Film: The Great Escape

Hilts: How many you taking out?
Bartlett: Two hundred and fifty.
Hilts: You're crazy. You oughta be locked up. You, too. Two hundred and fifty guys just walkin' down the road, just like that?

The Great Escape is a classic 1963 war film, directed by John Sturges and featuring a veritable All-Star Cast including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Donald Pleasence. Inspired By the true story of a mass escape from a German WW2 prison camp, by way of Paul Brickhill's (now nearly forgotten) autobiographical account.

During World War II, the Germans decided to put all the allied prisoners with a record of escaping in the same supposedly escape-proof camp, Stalag Luft III. The prisoners promptly formed an escape committee, which coordinated a mass breakout. Tricksters forged documents, suborned the guards, and acquired needed equipment, while others dug secret tunnels.

Seventy-six were able to escape, but only three made it out of Germany. The rest were recaptured, several of them at the last moment. 'Cooler King' Hilts (McQueen) was only caught after an iconic motorbike chase, which ended with him trapped on barbed wire, only inches from theoretical safety — an entirely fictitious sequence. Finally, most of the recaptured escapees were executed.

The film is largely accurate but meddling executives added an ahistorical American character, and, for security reasons, omitted all mention of the help the escapees received from outside the camp. It also contains a series of continuity errors relating to the real-life segregation of American prisoners part-way through the tunnel digging; Hilts is given a couple of lines which are references to this (based on the book) while he, for no explained reason, is left there. The other American prisoners do not appear, so the whole thread is meaningless in context.

The film's theme music is very well known and a favourite of English football fans (especially when playing Germany). The story goes that the supporters' club band started playing it when England went a goal behind in a match against Italy; England staged a comeback and ended up winning, and the fans adopted the tune. It's one of Elmer Bernstein's epic masterpieces.

Be warned. There are some unmarked spoilers.

The Great Escape provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Ace Pilot:
    • Hilts is described as a "hotshot pilot" and seems to stand out in a Stalag Luft camp meant for captured Allied aviators.
    • Averted with Colin, who was in Aerial Reconnaissance as a photo-interpreter and was shot down on a single and ill-fated reconnaissance mission.
  • Adaptation Distillation:
    • A large section of the end of the original book detailing things like the building of a later tunnel named George, how the imprisoned men eventually meet up with allied soldiers, the Gestapo murder investigations, etc, is completely omitted in the movie.
    • The whole issue about the camp being full of escapers is this. In real life, the "bad boys" were sent to the Colditz prison; the name "Stalag Luft" signifies a camp for Air Force officers, which virtually all pilots and most aircrew were. The later NCOs were simply lumped in with the rest.
  • Adaptational Nationality: Averted, save for a downplayed country lift. There were mostly British-Commonwealth prisoners in the camp and the movie reflects that. On the other hand the Americans were transferred to other camps just before the great escape but the movie has only three American characters, one of them fairly minor. This isn't too bad when you consider that the transfer happened while Hilts was in the cooler(meaning he might have been left behind) and might not have applied to Hendley as he was from a RAF Eagle squadron. American actors James Coburn and Charles Bronson (of Polish-Lithuanian ancestry) are playing an Australian and a Pole, respectively.
  • Affably Evil: Von Luger is more civil to the prisoners than they are to him. He is also genuinely ashamed by the Gestapo's murder of the escapees.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: Von Luger's villainhood is mild in the first place, especially compared to the Gestapo, but in any case he leaves the picture with respectworthy dignity — the implication being he's going to be sent to the Russian Front, court-martialed, or worse, and that things will go From Bad to Worse for the POWs.
    Von Luger: [to Hilts] It looks, after all, as if you will see Berlin before I do.
  • The Alcatraz: The camp. The Gestapo interrogation and dungeon scenes in particular.
