The Great Escape

Welcome to Flopcorn, where Reader staffers and contributors pay tribute to our very favorite bad movies. In this installment, associate editor Jamie Ludwig ponders her love-hate relationship with The Great Escape.

In Flopcorn we usually revisit movies that were poorly crafted, tanked with audiences, or just totally sucked. The Great Escape doesn’t fit into any of those categories. The award-winning film was one of the top-grossing hits of 1963 (raking in nearly $12 million at the box office, which, adjusted for inflation, is nearly $1 billion in today’s dollars), and remains beloved nearly six decades after its release. That’s not just because it has a star-studded cast (including Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Charles Bronson, among others), or one of the most iconic motorcycle-chase scenes in film history, but because it pays tribute to real-life acts of bravery, ingenuity, and teamwork by a group of Allied prisoners of war against the Nazi regime. I mentioned this to my editor, but she said have at it anyway, so here we are.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a soft spot for escape movies. It doesn’t matter how the protagonists arrive in their circumstances, what motivates them to get the hell out of them, or even if the characters aren’t human (see Chicken Run), I’m hooked. Though I’m not exactly sure how a psychologist might analyze this interest, I think it comes down to a mix of aversion to authority figures and institutional power structures and a heavy dose of claustrophobia. Add to that my absolute hated of Nazis and maybe I was bound to love The Great Escape. So why, after a lifetime of counting it among my favorite films, does watching it feel increasingly self-indulgent? How does time impact the reception of films of generations before by present-day viewers, or rather, can yesterday’s cinematic brilliance be today’s Flopcorn?

The story behind The Great Escape is inarguably compelling: In 1942, the Luftwaffe (German air force) designed a new high-security prisoner-of-war camp, Stalag Luft III. Located near present-day Żagań, Poland, the sprawling complex was built on hard-to-tunnel-through sandy soil and outfitted with top-of-the-line escape deterrents—including seismographic microphones that could pick up the sound of digging. Content that they’d constructed the Axis equivalent of Alcatraz (but without all the water), they began populating it with some of the most notorious escape artists among imprisoned Allied airmen.

Obviously, given the track records of the prisoners, this was hardly a stroke of genius. Many troops considered it their sworn duty to try to escape captivity; a POW on the run was an annoyance to the Nazis and a drain on resources. And if one escapee could wreak havoc on the enemy, imagine what a couple hundred could do. Thus, in March 1943, a plan was hatched. Masterminded by Royal Air Force squadron leader Roger “Big X” Bushell (who inspired the character Roger Bartlett, played by Richard Attenborough), the scheme involved the construction of three tunnels over 12 months and the work of roughly 600 men—the “X organization.” The goal was to send 200 POWs beyond the wire dressed in civilian clothing and carrying perfectly forged identification papers. Sadly, the plot was discovered midway through the escape on March 25, 1944, but 76 men got away, three of whom eventually made it to England.

The X Organization had succeeded in bugging the crap out of the Nazis; Hitler himself was so pissed off he ordered the Gestapo to execute all 73 recaptured POWs, despite international law rendering such acts illegal. Eventually, he settled for 50 (a compromise based on optics, not ethics). In 1947, 18 Germans were tried for war crimes and found guilty for their involvement in the murders.

A firsthand account of the escape was published in 1950 by Paul Brickhill, an Australian journalist and former fighter pilot who’d been imprisoned at Stalag Luft III in 1943 and had participated in the X Organization as a lookout and tunnel digger. This became the source material for the film, which was made to honor the escape—especially the 50 men who were murdered for their part in it.

As soon as production was underway—the movie was produced and directed by John Sturges, an Oak Park native known for suspense movies and westerns, including The Magnificent Seven—it became clear that the script would have to be somewhat fictionalized in order to squeeze the whole story into a single movie. For one thing, it would have been impossible to include everyone involved in the escape, so many characters were composites of several real-life men. Also, a number of former POWs had asked the filmmakers to omit certain details—such as the involvement of outsiders—lest they jeopardize future escape attempts.

But for purposes of authenticity, filming took place in rural Germany, and Sturges hired former X Organization tunnel king Wally Floody as a technical adviser. He also put together a cast that included several former POWs who brought their real-life experience to their roles, including Korean War vet and megahottie Garner who, like his character, Hendly, “The Scrounger,” had worked procuring much-needed supplies for his fellow troops, and Donald Pleasence, who played mild-mannered Colin “the Forger” Blythe, who’d been imprisoned in Stalag Luft I. (Local history nerds: Blythe was partially inspired by RAF pilot John Cordwell, a Chicago city planner and architect known for his work on Sandburg Village before founding the Red Lion Pub in 1984.)

By now you might be wondering, with so many cards stacked in its favor, why have I developed such a love/hate relationship with The Great Escape? For starters, there are the filmmakers’ misguided attempts to make the story more appealing to American audiences, which sometimes means breaking with reality entirely; though some U.S. airmen had been involved in the early phase of planning, they’d all been transferred elsewhere before things really got under way. But Garner and McQueen’s starring roles were written in anyway, because why not give America a little credit where it’s not due?

Reportedly, many actual POWs were none too thrilled with these twists, or the entirely fictional dramatic components written in to entertain audiences—some even booed at McQueen’s motorcycle jump (which was really performed by his stunt double, Bud Ekins) at screenings because they found it so ridiculous. And you’d think with all the artistic liberties, Sturges could fit in a bit part or two someone who wasn’t a white dude, at least as the escapees coursed through western Europe (even in the early 60s, the script had been repeatedly turned down for lack of women characters).

Worse still, by focusing more on the antics of the X Organization (often backed with the film’s upbeat theme song) than on character development, the filmmakers inadvertently made it look not entirely horrible to be a prisoner of war. The skies above the fictional compound are always sunny, no one is ever hungry or ill, and with some exceptions, the POWs seem in good spirits and shockingly robust for men who’ve spent more than three years behind barbed wire.

By comparison, the 1953 escape-film classic Stalag 17 also fused comedy and drama surrounding life at a WWII POW camp, but director Billy Wilder didn’t sidestep darkness, depicting starvation-induced hallucinations, rampant paranoia, and prisoner-against-prisoner profiteering. And considering that while moviegoers were enjoying The Great Escape, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were aggressively ramping up combat operations in Vietnam (a war in which U.S. POWs who did return home almost uniformly reported being mistreated), this overwhelmingly rose-colored version of POW life seems more than a little icky.

But for all its missteps, when it comes to escapism, intrigue, and indulgence, you could do a whole lot worse than The Great Escape. Just watch it with an open eye. And if you are so inclined, keep on digging (no pun intended) into the real-life exploits of the X Organization. Motorcycle jump or no motorcycle jump, the reality is even more fantastic—albeit more tragic—than fiction.   v