attenborough are not impactful, on the contrary, It’s Garner who gives the coolest and most effortless star performance of the film. As the ‘scrounger’, Garner is superb as the wily, oily seducer who manages to extract anything and everything required for the mission from the Germans. Though he had made already made his name on Television, and has been acting in films sporadically, “Hendley” proved to be Garner’s true breakout role as a movie star. He also manages to establish an endearing chemistry with Donald Pleasance’s (playing a truly nice guy for once) “Blythe”- Hendley and Blythe share a sweet and melancholic relationship throughout the film, which, along with the similarity structured Hilts-Ives relationship (macho American tough guy bonds with the diminutive, cerebral Britisher), is one of the truly likeable aspects of the film. Garner’s performance stands in stark contrast to the more intense and rather unhinged performances of Attenborough, Bronson and McQueen. Attenborough imparts a psychotic streak to his ‘Big X” hell-bent on getting back at the Germans any which way possible. He comes across as a rather unlikeable character- the leader determined to sacrifice his fellow soldiers on a quixotic mission. Bronson’s claustrophobia prone ‘Tunnel King’ is a continuation of his Tough but sensitive Gunfighter with a heart of gold in “The Magnificent Seven”. This was first in the line of several prominent character roles for Bronson that would gradually take him to international stardom by the end of the 1960s.

“Captain Virgil Hills,” the ultimate symbol of defiance, individualism, rebellion and heroism is the ultimate Steve McQueen role. As with Attenborough, there’s an unhinged quality to McQueen’s coolness here, but its more likeable and sexier. Hilts is a man so self-contained that he’s happy to play baseball against a blank wall forever locked up in a ‘cooler.’ He’s never in danger of going mad for want of company, like a lot of his comrades. The film allowed McQueen to indulge in one of his hobbies of motorcycling. His race through the German country side on a stolen Nazi uniform and motorcycle is a spectacular one, again aided by Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent score. McQueen’s own military experience shows though here and gives real depth and credibility to his character. Even though McQueen is hardly present in the first two thirds of the movie, it’s he, more than any one else, that represent the exhilarating and upbeat nature of the move. And it’s fitting that the film closes with him going back into the ‘cooler’: the ultimate ‘King of Cool’ returning to the solitude of ‘the cooler’ to contemplate his next move. There’s no doubt that he’s going to escape again, and it’s that promise spurred on by the character’s ‘Never say die’ attitude that lets the audience leave this film on an optimistic note. It’s no wonder that this is the film that made McQueen a superstar. The audience have finally found a worthy successor to Marlon Brando and James Dean in the ‘Rebel star’ category, and unlike the rebellious image of Brando and Dean in films like “The Wild One” and “Rebel without a cause”, where those stars indulged in automobile racing as an act of rebellion against civilized society at large, McQueen’s rebellion is rooted in a strong patriotic and ant-fascist core. He would carry forward this image in a series of very successful films in the 60s- “Cincinnati Kid,” “Nevada Smith,” “The Sand Pebbles” and “Bullitt” that would make him one of the biggest and most iconic movie stars in the world.

2 thoughts on “The Great Escape: John Sturges’ magnum opus is the ultimate WWII POW Escape adventure that made stars out of Steve McQueen, James Garner and Charles Bronson

  1. I would debate the authors thought that this movie “made stars out of James Garner, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson” . Garner and McQueen had very successful TV shows and Bronson along with McQueen were given star billing in “The Magnificent Seven”. I would say that the movie made stars out of several British actors who were little known to American audiences at the time. Richard Attenborough, David McCallum and Donald Pleasence were pretty much unknowns to American movie goers in 1963.

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    1. I get your point, but i still think McQueen (to an extend) and Garner (mainly) were more popular for their TV work at the time than their movies. McQueen did steal “The Magnificent Seven” from Brynner, but his films after that hadn’t worked in a big way (even “Seven” wasn’t a big hit in America on its initial release), but after “The Great Escape,” he was a genuine movie superstar

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