  • All Germans Are Nazis: Averted; some of the guards are shown to be on quite friendly terms with the prisoners. The camp commandant is shown to not give the Nazi salute much respect. In the scene in his office with Bartlett he seems to be actively struggling to keep his visible distaste for the Gestapo and SS down to a level that won't get him arrested. Truth in Television as the Stalags were run by the German Military, e.g. Luftwaffe being in charge of the Air Force POWsnote , not the Nazis.
    • Additionally, Colonel von Lindeiner-Wildau, on whom von Luger was loosely based, was respected enough by his prisoners that several testified in his favor at a postwar trial for war crimes.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: At the airfield, several of the planes are American AT-6 Texan trainers painted in Luftwaffe colours. The Luftwaffe did indeed have AT-6s in service, captured from Belgium, who had purchased them from the United States.
  • Anti-Villain: Von Luger.
  • Anyone Can Die: Bartlett, Mac, Cavendish, Ashley-Pitt, Blythe, and Ives, to name a few.
  • Artistic License Cars: The motorcycle Hilts rides is a (postwar) Triumph T6. The Germans used BMWs and Zundapps, never Triumphs.
  • Artistic License Geography: Immediately after Lt. Henley tells Colin that they are just one mountain ridge away from Switzerland, their plane flies past the famous castle of Neuschwanstein, which is on the Austrian border, about 60 miles (and some very high mountains) away from Switzerland.
  • Artistic License History: Several of the characters assault German guards, a thing which real-life prisoners and escapers avoided at all costs as being tantamount to inviting execution, or at least a spell in a highly unpleasant German military prison
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Averted. The Germans are played by German actors (although they inexplicably switch to English in several scenes) and Richard Attenborough amazes everyone by speaking perfect, almost accent-free German in a scene towards the end (his character is based on Roger Bushell, who really could speak fluent German and Afrikaans, so this is Truth in Television). It didn't help him, though. When a character doesn't speak German, or has a terrible accent, their character just isn't meant to speak German. (They even make it a plot point to let the persons with the best German skills escape first.)
  • As You Know: Ives reminds Hilts that in the art of tunnel-making, the digging is not the main problem. It's the shoring up with wood and getting the dirt out.
  • Author Appeal: The bike escape performed by Hilts originates from Steve McQueen's love for motorcycles. The star had enough clout and creative control to ask for such an additional scene, now iconic.
  • Badass: Everyone in their own way, but the grand prize goes to Hilts.
  • Badass Bookworm: Steve McQueen's character was studying chemical engineering when he joined the war. Next he's riding motorcycles and beating up Those Wacky Nazis.
  • Big Blackout: A low-key one helps the prisoners out when the Germans shut down the lights during an Allied air raid.
  • Big Good: Bartlett "Big X", the leader of the operation.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The dialogue in German and French is not subtitled, providing the multilingual viewer a deeper understanding of some events without relying merely on the reactions of the characters.
  • Bittersweet Ending:
    • Only Sedgwick, Danny, and Willie manage to escape Nazi Germany entirely (this is another major departure from the book, because the three who actually got to England were Dutch and Norwegian). Most of the others are either killed during the escape, or executed afterward. A small number (including Hilts) are recaptured and simply put back in the camp. Also, the Luftwaffe Commandant is being replaced by the Gestapo, who will probably make life more difficult for the remaining POWs. The POWs succeeded in causing the Germans to expend resources capturing them again, but fifty were murdered. It's openly asked: "Was it worth it?" and answered with: "That depends on your point of view."
    • Hilts is back in the cooler bouncing a baseball against a wall, planning his next escape as he did so many times before. When the guards place Hilts back in the cooler again, you can visibly see their heads bow, and their actions half-hearted. Proving that even Mooks have emotion.
  • Brutal Honesty: When Hilts is discovered testing his baseball trick to cross the wire, he first tells a tale to "Ferret" Kramer and then to his superior, Strackwitz. When Von Luger arrives to question him, Hilts is annoyed by the repetition, drops the act and flat-out tells the Colonel he was planning an escape.
