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Film / The Great Escape

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Hilts: How many you taking out?
Bartlett: Two hundred and fifty.
Hilts: Two hundred and fifty?! 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 World War II film, directed by John Sturges and featuring an All-Star Cast including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, and David McCallum. It's Inspired by… the true story of a mass escape from a German POW Camp, by way of Australian author Paul Brickhill's (now nearly forgotten) autobiographical account of the same title.

During the War, the Germans decided to put all Allied prisoners with a record of escaping into the same, supposedly escape-proof camp, Stalag Luft III. The prisoners promptly formed an escape committee, which began coordinating plans for a mass breakout. Tricksters forged important documents, suborned the guards, and acquired needed equipment, while others dug secret tunnels.

Months of planning and preparation culminated in a breakout attempt on the night of March 24, 1944. Seventy-six POWs (out of a planned 250) were able to escape the compound, but only three made it out of Germany. The rest were recaptured, several of them at the last moment. (The film climaxes with "Cooler King" Hilts, played by McQueen, leading the Germans on an iconic motorcycle chase, which ends with him trapped on barbed wire only inches from theoretical safety over the Swiss border— an entirely fictitious sequence.) Finally, most of the recaptured escapees were executed.

The film is largely accurate but meddling executives added a historical 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.

A video game based on the movie came out in 2003 for the PlayStation 2, PC and Xbox,. It managed to maintain a small cult following. There was also a 1986 game from the 8-bit computer era which didn't really follow the movie plot, but has the distinction of being considered one of the best games for the ZX Spectrum.

Not to be confused with The Great Escaper.

Be warned. There are 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. That said, Hendley is the only person ever shown actually flying a plane in the entire movie.
  • 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. Stalag Luft III was actually a much bigger complex than the film depicts.
  • 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. (His character was a composite one, and included a Canadian POW, who would not have been moved). 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 POWsnote .
    Von Luger: [to Hilts] It looks, after all, as if you will see Berlin before I do.
  • The Alcatraz: The prison camp was specifically designed to be escape-proof and houses the most frequent troublemakers/escape-attempters among the POW populace.
  • All for Nothing: After Kuhn recognizes Bartlett in a train station, Ashley-Pitt sacrifices his life so Bartlett can get away, only for Bartlett to end up being caught anyway a few days later.
  • Anti-Villain: Von Luger. He is the main villain the organization has to overcome to escape, but he has no real animosity towards them or any real love for the Nazi cause. He would much prefer that they all sit out the war comfortably, but as much as its the officers' duty to escape, it's his own to contain them. When he hears about the 50 men who were killed in cold blood, he's visibly ashamed as he gives the news to Ramsey.
  • Anyone Can Die: Bartlett, Mac, Cavendish, Ashley-Pitt, Blythe, and Ives, to name a few.
  • Arch-Enemy: Von Luger to "Cooler King" Hilts. Technically he's this to all of them, but Hilts seems to be out for him directly, while the rest of the X organization just consider him part of the system they have to escape.
  • Artistic License – Cars: The motorcycle Hilts rides is a (postwar) Triumph T6. The Germans used BMWs and Zündapps, never Triumphs.
  • Artistic License – Geography: Immediately after Lt. Hendley 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. Hilts' capture after apparently killing a German soldier for his motorcycle (which he was riding when caught) would not result in him in the cooler; he'd simply be tried for murder and executed.
    • The movie also removes a large amount of help the prisoners obtained from the Allied Intelligence services, which sneaked information and some gear through the Red Cross care packages. Some of this information was classified at the time the movie was made.
    • No American POWs participated in the actual "great escape" as suggested in the movie. Some American POWs helped with the digging of tunnel "Tom" but they were moved to another camp, seven months earlier before the "escape," as the Germans had suspicions something was going on.
    • The escape took place during a bitterly cold March. The entire area was covered in snow.
    • While the escapes themselves are more or less accurate, the three POWs who manage to get away clean, Danny, Willie, and Sedgewick, are Free Polish, English, and Australian, respectively. In real life, the three prisoners who escaped were two Norwegians and a Dutchman.
    • The sequence in which two escapees steal a training aircraft, but are subsequently crash it, is derived from an episode in a completely different escape from another camp. The real-life escapees were caught attempting to start an aircraft.
