Tunneling to Freedom

In The Great Escape (1963), the true story of a harrowing breakout from a German POW camp

Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen in <em>The Great Escape,</em> 1963 (Everett Collection)
Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, 1963 (Everett Collection)

As the weather warms and air-conditioned living rooms beckon, you might find yourself in the mood for patriotic films like Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) or Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July (1940). To these, I would add The Great Escape (1963), a masterly movie directed by John Sturges (no relation to Preston), which features a memorable Independence Day scene. To celebrate the holiday, American soldiers Hilts (Steve McQueen) and Hendley (James Garner) serve homemade hooch to their fellow prisoners of war, mostly British airmen, in a German prison camp. Laconic and cool, McQueen raises his glass and says, “To independence.”

By the time The Great Escape came out, Sturges had established himself as a master of the action epic with The Magnificent Seven, a Hollywood remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 tour de force The Seven Samurai. In Sturges’s film, Kurosawa’s seven swordsmen are gunslingers, but they have the same mission: to rescue a village of farmers from the bandits that prey upon them. Elmer Bernstein’s score is justly celebrated—and was appropriated in 1963 as the music for the famous “Marlboro Man” cigarette commercials.

The Great Escape, an equally powerful action epic with a score from the same composer, is based on Paul Brickhill’s book of the same title, a true account of the mass escape by captured British airmen from Stalag Luft III in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1944.

The talented ensemble cast includes three of the hombres that formed The Magnificent Seven. McQueen plays ace pilot Hilts. Charles Bronson plays Danny, whose peerless digging skills have earned him the nickname “Tunnel King,” despite his being deathly claustrophobic. James Coburn plays a wily Australian named Sedgwick.

The Luftwaffe runs the POW camp, from which the prisoners believe it is not just their right but their duty to escape—while causing as much mischief as possible for their captors. The first half of The Great Escape depicts the planning of the escape, heroic in its ambition, a team effort capitalizing on each man’s aptitude. There is a comic element, as if the escape were a game, generating amusement as well as edge-of-seat excitement. The Gestapo puts an end to the fun in the movie’s more somber second half.

The cast is primarily British. Richard Attenborough plays Roger Bartlett, the chief architect of the escape, whose prior exploits have earned him the sobriquet “the Big X.” Donald Pleasence is Blythe, an expert forger. David MacCallum plays Eric, who figures out how to dispose of the sand produced by digging lengthy tunnels starting from beneath the men’s sleeping quarters; holes in the pockets of their trousers prove an excellent means of distributing sand on the campgrounds. Two Scots play important roles: Gordon Jackson is MacDonald, in charge of security, and Angus Lennie is Ives, Hilt’s buddy—separated from him by a wall—in solitary confinement, in “the cooler.”

Of the Americans on hand, we have Hendley, a skillful scrounger and charmer who outwits a guard into handing over a highly sophisticated camera, which Blythe uses to create plausible identity cards and passports. Danny’s mate Willie, played by John Layton, helps Danny to overcome his claustrophobia, at least temporarily.

The escapees run into more than one mishap. The Germans discover and shut down one of the tunnels. The nearsighted Blythe gradually loses his sight and becomes increasingly dependent on Hendley. Hilts, an insubordinate cuss, breaks down and is shot while trying to climb the camp fence in broad daylight. Despite the loss of their compatriot, the determined prisoners persevere.

When the big night comes, no fewer than 76 prisoners, dressed in civilian clothes and outfitted with the necessary accoutrements (civilian clothes, different for each man; forged documents; a travel case), traverse the tunnel one at a time on a sled-like trolley that runs from underneath their barracks to the outskirts of the barbed-wire fence surrounding the camp. The men take off by foot to the nearest villages, then try every means of transportation they can find.

Three escapees are completely successful. Danny and Willie get away in a rowboat en route to a steamer bound for Sweden. Sedgwick, who fabricated the tools for the escape, steals a bicycle, rides it into France, stops at a café, witnesses the Resistance ambush a trio of German officers, and heads to Spain.

The others aren’t so fortunate. Though Hendley and Blythe luck into a Luftwaffe training aircraft, which flight lieutenant Hendley lifts off the ground, the plane runs out of petrol just short of the Swiss border. They crash land on a hill overlooking a band of Nazi soldiers on the hunt for them. Hendley survives the encounter and is shipped back to the POW camp.

The most thrilling of all escape routes, albeit unsuccessful, is the one “Cooler King” Hilts takes, on the motorcycle he has nabbed from a German soldier—along with the soldier’s gray uniform. Hilts rides the motorbike past a roadblock and then eludes scores of uniformed pursuers over hill and dale before he is finally caught and returned to the camp.

Bartlett, MacDonald, and Eric are among those who try the train. One has a moment of glory (Eric), the other folly (MacDonald). Eric gives his life to create a diversion that will let two others go free. MacDonald falls for the same ruse that he warned the men against; after trying to pass himself off as French, he replies in English to a German officer wishing him “good luck.” The most harrowing atrocity the film records is the shooting of 50 unarmed escapees who were rounded up and caught by the Gestapo.

The Great Escape is one of four prisoner-of-war films on my short list, the others being Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), and David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). William Holden stars in two of these pictures, embodying the American male ideal in the postwar era (see my January 2020 column for more).

Not the least compelling aspect of The Great Escape is that—to adopt (and adapt) Marshall McLuhan’s media categories—its chief hero, Hilts (McQueen), is precisely a “cool,” understated version of the “hot” Bill Holden. Each is a loner, with a strong independent streak. In The Great Escape, Hilts whiles away the time playing catch with a ball bouncing off the prison walls, his ever-present baseball glove an assertion of his American identity. He never blows his top or makes an impassioned speech.

Some World War II films don’t make much of a distinction between ordinary German soldiers and the thugs of the Gestapo and SS. The Great Escape does. The breakout from the POW camp creates an uncertain fate for camp commandant von Luger (Hannes Messemer), a Luftwaffe officer. Von Luger has been strict but not strict enough, and certainly not as sadistic and ruthless as the Nazis would have liked. Still, he has the film’s last word. As the Gestapo drives up to the camp, he tells Hilts, “It looks, after all, as if you will see Berlin before I do.”

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David Lehman, a contributing editor of the Scholar, is a poet, critic, and the general editor of The Best American Poetry annual anthology and author of the book One Hundred Autobiographies. He currently writes our Talking Pictures column.


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