This week marked the 75th anniversary of the Great Escape, not the book nor the film but the actual incident. On March 24, 1944 76 British and Commonwealth Prisoners of War (PoWs) escaped from Stalag Luft III in Silesia, the largest attempted escape of its kind in the Second World War. 73 were re-captured of which 50 were shot dead by the Gestapo on the orders of a furious Adolf Hitler. Just three made it home. In some ways that might seem to make it a futile project but the planners knew that the chances of such a large number getting home were slim. Their intention was to effectively open up a new front in the war and divert significant Nazi resources to deal with it. They would not have known how soon the D-Day invasion would take place. In fact it was just seven weeks later. But they knew it was imminent and such a front could severely affect the German planning for defence of the Reich. In Paul Brickhill’s book on which the film is based, he writes that approximately five million Germans were assigned to search for the PoWs, and many thousands were on the job full time for weeks, redirecting valuable manpower from the Nazi war effort. However, this is almost certainly a wild exaggeration.
In February, Squadron Leader Dick Churchill died aged 99, the last survivor of the Great Escape. He made it out of ‘Harry’ tunnel (‘Tom’ tunnel was discovered by the guards; ‘Dick’ tunnel was not viable), only to be recaptured three days later. This month, Flt Lt Jack Lion died aged 101. His escape out of ‘Harry’ was thwarted when the guards realised that the Escape was in progress. Jack had helped to prepare the mass breakout, yet he always thought he was lucky to have been captured rather than killed in a bombing raid, and probably lucky not to have got out of the camp. Jack had joined the RAF on the second day of hostilities. When his bomber plane was brought down by flak over Düsseldorf in 1941, he was taken to Stalag Luft III. In 1943, he assisted in the preparations for the “Wooden Horse” escape: he was one of the PoWs who daily carried out the vaulting horse, under which a tunnel was built; in 1944 he provided surveillance for Roger Bushell's ambitious attempt to get 200 men out through three tunnels. Some 600 men were involved in the endeavour.
The digging of the tunnels was a major engineering feat. They were dug thirty feet down to evade German sound detectors. It involved redeploying thousands of planks taken from roofs, walls, floors and furniture. Tools had to be stolen or manufactured. Hundreds of tonnes of soil/sand had to be disposed of. Underground railway lines were constructed to move people and soil. Lighting had to be set up throughout the length of the tunnels. A signalling and security operation had to be maintained for every minute that work was going on in the tunnels. Uniforms and other materials had to be adapted into civilian clothing that the escapees could wear and not appear conspicuous once outside the camp. Documents such as identity papers and passes had to be first obtained and then forged. A camera and film were produced by blackmailing a guard. Ingenious devices for reproducing maps were devised. Red Cross parcels provided chocolate and cigarettes that could be used to bribe the guards. They also contained real currency and radio parts camouflaged in board games and the like.
After the war, Allied prosecutors waged a campaign to punish the Gestapo officers responsible for executing the fifty escapees, which was against the Geneva Convention which stated that you could not punish a prisoner of war for attempting to escape. A British policeman dedicated himself to finding them. In the end 21 members of the Gestapo were executed after due legal process, 11 committed suicide and 6 died in enemy action. 17 more were sentenced to extended prison terms.
Paul Brickhill, an Australian journalist and writer in peacetime, who wrote the book The Great Escape, was piloting a Spitfire aircraft that was shot down over Tunisia in 1943. He was taken to Stalag Luft III, where he assisted in the escape preparations, but was debarred from taking part in the actual escape along with some three or four others owing to claustrophobia.
The film director John Sturges read the book when it came out in 1950 and immediately saw the possibilities for an epic film adventure. Not everyone shared his enthusiasm, however. Sturges, under contract to MGM, tried to interest studio boss Louis B. Mayer in the property, but was quickly turned down. “What’s so great about an escape where only three people get away?” was a common objection. The lack of a female romantic interest was also seen as a drawback, and only after Sturges scored a major success with The Magnificent Seven did he have the power to get his dream project produced. But a major challenge still lay ahead: finding a leading man.