    • For Rule of Drama the recaptured POWs are dropped off by a truck and machine-gunned en masse. In real life there were taken for a drive in small groups and shot with pistols by the Gestapo, to play along with the fiction that they had been shot while trying to escape.
  • 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.
  • Backhanded Apology: When inspecting the prisoners tend to their alleged 'gardens' The pause in Colonel von Luger's "I am sorry the soil is not better suited... for you men's purpose" apology to Big X raises Eric's suspicions that von Luger may be aware that they're not using the soil for the gardens. It's likely he wasn't.
  • Badass Bookworm: Hilts was studying chemical engineering when he joined the war. Next he's riding motorcycles and beating up Those Wacky Nazis.
  • Badass Biker: Hilts. The entire bike chase was pure fiction, but it's awesome.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Played mostly straight, just as in the true story it was based on. Three of the escapees do manage not to get captured again but most of them are re-apprehended and the many of the re-apprehended ones are killed. Von Luger is arrested for failing to prevent the breakout, leaving the camp in control of the SS. That said, Roger's main purpose for the escape (to inconvenience them by forcing them to waste more resources on capturing escaped POWs than ever before) is effectively achieved, pushing the Nazis further towards their eventual surrender in the war.
  • 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. Most of the others are either killed during the escape, or executed afterward. A small number (including Hilts, Hendley and Nimmo) are recaptured and simply put back in the camp. Also, the Luftwaffe Commandant is being replaced by the SD, who will probably make life more difficult for the remaining POWs. That said, everyone agrees that Roger's main motivation for the escape (to inconvenience the Nazis by causing them to waste more resources on catching POWs than ever before) was a success, 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.
  • Blind Mistake: Hendley is tipped off to Colin's deteriorating vision when Colin mistakes him for Roger — who's eight inches shorter and much stockier than Hendley, meaning it would be hard to make the mistake even at a distance — while standing only a few feet from him. He confirms his suspicions by asking a trick question (one which would be easily picked up on by a sighted person, but would misdirect someone who couldn't see the obvious clue that the question was misleading) which Colin falls for.
  • Bloodless Carnage: Zig-zagged. None of the people who get shot on screen visibly bleed (mostly) except for other moments regarding violence: Hilts gets blood stains and some small wounds on his arms and forehead after he gets caught in the fence following his famous motorcycle jump and after Blythe dies, there is a spot of blood on his forehead while Hensley (holding him in his arms), has a diagonal line of blood that starts from his right eyebrow to the left side of his chin.
  • Brick Joke: The first time Hilts gets thrown in The Cooler, he pinches the keys to his cell on the way in just to prove to the guard that he could. If you pay attention on the following three times Hilts gets thrown in The Cooler over the course of the movie, you will note that the guard never lets go of those keys until Hilts is securely locked up, to make sure he doesn't do it again.
  • Brig Ball Bouncing: Captain Hilts frequently ends up in The Cooler, a solitary cell, as punishment for his many escape attempts. While there, he can be seen throwing a baseball against the cooler cell wall to entertain himself. He even has a baseball glove for catching the ball. This movie provides the current page image for the trope, and, if not the Trope Maker, is certainly the Trope Codifier, as many of the other works that use the trope are doing so as a Shout-Out to this movie.
  • Brits Love Tea: Blythe is most grateful to Hendley for getting him milk, as he believes that "tea without milk is so uncivilised".
  • 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, Strachwitz. 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: Ten days isolation, Hilts.
    Hilts: Captain Hilts.
    Von Luger: Twenty days. Cooler.
  • Buried Alive: They originally try to tunnel without any shoring, only to find that the tunnel caves in on a regular basis doing it that way. After Willie is pulled out of what turns out to be the fourth collapse of the day, he and Danny both tell Bartlett that they're going to have to shore up the entire thing, both because the experience is so unpleasant and because they'll never finish at this rate since they keep having to re-dig the same parts over and over. Bartlett agrees and quickly puts a team on it.
    • In a later scene, the tunnel, shoring and all, falls in on Danny. This kicks his formerly-suppressed claustrophobia into high gear.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: The prisoners loudly sing Christmas carols to mask the sounds from a workshop (it doesn't look like it's anywhere near Christmastime, but the songs were likely chosen because virtually everyone in the camp would know the words). 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).