    Von Luger: 10 days isolation, Hilts. 20 days. Cooler.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: The prisoners loudly sing Christmas carols to mask the sounds from a workshop. Also when the tunnel is started and it is necessary to break a thick piece of slate, some of the prisoners pound some stakes into the ground with mallets for their vegetable gardens (which are part of the distractions as well).
  • California Doubling: Averted. At first when they scouted possible locations in California, it was difficult for them to find locations with appropriate scenery (especially trees). They gave up when it became clear that "Germany looks like Germany" and no other location would suffice.
    • Look for postwar Deutsche Bundesbahn markings on the railroad rolling stock, however...
    • In his book, Not So Quiet On The Set, Robert Relyea (one of the film's producers) revealed that they also ended up going to Germany over the closer California because the German officials allowed them a lot of leeway. They were allowed to essentially destroy a swath of forest to make the prison camp (provided they planted new trees after filming) and gave them access to an entire train and an active section of track for however long they needed it. They even provided, unprompted, a senior train official for safety and coordination.
  • Catchphrase: Colin loves to define things as "splendid."
  • Chekhov's Hobby: In the cooler, Hilts tells Ives that he did a lot of motorcycle riding while in college. After the Escape, he nearly reaches Switzerland on a commandeered motorcycle.
  • Chromosome Casting: It is a World War II POW movie, after all, so the cast is all male.
  • Crazy Enough to Work:
    • Hilts' escape plans. Big X and the others do mention it's so crazy it might work. The first time, it fails. The second time, it works, but Hilts got recaptured on purpose to bring back information Big X and the others needed.
    • The whole escape plan hinges on this, since the Germans are on the lookout for attempts that typically feature half a dozen men. Big X lampshades that they never will suspect them of being crazy enough to try and breakout over 250!
  • Cool Bike: The bike stolen by Hilts is a Triumph SR6 650 disguised as a German BMW R75.
  • Composite Character: Some of the characters were based on a couple different prisoners rather than just one individual.
  • Cultural Translation: Kinda. While there were Americans at the prison camp in Real Life, the breakout was primarily enacted by British and Canadian pilots flying with the RAF.note 
  • The Dead Have Names: A list with the fifty is read at the end.
  • The Determinator: The Allied POWs as a whole. Von Luger is appalled when he reads their dossiers. The first five minutes are without dialogue as the prisoners are herded into the camp and immediately start sizing up their preferred escape routes.
    Von Luger: The men under your command have been most successful. This man, Ashley-Pitt, for example: shot down over the North Sea, escaped, recaptured, escaped, recaptured. Archibald "Archie" Ives: eleven escape attempts. He even tried to jump out of the truck on the way here. [...] The list is almost endless. One man here has made 17 attempted escapes! Group Captain, this is close to insanity!
  • Diabolus ex Machina: A realistic but unexpected one happens on the the night of the escape. Despite the calculations, the tunnel is found to be several feet short of the trees, so the escapees are briefly exposed. Cue Finagle's Law.
  • Double Vision: During the iconic motorcycle scene, Steve McQueen is not only playing Hilts, but is the guy riding the motorbike that Hilts stole and also played one of the German motorcyclists chasing him!
  • Dream Team: The Germans round up together a large group of Allied escape artists, hoping the POWs would be easier to contain in a new Stalag-camp, designed and run without the flaws of previous ones. The temerity of this predicament is addressed in-story.
  • Dressing as the Enemy:
    • A variation when Danny and Sedgwick try to pose as Russian prisoners when this special, secluded group is being taken outside to cut trees. They are easily spotted.
    • Hilts dresses as a Wehrmacht soldier in the climax, but his cover is blown when he's halted and is unable to provide a travel permit when asked for one by a German officer.
  • Driven to Suicide: Ives.
  • During the War
  • Eagle Land: Ace Pilot Hilts loves to project the boisterous, self-confident and proud image. The Germans are able to find a tunnel during the 4th of July celebration, when the prisoners are relaxed.
    Von Luger: You are the first American officer I have met. Hilts, isn't it? [...] Are all American officers so ill-mannered?
    Hilts: About 99 per cent.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Don't call Hilts "Virgil."