Sturges had helped make Steve McQueen a star with The Magnificent Seven, but the actor was reluctant to take the role of “Cooler King” Hilts in The Great Escape. McQueen’s two previous films had been World War II stories, and both had generated disappointing returns at the box office. Sturges persisted and after McQueen read an early script draft, the actor agreed to join the cast with one condition: McQueen, a motorcycle enthusiast, wanted his character to escape by motorbike at the end of the film. Sturges accepted and had the script rewritten to include what would be The Great Escape’s most iconic sequence.
The screenplay was co-written by best-selling author James Clavell, who was uniquely qualified to write this story. Clavell had been imprisoned in a Japanese PoW camp during World War II, where his experience formed the basis of his novel King Rat, later filmed with George Segal. C.Wallace Floody, a former PoW at Stalag Luft III, was hired as the film’s technical director. He said that Sturges and the crew achieved an “authenticity that was too real for comfort.”
Some say that there were no Americans at all in Stalag Luft III; others report that there were one or two. But most of the principal roles in the film are taken by American actors. The British actor Richard Attenborough took the role of Roger Bartlett based on the South African-born Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, known colloquially as “Big X”, who masterminded the escape plan and in real life ran it like a major military exercise. The other key roles are primarily based on composites of real characters.
Some of the cast had also been PoWs. Donald Pleasance (Blythe, “The Forger”) was held in a German camp, Hannes Messemer (Luftwaffe Colonel Von Luger, the Commandant) in a Russian camp, and Til Kiwe (Frick) and Hans Reiser (Gestapo Agent Kuhn) were prisoners of the Americans.
The film was shot entirely on location in Europe, with a complete camp resembling Stalag Luft III built near Munich. Exteriors for the escape sequences were shot in the Rhine region and areas near the North Sea, and McQueen’s motorcycle sequences were filmed in Füssen (on the Austrian border) and in the Alps. All interiors were filmed at the Bavarian studios in Munich.
When the backlot there proved too small, the production team obtained permission from the German government to shoot in a national forest adjoining the studio. The location probed advantageous in securing authentic World War II German military equipment. Countless 1940s vintage trucks, cars and motorcycles were taken from scrapyards and restored to running order. A 1937 Bücker aeroplane was reconditioned and filmed being flown to its spectacular destruction in the Bavarian woods near Füssen. For the train sequences, a railway engine was rented and two condemned cars were purchased and modified to house the camera equipment. Scenes were shot on the single railway line between Munich and Hamburg.
After principal photography concluded, Elmer Bernstein composed a memorable score that ranks among his best (along with his previous collaboration with Sturges, The Magnificent Seven), and the film’s distributor United Artists, supported the film with a massive international marketing campaign. The Great Escape was released in 1963 to enthusiastic critical reviews, and box office receipts soared as audiences came to see what is generally acknowledged as one of the best war pictures ever made.
And what did Jack Lyon think of the film? It was, he said, “rubbish”; the real event took place in freezing conditions, not sunshine, and there were no Americans involved, let alone motorbikes.
There is no question that the film takes considerable license. But I think it is also a classic which pays testament to the indomitable human spirit. And just as a footnote, a mass escape is defined as one where 5 or more prisoners escape from a PoW camp at the same time. Most mass escapes took place after many months of careful planning and preparation, but seldom achieved complete success as usually the detaining power maximises the effort to find and recapture the escapees. In World War II 14 such escapes are known to have taken place from German PoW camps. In total 862 PoWs attempted to escape in these and 588 succeeded. But in 13 of the 14 just 12 out of 473 escapees got safely back home.
But in the last one known to have taken place on August 30 1944 at Stalag XVIIID in Slovenia, 105 Australian, British, French and New Zealander PoWs escaped with the help of Yugoslav Partisans and all 105 got back home. Perhaps that was the Great Escape.