  • Captivity Harmonica: Hilts throwing a baseball against the cooler cell wall is a variation.
  • Captured on Purpose: Bartlett asks Hilts to scout the area around the camp for them. Though he refuses, he initially seems intrigued and like he might be persuaded to change his mind, until he realizes what the plan would entail. Following Ives' death, he decides to do it anyway. It works pretty much exactly like they'd planned.
    Hilts: Wait a minute. You aren't seriously suggesting that if I get through the wire, and case everything out there, and don't get picked up, to turn myself in and get thrown back in the cooler for a couple of months so you can get the information you need?
  • 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.
    • Colin's love of ornithology provides yet another method for the prisoners to conceal their activities (in Colin's case, the forgery workshop) right underneath the Nazis' noses.
  • Chromosome Casting: It is a World War II POW movie, after all, so the cast is all male apart from a handful of background characters in post-escape scenes.
  • Claustrophobia: The night before the escape, Danny reveals to Willie that he is claustrophobic. He's been fighting it in order to escape, but a particularly nasty collapse kicked it into high gear, and now he's afraid that if he loses it, he could screw up the operation. He does end up having to duck out briefly, but is ultimately able to go back down and make the escape, and he and Willie end up being two of the three to successfully get away.
  • Commonality Connection: 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.
  • Cool Bike: The bike stolen by Hilts is a Triumph SR6 650 disguised as a German BMW R75.
  • Composite Character: Except for Roger Bartlett (who was based specifically on Roger Bushell, the real Big X), pretty much all the main character prisoners are composites.
    • Cavendish's character is basically a composite of nearly every notable mistake made in the course of the story, from the relatively innocuous (falling through the bunk beds) to the serious (the incorrect estimate that caused the tunnel to come up short).
  • Covering for the Noise: The prisoners of war disguise the noise they are making whilst mining out a tunnel, by having a couple of stooges drive a giant stake into the ground outside, in full view of the Nazi guards. What excuse the stooges had on hand to satisfy any inquisitive Nazis is anyone's guess. They later switch to choir practice right outside.
  • Crazy Enough to Work:
    • After Hilts details his and Ives' escape plan, Mac's reaction is that it's "so stupid it's positively brilliant". Unfortunately, it still doesn't work.
    • 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!
  • Cult Soundtrack: Elmer Bernstein's music score, particularly the jaunty title march, has become recognizable even to people who've never seen this film.
  • 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 
  • Curse Cut Short: Hilts gets caught trying to test a blind spot near the prison fence and attempts to explain himself to a guard by saying he was retrieving his baseball. The head guard, Strachwitz, appears and the following exchange ensues.
    Strachwitz: What are you doing over here by the wire?
    Hilts: Well, like I told Max here, I was trying to get my god-d—
    [German soldier calls out as the commandant enters the scene.]
  • The Dead Have Names: A list with the fifty is read at the end.
  • Dedication: The film is dedicated to the fifty.
  • Defiant Captive:
    • An early scene has SBO Ramsey tell Oberst Von Luger to his face that he will be attempting to prove the Germans wrong about the camp being escape-proof, as is his sworn duty as a POW officer.
    • Hilts' scene at the end of the film throwing his ball again is a nonverbal version of this. It shows that after everything that happened, he's still ready to try again.
  • Description Cut: Bartlett and other leaders decide that Hilts and Ives can go ahead with their quicker and less elaborate escape plan; their reasoning is that a lack of escape attempts might make the Germans suspicious, but they also concede that Hilts's plan is clever enough to actually work. On the other hand, Ramsey notes, if it doesn't work Hilts and Ives are going to be in the Cooler for a while. Immediately cut to Hilts and Ives, covered in dirt, being led back to prison.
  • The Determinator: The Allied POWs as a whole. Among the first things they do upon arriving in the camp is size up the viability and logistics of various potential escape strategies. Von Luger is appalled when he reads their dossiers.note 
    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.
  • Distinguished Gentleman's Pipe: Sorren, the officer on lookout duty, smokes one. He even uses it to signal the others.
