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 Pleasance. Inspired By the true story of a mass escape from a German 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 unhistorical 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:
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. The "bad boys" were sent to Colditz; 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.
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: 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 Bartlet 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 this arrangement was fortunate, since a couple of years of bombings had left the German public with very little love for allied airmen (lynchings occurred) — however Luftwaffe leadership generally upheld proper procedure and respect for the POWs in the camps they ran, 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.
Artistic License - Cars: The motorcycle Hilts rides is a Triumph T6. The Germans BMWs and Zundapps, never used Triumphs.
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.
Only Sedgwick, Danny, and Willie manage to escape Nazi Germany entirely (this is another major departure from the book, because the three who 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 a mook and then to an officer. 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.
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 (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.
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 so well, Hilts got captured 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 early stages of the real plan actually involved a large number of American prisoners. Unfortunately as the tunnels progressed the Germans decided there were now enough Americans in the camp to justify giving them their own compound and transferred them all over at about the time where the film puts the July 4th celebration.
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!
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. In fact, he probably doesn't even understand German in the first place.
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.
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.
Bartlett, in part due to the The Chains of Commanding, is sometimes unnecessary 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 Nazi branches.
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.
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 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 Barlett 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.
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.
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."
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 Barlett's foil stating some unpleasant truths, and to receive exposition from the Germans.
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.
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.
Initially The POWs spread the word about ignoring Bartlett, aka Big X, just in case the Germans don't know who he is.
The escape committee realizes the lack of escapes 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 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 is oblivious to the feud and dismisses it as propaganda.
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 captures 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.
Race Lift: 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. American actors James Coburn and Charles Bronson (of Polish-Lithuanian ancestry) are playing an Australian and a Pole, respectively.
Trailer voiceover: He'd come up with a baby elephant if the men needed it.
Sequel: The 1988 Made-for-TV MovieThe 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.
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.
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 Coburn and Donald Pleasance 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.
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.
Made worse by the earlier scene where the prisoners are rehearsing as 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.