  • Establishing Character Moment: During Hilts' first scene, he tries a baseball trick to cross the safety wire and gets sent to the cooler when he talks back to the Colonel in the ensuing argument after he gets discovered. He gets effectively drawn as cocky and snarky, resourceful but over-confident, proud and unabashedly determined.
  • Face Your Fears: Ironically enough, "Tunnel King" Danny sufers from claustrophobia, but he recounts he was able to overcome it because his resolve to escape is usually stronger than his fear. After he snaps, Willie is there to help him.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Chief Gestapo agent Preissen.
  • Get A Hold Of Yourself Man: Willie punches some sense into Danny when he's trying an ill-conceived escape after a panic attack. It works indirectly, but Danny warns Willie not to do that again, ever.
  • Good Is Not Nice:
    • Bartlett, in part due to the The Chains of Commanding, is sometimes unnecessarily blunt and cold to some of the fellow escape artists under his watch. He also refuses to give due credit to a Luftwaffe that applies some professional courtesy and is milder compared to other branches of the German military.
    • Hilts is cocky and acts like a self-centered narcissist at first, but he sacrifices his own escape for the greater good a number of times and puts his life at risk to protect Ives and others.
  • Great Escape: The Trope Namer. Planned for 250 POWs, around a third of them reach the second stage.
  • Guile Hero: The Allied POWs obviously need to be smart, because being overly brass and confrontational may be rewarded with a visit to the cooler or a bullet to the back. Hendley the scrounger stands out among them.
  • Heroic BSOD:
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Lt. Cmdr. "Dispersal" Ashley-Pitt at the train station, among others.
  • Hero Stole My Bike: Sedgwick steals a bicycle, Danny and Willie appropriate a rowboat. Averted by Hilts in that his bike isn't civilian property. Material from the DVD points out these thefts aren't recommended for POWs, as such a crime gives the foreign government an excuse to prosecute the POW as a criminal.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Willie and Danny are very dear friends who go back a long way. The same can be said for Bartlett and Mac.
  • Hollywood Darkness: During the escape scene. Even worse when the camp's lights turn off, yet the ambient light levels barely change. Same when the lights turn back on.
  • Honor Before Reason: "Colin is not a blind man as long as he's with me!!"
  • Hope Spot: After most of the escapees are rounded up, the leaders try to remain upbeat and talk about the possibility of escaping again in the future. A few seconds later...
  • Iconic Item: Hilts' baseball and glove. The guards are chivalrous enough to let him use 'em in the cooler.
  • I Have My Ways: When asked where he got his hands on a copy of almost every Nazi identity paper the scrounge Robert Hendley response was don't ask. It was also the same answer when asked about a can of expensive butter from the guard's kitchen. Actually that seemed to be his usual answer for almost everything.
  • In-Series Nickname: Everyone in the main cast has a nickname:
    • Hilts is "The Cooler King."
    • Danny and Willie are "The Tunnel Kings."
    • Bartlett is "Big X."
    • Hendley is "The Scrounger."
    • Sedgwick is "The Manufacturer."
    • Blythe is "The Forger."
    • Ives is "The Mole."
    • The guards are referred to as "goons" and "ferrets".
  • Inspired By: As disclosed in the opening titles.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Bartlett. He's wistfully telling Mac how this escape has given him a renewed sense of purpose in life, before trailing off when he notices that the Gestapo have set up machine guns.
    Bartlett: You know Mac...
  • Last Name Basis:
    • Everyone except Roger, Colin, Danny and Willy.
    • Hendley and Mac address each other as 'Bob' and 'Andy' respectively in a single scene.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: The execution of most of the recaptured escapees.
  • The Load: Bartlett insists on not taking Blythe along for fear he might become this due to his poor vision. Hendley offers to watch after Blythe and Blythe manages to avoid slowing them down for the most part, although he does wind up getting himself killed.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The 50 are reported as "shot while escaping" and not like the real thing, war crimes victims. The allied prisoners are not fooled by the obvious lie and even Von Luger is ashamed by the murders.