  • Don't Ask:
    [Materials being used for escape clothes]
    Bartlett: Where in God's name did you get these?
    Griffith: Hendley.
    Bartlett: Well, where did he get them?
    Griffith: Well, I asked him that.
    Bartlett: What did he say?
    Griffith: "Don't ask."
    • Hendley seems to take this attitude with regards to his own work as well, as he tends not to pay much mind to what people need things for. For example, when Colin asks for a camera, Hendley simply asks him what kind. Keep in mind that this is before he learns that Colin is the forger, so he would have no idea why Colin needs a camera; he just doesn't see it as relevant or something he needs to know.
  • 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.
  • Drink-Based Characterization: The American prisoners celebrate the Fourth of July by making moonshine. Blythe dryly notes that whatever it is, it's not Napoleon Brandy.
  • Driven to Suicide: Ives, who was already struggling with captivity, reaches his breaking point when the guards find one of the tunnels. As everyone else is distracted, Ives attempts to climb the fence knowing that the guards will shoot him before he reaches the top.
  • 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.
  • Eagle Squadron: Hendley is still a member of the Trope Namer, presumably meaning he was shot down before Pearl Harbor and so hasn't been transferred to the USAAF. Amusingly, as he's The Scrounger, his RAF uniform is in better condition than the actual British characters'.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Sedgwick crosses into neutral Spain. Willie and Danny board a Swedish ship.
  • Embarrassing Middle Name: Hilts. Actually, he'd prefer Captain Hilts, but please, just don't call him 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.
    • When the prisoners arrive, the first thing they do is start looking for escape vulnerabilities.
  • Event Title
  • Face Your Fears: Ironically enough, "Tunnel King" Danny suffers 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.
  • Fast Tunnelling: The film at least shows a bit of the logistics: Where do you put the dirt you dig out from the ground, how do you make sure the tunnel won't collapse, and where do you get the materials to stabilize it note ? Especially if you're watched by Nazi soldiers.
  • Foregone Conclusion: For those who know or read about the escape, they'll already know that out of the 76 escapees, only 3 make it to friendly territory, with the rest recaptured and 50 of them executed.
  • Foreshadowing: While they're practicing getting past security checkpoints, Mac warns another escapee of the Gestapo practice of catching out Anglophones by speaking to them in English. Near the end, Mac himself falls for this trick, when a Gestapo man says "Good luck!" in English and he answers "Thanks!"
    • When Hendley brings Colin a can of milk for his tea on the first night, if you watch carefully, you can see that Colin brings it very close to his face in order to see what it is. It's an early sign that all may not be well with Colin's eyesight.
  • For Want of a Nail: Tom gets discovered because Werner helps himself to a cup of coffee and then spills it, revealing that there is drainage in that room that shouldn't have been there.
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Chief Gestapo agent Preissen.
  • Gargle Blaster: Hilts, Hendley and Goff celebrate the Fourth of July by distilling some homemade booze and sharing it with the others. It appears to be powerful stuff.
    Bartlett: In the three years, seven months, and two weeks that I've been in the bag, that's the most extraordinary stuff I've ever tasted. It's shattering!
    MacDonald: (mildly) Well, I think it's rather good.
  • 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: While waiting to pass through a Gestapo investigation checkpoint at a train station, Bartlett is spotted and recognized by Kuhn, one of Gestapo agents who had Barlett transferred to Stalag Luft III, but Lt. Cmdr. "Dispersal" Ashley-Pitt notices this and shoots him before he can take action. He immediately gets gunned down by the SS officers investigating the passengers
  • 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. Not to mention the more short-lived but still very close friendships that develop between Hilts and Ives, and Hendley and Blythe.
  • 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. Averted, however, in the tunnel itself which goes pitch black until they can get candles lit, presumably to help the viewer understand Danny's fear.
  • Honor Before Reason: "Colin is not a blind man as long as he's with me!!"
  • Hooking the Keys: Played with. Hilts is being led to "the cooler" (a solitary-confinement cell) by a guard, who closes Hilts' cell door and then opens it a second later because Hilts stole the guard's keys.
  • Hope Spot:
    • Bartlett bluffs a Nazi patrol into letting him go by pretending to be German. Just as he's starting to relax...
