Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Great Escape


I vividly remember seeing this when it was new. I was in the theater with three friends: Calvin, Phil, and Jan. (Damn, two of them are dead now!) And they had us at the first seconds with the opening bars of one of the best music scores of all time, by the great Elmer Bernstein. Dead now too, alas. Go to Wikipedia and take a look at the sheer number of scores he wrote!

And it just kept getting better and better. It’s an all-male cast, and pretty much had to be. Somehow writing a woman into this true story (though the characters are composites of real men) would have been totally wrong and stupid. But what a cast! James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, David McCallum, and Donald Pleasence (who actually was shot down and spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft 1; the real escape was from Stalag Luft III.). The film is long enough that we get to know and care about all these different guys, and suffer when they die. I’m not claustrophobic, but the scenes in the tunnels are enough to make one gasp for air from time to time.

It all climaxed with the amazing motorcycle chase. Remember, in 1963 we had not really seen many really exciting chases. They were too hard to film. Even the car chases in a movie like Thunder Road, about a guy who drives a souped-up moonshine runner, look very phony. But Steve McQueen was a race driver himself, and a wizard on the bike. He is in total control of the machine. We watched in awe as he eluded the fucking Nazis, and when he came to that double barbed-wire fence on the Swiss border, we figured he had had it. And then he jumped it! (McQueen wanted to do the jump himself, and I’m sure he could have handled it, but the insurance people would not let him. It was a stunt man.)

I want to note some of the changes that were made. Not that any of them affected the story at all, but just to mention them. The real escape was done during the hardest winter ever recorded in that area. When they were ready to go, the trap door at the far end was frozen, and tough to open. And the snow on the ground was a terrible problem. You can’t walk through snow and not leave a trail. Only three men made it to freedom, as in the movie, but they were two Norwegians and a Dutchman! Not the Australian, the Pole, and the Brit, as was shown. The execution of fifty of the escapees by the fucking Nazis was all too real, though they were not shot in a group as shown. (Hitler wanted them all shot, but Göring and others talked him out of it.)

And I just have to include this paragraph, from Wikipedia, which will give you some idea of the scale of the project, and the degree of cunning and resourcefulness they achieved:

“Following the escape, the Germans took an inventory of the camp and found out just how extensive the operation had been. Four thousand bed boards had gone missing, as well as the complete disappearance of 90 double bunk beds, 635 mattresses, 192 bed covers, 161 pillow cases, 52 20-man tables, 10 single tables, 34 chairs, 76 benches, 1,212 bed bolsters, 1,370 beading battens, 1219 knives, 478 spoons, 582 forks, 69 lamps, 246 water cans, 30 shovels, 300 m (1,000 ft) of electric wire, 180 m (600 ft) of rope, and 3424 towels. 1,700 blankets had been used, along with more than 1,400 Klim cans. The electric cable had been stolen after being left unattended by German workers; because they had not reported the theft, they were executed by the Gestapo. From then on each bed was supplied with only nine bed boards which were counted regularly by the guards.”

Wow. Count on the Germans to have an inventory that extensive. And, in the end, they were amazingly lax about their “escape-proof” prison. I mean, how can 1219 knives go missing in a prison camp and no one notice? I suspect James Garner, the scrounger, bribed a lot of people. And poor Werner was certainly sent to the Russian front, as he feared. This is just one of the best WWII movies ever made, and oddly enough, one of the least violent.