The real-life Great Escape

[Author unknown]

The real-life Great Escape



The film is a travesty, the American element of its plot is entirely fictitious: the American parade (Independence Day) where James Garner et al tootle their way around the camp chanting ‘down with the British’) is downright offensive – a Hollywood perversion of history, as per usual!

Old Git

A much more accurate film of the ingenuity of the British escapers is THE WOODEN HORSE a true story set in the same camp as The Great Escape but a year earlier, of course it’s British so no showy theatrics, just ingenuity and determination and no Yanks so never shown in America.

Harry S

Most of the film was fictitious made primarily for US cinema audiences. There were no US escapees as they had before been enclosed in another part of the camp. Steve McQueen virtually created and demanded that leading role based solely on his own gigantic ego. There was a Johnny Bull, a New Zealander, who in the real escape unsuccessfully tried to swipe a plane. Believe he was executed. In the film James Garner managed take off. There was no Australian (James Coburn) who made it home. The officer who accidently gave the game away with Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) was Dutch, fluent in German, not Scottish (Gordon Jackson). Hidden amongst the cast of Hollywood super egos there was genuine former POW, Donald Pleasance. The music was good and spot on.

Why The Great Escape isn’t Great

The film portrays the Great Escape as a predominantly Anglo-American effort, and ignores the brave men of other nationalities who were involved in the planning and the actual escape. In the real Great Escape, the list of those who escaped includes a sizeable contingent of Canadians, as well as New Zealanders, South Africans, Frenchmen, Norwegians, Rhodesians (now Zimbabwe), Czechs, a Belgian, a Dutchman, a Lithuanian, and a Greek. The Great Escape was a far more cosmopolitan endeavour than it appears on film.

A token effort is made in this direction. The sizeable Polish contingent who were captured while flying for the British Royal Air Force are represented by Charles Bronson’s Danny Willinski, and James Coburn tries to represent the British Commonwealth/British Empire airman, though his attempt at an Australian accent is widely regarded as ranking alongside Dick van Dyke’s attempt at Cockney in Mary Poppins in the annals of cinematic accent atrocities, dialect disasters, and cadence catastrophes.

The role of the American characters in the film is much exaggerated – indeed, they had all been moved to another compound by the time of the escape and absolutely no Americans were involved in the actual breakout. The image of the dynamic Americans helping out the rather more pedestrian British is perhaps a reflection of American perceptions of their role during the Second World War, though a more charitable interpretation is that commercial necessity dictated a more prominent role for Americans. Whatever the reason, the extensive use of creative licence to boost the role of America and Americans in films ‘based’ upon true stories or events is nothing new.

A sad and dishonest treatment of an utterly incredible story.

By Barry Fortier

Impossible to rate, as it is a very entertaining movie, but is NOT based on the book. It is a Hollywood hype of a true story, reduced to a pathetic star vehicle for a hot actor (of the time) on a motorcycle… There was no ‘cooler king’ in the book, no motorcycle, and it was largely a commonwealth do…. Very few yanks involved in it. A sad and dishonest treatment of an utterly incredible story.

If you want an entertaining movie, this is a good one. If you want the true story, buy the book.

A travesty of the actual Great Escape

 FIFTY years ago, the film The Great Escape was released. It starred Steve McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough, and captivated audiences, not least because of McQueen’s motorcycle ride. In reality, it was a travesty of the actual Great Escape. In March 1944, a mass breakout of prisoners through a tunnel from Stalag Luft III – a German prisoner-of-war camp for allied aircrew – occurred. It was an audacious act immortalised by Australian author Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book, also called The Great Escape. If the 1963 film is believed to be an accurate representation of what happened, then it is regrettable. The pity is, that is precisely what is occurring in many classrooms, where films replace books.

A distortion of the facts

The Great Escape occupies a special place in the British public’s consciousness – partly due to Paul Brickhill’s 1951 book ‘The Great Escape’, which was one of the earliest, detailed, published accounts of life behind barbed wire. It gained a whole new audience through John Sturges’ 1963 film, based on the book. However, while the pre-breakout activity was accurately portrayed, the largely American cast, the blending of characters, and the commercially-minded script did distort the facts. For example, Steve McQueen is said to have only agreed to take part if he could show off his bike riding skills – none of the real Great Escapers is known to have used a motorbike. And far from sunlit meadows the escapers had to deal with harsh winter conditions with snow on the ground.

It’s a shame they resorted to such tactics as the real story is more than dramatic enough. It is sensational, entertaining, and in places deeply moving.

Nicholas J. Cull, professor of American Studies at the University of Leicester, specialist in film, media, and propaganda history, wrote an article “Great Escapes: ‘Englishness’ and the Prisoner of War Genre” (2002)

Hollywood take on the genre in the Great Escape

It was Hollywood’s big-time production of the Great Escape that brought the British story to the genre’s climax with its American treatment.

At the insistence of the veteran Hollywood screenwriter W.R. Burnett who “was appalled by the lack of American characters” were created “the wise cracking characters later played by Steve McQueen and James Garner”. “The final version was a compromise between the British and American perspectives penned by the Australian writer James Clavell.” While the historical reality was quite different:

The final film elided many significant details and characters from the actual events documented in Brickhill’s book. Although Americans were involved in the early stages of the historical events depicted by Brickhill, American POWs were actually moved to an adjoining camp before the escape began.

Introduction of American characters was not done only for the sake of such, but also to provide the British v. American dynamic typical for the time:

The use of British characters to symbolise “lovers of war” and Americans as reluctant but resourceful cynics was typical of the Hollywood representations of Britain at War in this era.

Author elaborates:

The film’s sub plot develops in ways that not only marginalise English characters in their own story, but makes their behaviour explicitly “other”. The American characters are the norm, and their attachment to things like baseball and improvised celebration of 4 July are the most obvious expressions of national culture in the film, to differentiate them from the Englishness of the camp. […] There are many moments in the film in which it becomes clear that we are watching an American depiction of Englishness.

The British-engineered plan becomes futile exercise for which “participants pay a heavy price”.

…the wisdom of the plan is called into question in the final moments of the film. The down-beat ending reflected the growing willingness to engage with the scale of Nazi atrocities, and provided a reminder of the grim reality underpinning the story of the escape.


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