      (behind him) Herr Bartlett? (turns to find SS officer Steinach pointing a gun at him) Your German is good, and I hear also your French. Your arms, up!
    • 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...
    • Hendley and Colin successfully steal a plane and are probably half an hour, if that, from reaching safety. Then it all goes to hell.
    • Hilts manages to get within mere feet of the border and freedom and it genuinely looks as though he might make it, despite dozens of German soldiers on his tail. Unfortunately, he doesn't quite clear the jump.
    • Hilts (And the audience) are on pins and needles as a German guard hovers right next to the exit of the tunnel outside of the fence. After a few moments, it seems that the guard hasn't noticed anything, and is going to give up, allowing the exodus to continue... That is, until the next guy, growing impatient, decides to exit the tunnel before getting the signal from Hilts, and ends up popping up right next to the guard, who immediately raises the alarm and holds the guy at gunpoint.
  • 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 possible, the scrounger Hendley response is that it's on loan. When asked about numerous fabrics he acquired for the tailors, his response is Don't Ask. Actually that seems to be his usual answer for almost everything.
    • The film does at least show that when it came to the documents, Hendley lifted the wallet of a German guard he had befriended. He promised the guard he would find it when the guard found it was "lost" (in exchange for another needed item, naturally), hence referring to it as "on loan".
  • Improperly Placed Firearms: While it's not confirmed, one of the German officers seems to use an Arminius Revolver at the train station, they were not invented until 1960.
  • Inopportune Impersonation Failure: During the planning for the POW Camp escape, Mac warns that a common German tactic to spot British or American escapees is to say something to a suspect in English as Schmuck Bait to see if they'll respond in English by mistake. Mac later gets caught by a Gestapo operative who tells him "Good luck" as he's getting on a train, and mistakenly thanks him in English.
  • 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."
    • Ashley-Pitt is "Dispersal."
    • MacDonald is "Intelligence."
    • Ramsey is "The SBO (Senior British Officer)."
    • The guards are referred to as "goons" and "ferrets."
  • Inspired by…: As disclosed in the opening titles.
  • Irony:
    • Mac is caught when a German speaks to him in English and he responds. Earlier, he tricked Haynes with the same play during rehearsal, and cautioned him that it was the simplest way to fool a suspect.
    • The chase scene with Hilts starts off when he gets challenged to produce certain papers. Hendley had stolen an example of the paper in question when he lifted Werner's wallet earlier in the movie, so if there had been more time before the tunnel breakout or if Hilts had let someone know about his post-tunnel plans before his last stint in the cooler (assuming there were plans and he wasn't just improvising the whole way through), Blythe could have made him a set.
    • At one point in the film, after quickly hiding the entrance to the tunnel they later escape through, a guard specifically questions three of the POWs what they're doing there so late. (They, of course, lie) Those same three prisoners, Sedgwick, Danny, and Willie, are incidentally the only three prisoners to make it into neutral territory, a 'home run,' so to speak.
    • A few of the guys are upset when they sees the large suitcase that Sedgwick has elected to take with him through the tunnel, seeming to think it's impractical and might ruin his escape. Sedgewick ends up being one of the few who actually gets away.
  • I Will Only Slow You Down: Ramsey has a notable limp, and knows full well he'll never be part of the escape.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: The plotters avoid discovery by allowing their men to do smaller, less elaborate escape plans which are easily stopped, thus making the guards think they've got the situation under control.
  • 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 SS have set up machine guns.
    Bartlett: You know Mac...
  • La Résistance: The 'X' organization that arranges the titular escape, part of their goal is to disrupt Nazi operations by forcing them to start a manhunt for the escaped prisoners. Sedgwick is aided by members of the French Resistance movement after escaping and making it to France. They protect him from a drive-by shooting of Nazi officers and ultimately help him make his way to Spain.
  • Last-Name Basis: Everyone except Roger, Colin, Danny and Willy. Hendley and Mac also address each other as 'Bob' and 'Andy' respectively in a single scene.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: The execution of most of the recaptured escapees.
  • Leave No Survivors: Fifty escaped POWs who had already been recaptured were summarily executed by the Germans.