  • Meaningful Echo: "It looks, after all, as if you will see Berlin before I do."
  • Military Moonshiner: Americans Hilts, Hendley, and Goff celebrate the Fourth of July by distilling some paint-peeling hooch and sharing it with the other prisoners.
  • Minor Major Character: Group Captain Ramsey is the British senior officer but his involvement in the escape is very limited. He never intends to escape — he walks with a cane, but it's hinted that his code of duty precludes him from abandoning his post anyway — and mostly serves as Bartlett's foil stating some unpleasant truths, and to receive exposition from the Germans.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • The cheery 4th of July party is ominously aborted when the Germans find "Tom", and to make things worse, Ives is killed a moment later trying to climb the barbed wire.
    • The spirited, mischievous and almost jovial first day of the Allies in the camp is counterpointed by the somber, grim and grizzled looks of the Russian prisoners used as forced labor. Even a death march is played during this scene.
    • In spite of their situation, Bartlett begins to tell Mac about how working on the tunnels has given him a sort of purpose in life, then not only them, but all the men who were in the truck, are gunned down in cold blood.
    • Blythe and Hendley are in a jolly mood as their planes fly over the alps, being so close to escaping. Not a minute later, their plane's engine begins sputtering...
  • Mook Lieutenant: Strackwitz, the head guard at the camp, serves this function.
  • Not So Different: Hendley invokes a moment of bonding with Werner by bringing up his background in the Boy Scouts. Werner reveals he was enrolled in the German counterpart when, to his chagrin, it was merged into the Hitler Youth. The camps for Allied airmen are run by the Luftwaffe, and they share a mutual loathing of the Gestapo. This bonding over their shared military background is Truth in Television.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity:
    • The POWs don't make a fuss at the arrival of Bartlett, aka Big X, just in case the Germans don't know who he is.
    • Bartlett realizes a complete absence of escape attempts would make the Germans suspicious, tipping them about something big going on, so the committee allows quick and less elaborate attempts — if not ill-conceived — to go ahead.
  • Patriotic Fervor: The three Americans organize a festive, good-natured 4th of July celebration, where with tongue in cheek Mac agrees to Hilts' "down the British!" Early on, Werner tries to use the War of 1812 as a wedge between the British and Hendley, who dismisses it as propaganda.
  • PoW Camp: The entire setting.
  • Prison Escape Artist: The inhabitants of the Nazi prison camp are the best escape artists among captured Allied soldiers, and Roger Bartlett (AKA "Big X") is the best organizer of escape attempts among them.
  • Punch Clock Villain: Colonel von Luger and Werner "The Ferret".
  • Punishment Box: The Cooler.
  • Pyrrhic Victory/Was It Really Worth It?:
    Ramsey: Roger's idea was to get back at the enemy the hardest way he could, mess up the works. From what we've heard here, I think he did exactly that.
    Hendley: Do you think it was worth the price?
    Ramsey: Depends on your point of view, Hendley.
    • Averted by various material published in recent years. It seems that at least the principal organisers were well aware that they could expect a bullet in the back if caught; several were known to the Gestapo. The book skates around the fact but it is clear that MI9 were in contact with the leaders and they, in turn, were in contact with the resistance in Holland and elsewhere. They were at large in enemy territory in civilian clothes with no identification as combatants; the book mentions at one point, a captured escaper being examined to demonstrate that his clothes were converted from uniform for this reason. The Germans had at least some justification for regarding them as spies.
    • It is also mentioned in several sources that the two Norwegians were transported to Sweden by a captain who was a member of the resistance, who was subsequently imprisoned in Auschwitz, and that the Dutch escaper is implied to have been rejected by his family after the war for bringing the wrath of the Gestapo on them at a time when the Allies were already in Holland.
  • Rated M for Manly: Oh, hell yes.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: A reassignment to the bloody Eastern Front is mentioned as a potential and terrifying punishment for incompetent Luftwaffe guards.
  • Run for the Border: The POW variety.