  • Let X Be the Unknown: The resistance organisation is called the X organisation. Its leader is called Big X. Truth in Television: Security, obviously, was an issue, and calling something the X Organization would give no clues to its purpose. Same concept was used in naming the three tunnels Tom, Dick, and Harry.
  • 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.
  • Macgyvering: Hendley builds a still out of a furnace, a pressure cooker, and a trombone.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The 50 are reported as "shot while escaping" and unlike the real thing, none of them are wounded. The allied prisoners are not fooled by the obvious lie and even von Luger is ashamed by the murders. (This was even more in play in real life, as the prisoners were shot a few at a time rather than one mass execution to further the fiction that they'd been trying to escape.)
  • Master Forger: Blythe is a heroic version of this, forging travel passes, identity cards, etc. for the allied POWs.
  • 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 senior British officer but his involvement in the escape is very limited. He never intends to escape as he's too old and walks with a cane. He mostly serves as Bartlett's foil stating some unpleasant truths, and receives exposition from the Germans.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • The cheery Fourth 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 plane flies over the Alps, being so close to escaping. Not a minute later, their plane's engine begins sputtering...
    • We get a highly comical Description Cut of Hilts and Ives being returned to the cooler covered head-to-toe in mud just after Bartlett, Mac and Ramsey have speculated that their bizarre "mole" escape plan might actually work...which is instantly followed by Ives suffering his first Heroic BSoD.
  • Mook Lieutenant: Strachwitz, the head guard at the camp, serves this function.
  • Murphy's Bed: All the prisoners sleep in wooden, usually multi-tier bunks with the mattresses supported on planks. As these also supply the only readily available source of wood, a scene halfway through has Hilts removing all but the bare minimum to make pit props for the tunnel. Enter Cavendish, who bounds onto his third- tier bunk and proceeds to crash through all three levels to the floor.
  • Newspaper-Thin Disguise:
    • Sedgwick is shown doing this in a French cafe. Unfortunately the producers have him reading Liberation, an underground newspaper that would be the last thing an escaped POW trying to avoid attention would read, though it could be something he grabbed out of a trash can, and he couldn't understand the written French well enough on the spot to realize what it was, and is now stuck with it, unable to get rid of it inconspicuously in front of the German officers.
    • Bartlett grabs a newspaper for cover after a harrowing escape from pursuing Germans, only to be greeted by name by an SS officer who's recognised the notorious British escapee.
  • Non-Action Guy: Colin's mild, meek demeanor makes Hendley wonder what is he doing there. Colin explains that he was an aerial photograph analyst who tagged along on a flight because he wanted to see what it was like in person, only for that plane to end up getting shot down. He does turn out to be quite valuable, however.
  • 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.
    • When Von Luger comes to inspect the vegetable patches, the Escape Committee wonders if the Colonel is just being wise to their act and knows exactly what they are doing with the soil and dirt. It apparently never grows beyond a suspicion.
    • 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 — if not outright ill-conceived — attempts to go ahead.
    • This also describes Captain Hilts. He acts rather dim-witted, and Von Luger is surprised to learn he speaks German. Ives assumed he was an athlete of some kind, until he explained he was studying chemical engineering. Hilts keeps up his slow-witted act even as he proves himself to be one of the more clever escape artists in the camp.
  • Oh, Crap!: MacDonald tests a prisoner on passing off as French and then tells him off when the prisoner responds to a question posed in English by speaking English. Later on when MacDonald has escaped he talks to some SS officers in French - just when he thinks he's safe one of them says "Good luck!" in English. And he says "Thank you" in English. An Oh, Crap! expression immediately ensues, followed very shortly by his capture.
    • The entire camp has this reaction while they are celebrating July 4 with the three Americans, and realize from the shouts that their "Tom" tunnel has been discovered, and all the work they've put into it has been for nothing.
    • At one point, all the prisoners who have yet to escape have one of these when they hear the gunfire and know that the tunnel has been found and there will be no more escape attempts. Goff directly gets one when he pops out of the tunnel right next to a German guard who screams an alarm and holds him at gunpoint.
  • Patriotic Fervor: The three American prisoners organize a festive, goodnatured 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.
  • Politeness Judo: Played more seriously - Bartlett and MacDonald are questioned while trying to pass off as Frenchmen to get on a bus to Switzerland. They almost make it, until one of the Germans wishes them "Good luck" in English... and MacDonald responds with a reflexive "Thank you". It was MacDonald who had warned another prisoner about this trick. (This is actually a very close copy of the event that got Bartlett's real-life counterpart caught.)
  • 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, Werner "The Ferret," and the rank-and-file German soldiers are generally shown to be professional and non-malicious.
  • 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.
  • Rated M for Manly: Wily soldiers using all of their wits and gumption to escape Nazis
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: A reassignment to the bloody Eastern Front is mentioned as a potential and terrifying punishment for incompetent Luftwaffe guards. Implied to be one of the possible fates of Von Luger after the escape.
  • Reflexive Response: Reflexively responding "Thank you", in English, to an English phrase spoken by a German soldier, is what gets McDonald caught. The same escapee who, while drilling the others, had hammered on the point that reflexes like that would get you killed.
  • Refuge in Audacity:
    • Hilts, Goff, and Hendley, the only three Americans in a camp filled with hundreds of British POW's, host a boisterous Fourth of July celebration with some homemade moonshine. The Brits (and others) are more than happy to join in the fun. Again, Truth in Television; the actual event is described at length in the book, as are the various distillers of home-brew.
    • Bartlett and MacDonald sit directly across from two SS officers while on the train going away from the camp, and pass completely unnoticed until they reach they get off the train and are spotted by a Gestapo agent who knows Bartlett personally at the station checkpoint.
  • Rule of Three: For fun, on the 4th of July, the three Americans tasting their alcohol:
    Hilts: Wow!
    Hendley: Wow!
    Goff [coughing] Wow!
  • 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: Hendley. Truth in Television, as James Garner served in the US 24th Infantry Division in the Korean War, where he was wounded twice. He described himself as the unit "scrounger".
    Trailer voiceover: He'd come up with a baby elephant if the men needed it.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: Ashley-Pitt chooses to sacrifice himself early on in the escape in order to give Mac and Bartlett a chance to run from Kuhn, who recognised Bartlett. Both of them are later caught and are among the 50 men executed.
  • 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.
  • Sliding Scale of Gender Inequality: The film has an all male main cast. Justified, as it is set in a WWII POW camp, where there generally were not many women. There were talks about including a Ms. Fanservice in the cast, but it never happened.
  • Spotting the Thread:
    • This is how Bartlett and MacDonald are captured. A Gestapo agent asks to see their identification and asks them questions in German. When he is finished, he says "good luck" to them in English, and MacDonald blunders by replying in English.
    • Furthermore, this is harsh irony, because MacDonald had previously admonished one of his men for falling for the same trick when MacDonald plays it on him. Apparently he wasn't kidding about how important it is for your facade to be 100% perfect.
  • 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. This is a Truth in Television moment, as a real prisoner had done this (one of the cameos at the start of the book, unconnected with the tunnel)
  • 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. Hendely and Colin 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. Roger Bushell had, by his own account, crossed over the Swiss border and back into Germany, through becoming lost in the dark, during a previous escape. 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.
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: Impulsiveness and nerves. During the escape, one of the guards gets too close to the tunnel and they have to hold up the line while he's searching. Unfortunately, the next person waiting gets anxious and pokes his head out at the exact wrong time, and the guard spots the tunnel. Of course, in this case it's not clear if he caused it or if the guard would have found it anyway.
  • Too Happy to Live: Big X comments to one of his colleagues that he's never been happier than when he was at the Stalag working on escape plans. Less than a minute later, he and all of the other recaptured prisoners present are murdered by the Gestapo.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The trailer reveals that a bunch of men do, in fact, escape, which happens very late in the film, although to be fair, the word, "Escape" is in the title.
  • Train Escape: A variant occurs with Bartlett and MacDonald running up to a train just as it is pulling out so the guards on the platform will not have time to check their papers.
  • The Trickster: The Allied prisoners are all specialists in escaping POW camps using various tricks.