  • Running Gag:
    • Hilts and his baseball and glove when he's in the cooler.
    • Cavendish, who yells "Alley-Oop!" before jumping into his upper bunk. He eventually falls through to the lower bunks after too many of his bed slats are stolen to reinforce the tunnels.
  • Scenery Porn: Lots of it, particularly in the post-breakout portion of the film.
  • Screw the War, We're Partying!: The prisoners take a brief hiatus to celebrate 4th of July, however the German guards do not and a tunnel is discovered.
  • The Scrounger: James Garner's character, Hendley.
    Trailer voiceover: He'd come up with a baby elephant if the men needed it.
  • Sequel: The 1988 Made-for-TV Movie The Great Escape II: The Untold Story, which stars Christopher Reeve and basically picks up where the original film left off. It's almost 100% fictional, though. It also features Donald Pleasence again, this time as a Nazi officer.
  • Shown Their Work: They went to great lengths to accurately build a German POW camp. Of course, it did help that several of the actors had been prisoners of war during WW2:
    • Donald Pleasence, who had been in a German POW camp, made a few suggestions to John Sturges, who wasn't aware of that fact, and was told to keep his opinions to himself. However, when the director learned that Pleasence knew what he was talking about, he was asked for advice all the time.
    • Charles Bronson had actually been a coal miner and actually was claustrophobic because of it.
    • James Garner had been the scrounger for his unit in the Korean War.
    • Hendley wears USA flashes on his uniform, showing that he is an American serving in the RAF and is a member of the Famous "Eagle" squadrons, three squadrons composed of Americans who joined the RAF. This also means that Hendley was shot down before 1944, since the squadrons were re-absorbed by the USAAF at that time.
  • The Smart Guy/Non-Action Guy: Colin's mild, meek demeanor makes Hendley wonder what is he doing there. Colin nonchalantly replies that he is the forger.
  • Spy Speak: The tunnels are called "Tom", "Dick" and "Harry".
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Roger, Mac, Colin, Cavendish, and a lot of the British officers.
  • Stock British Phrases: The British officers tend to use these.
  • Suicide by Cop: After the tunnel Tom is discovered, the shattered Ives commits suicide by attempting to scale the wire in full view of the guards, and is machine-gunned.
  • Tempting Fate:
    Hendley: Over this range, then twenty more minutes and we've got it made!
  • Those Two Guys: "Tunnel Kings" Danny and Willie.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: The villains, the Gestapo. Many of the guards of the camp, ruled by the Luftwaffe, are just antagonists.
  • Thwarted Escape: Painfully. There are various cameos lifted out of context, which are referred to in the opening sequences of the book as having taken place elsewhere. James Garner and Donald Pleasence have several of them including the train jump, and the attempted theft of the aircraft, although the real escapees didn't manage to start it and were caught on the ground. The lorry theft is another. At one point the POW leaders allow the Americans to try an easily thwarted escape just so the Germans don't get suspicious of their bigger planned escape.
  • Train Escape: A way a number of them try to escape.
  • Tricksters: Everyone.
  • Tunnel King: Danny and Willie are the Trope Namers. Archibald "The Mole" Ives also qualifies.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: Von Luger gives a reasonable New Era Speech to Ramsey in the beginning, but the trope is only played completely straight in the end, when the Gestapo takes over from the Luftwaffe.
  • Worthy Opponent: Von Luger respects his prisoners as fellow soldiers and officers doing their duty and fighting for their country.
  • You Just Told Me / Imposter Forgot One Detail: After MacDonald tries to pass himself off as a French citizen by speaking fluent French to some SS officers, he succeeds until they politely tell him;
    Officer: [in English] Good luck!
    Mac: Thank you... [Suddenly looks horrified]
    • Made worse by the earlier scene in which the prisoners are rehearsing — Mac uses the exact same trick on one of the prisoners he tests, and admonishes him for being so stupid for falling for it. Bartlett's real-life counterpart is described as having been caught this way.

This article is dedicated to the fifty.