  • Truth in Television: Many of the escapes went down in real life the same as they did in the film, with some changes made for the sake of drama. Roger Bushell and Bernard Scheidhauer got tripped up the same way as Roger and Mac from the film, with Scheidhauer being tricked into giving a response in English. Like Danny and Willie, Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Müller stowed away on a ship to Sweden, and Dutchman Bram Van der Stok made his way into Spain with the help of the resistance, much like Sedgwick does in the film. Hilts, like real life escapee Dennis Cochran, is apprehended literally yards away from neutral Switzerland (though there was no motorcycle chase; he tried to cross at a checkpoint with a faked document, but the Germans had issued updated documents to catch anyone trying exactly this). And as noted above, Hendley and Colin's escape method was also tried, although the real-life pair never got the plane off the ground before they were caught.
  • 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.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: The X Organization sets things up early on, and the rest of the film is watching them struggle to stay on track and deal with the inevitable setbacks.
    • "Tom", the tunnel initially meant to be used for the escape, is discovered near completion.
    • The calculations for Harry were off, and the tunnel comes out in the open rather than the safety of the trees as planned. As a result, they're only able to get 76 of the proposed 250 men out before the Germans catch on,.
    • Once the escape happens, all of the escapee's initial plans fall apart, forcing them to improvise. Only three make it to neutral territory.
  • Verbal Backspace:
    Von Luger: Perhaps while you are with us you will have a chance to learn some [manners]. Ten days isolation, Hilts.
    Hilts: Captain Hilts.
    Von Luger: ...Twenty days.
  • Video Credits: Each actor is shown with a slightly extended clip from earlier in the film.
  • Villain Has a Point: Preissen and Kuhn accurately warn Von Luger that Bartlett is an escape mastermind. They also warn Bartlett himself that if he tries to escape again, they'll just execute him this time. It doesn't justify murdering him and the other prisoners later in the film, of course, but they did warn him.
  • The Von Trope Family: Colonel von Luger, a name that sounds distinctly German to an Anglophone ear but isn't an actual German surname. He was inspired by Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: Hendley is informed by Ramsey that 50 of the 76 escaped POW's have been executed, but the escape itself caused havoc behind the German lines, tying up thousands of troops that would have been utilized elsewhere. Hendley asks of all his dead friends, "Was it worth it?" and is told "It depends on your point of view, doesn't it?"
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • After the introductory speech by Roger, the second tunnel Dick is only mentioned again once when it's sealed off. The book reveals that the area where it was supposed to surface was built over when the camp was expanded. As a result, there was no longer any point in extending it. The partially built tunnel was used to store tools and equipment to dig the other tunnels.
    • It's also noted in the book that the entrance to Dick was the only one of the three never to be discovered by the guards, eliminating another reason for the tunnel to be reintroduced later in the film.
    • If you work out the math, 76 prisoners escaped, three got out of German held territory, eleven were captured and sent back to prison, and fifty were executed by the Gestapo. That leaves twelve escapees unaccounted for. Ramsey doesn't know about Blythe's death prior to the executions but does know about Ashley-Pitt's. They may have ended up killed while resisting recapture offscreen like Blythe and Ashley-Pitt were. It's also possible that the eleven we see being brought back were just the first batch, and the others were returned later, sent to different camps, or (unlike in real life) did escape occupied territory.
  • Worthy Opponent:
    • Von Luger respects his prisoners as fellow soldiers and officers doing their duty and fighting for their country. note 
  • Xanatos Gambit: While the mass jailbreak ultimately resulted in relatively few actually escaping to friendly territory, the prisoners managed to make the Germans divert massive amounts of resources to tracking them down, resources that could otherwise have been spent fighting the Allies at the front lines. In the end, the most positive outlook of the Escape is that there were two ideal outcomes: Either the majority of the flyers return to friendly lines, where they are able to return to active service and/or provide vital intelligence they may have gathered behind enemy lines, or the Germans waste resources otherwise dedicated to warfighting to track down the escaped inmates. Hendley, knowing this, asks if the lives of so many who were lost in the escape, such as his friend Blythe, was worth the effort, as mentioned above.
  • You Didn't Ask: When Sedgewick learns that Danny knows a sentence in Russian, he immediately asks Danny to teach it to him. As he realizes shortly thereafter, he never bothered to ask first if it was a useful sentence.
    Sedgewick: I love you?! What bloody good is that?
    Danny: I don't know, I wasn't going to use it myself.

This article is dedicated to the fifty.