The last of my old Film Focus reviews, this done for a special edition DVD of The Great Escape (1963).
The Great Escape
Reviewed 13 May 2006
Everyone knows the Great Escape. We know it’s based on true events. We know that McQueen doubled for one of the Nazi motorcylists pursuing him – meaning he’s chasing himself.
We’ve heard Eddie Izzard point out that Hilts reaches the Swiss border on his motorbike before two guys in an airplane, and that it’s only the British who get shot.
(You haven’t heard it? For shame! Go buy Dressed to Kill now.)
With a new deluxe-edition DVD out this week, here’s a few more top facts for the next time you watch it.
“Every detail of the escape is the way it really happened.”
The film is based on the book by Paul Brickhill, who’d himself been a prisoner of war in the Stalag Luft III camp and taken part in the great escape there on 24 March 1944. Various things have been changed – characters combined, their nationalities changed, and some stuff with a motorbike added.
The real forger was James Hill who – having neither gone blind nor been shot – later became a director. His credits include The Man From ORGY and episodes of Worzel Gummidge.
The actors, too, could base their performances on real experience. Donald Pleasance and James Garner had both been prisoners of war while Charles Mason had been a miner.
Steve McQueen’s prior experience was that… well, he was keen on motorbikes. So the script got rewritten to have Virgil Hilts on a motorbike.
Hilts doesn’t like to be called by his first name. Presumably he’s named after the 1st century BC poet Publius Vergilius Maro, whose Aeneid covers the mythic origin of Rome. Since the early United States based much of its legal and governmental structure on Rome, there’s an argument that his name makes him an archetype for American values.
Then again, his embarrassment may just mean he had pretentious parents – though Virgil was also a popular name. Less pretentiously, Virgil Tracy is the pilot of Thunderbird 2.
“Mole” Ives is played by Angus Lennie, probably most famous for his six years as Shughie McFee in the soap opera Crossroads. In 1975 he leant his voice to another great movie – Bob Godfrey’s musical, animated, Academy-award-winning biography of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Great!
Which makes it all the more odd seeing Lennie chummy with Hilts. Think about it: super-star idol Steve McQueen best mates with the strange little man from the Crossroads Motel.
(Nearest equivalent in movies: Bruce Willis shoulder-to-shoulder with comedian Lee Evans during a gunfight in the Fifth Element.)
Some other fun cast stuff: Nigel Stock would later play Watson to Peter Cushing’s Holmes for the BBC. David McCallum, after starring in the Man From UNCLE (note: not ORGY), was Carter in another Nazi-foxing caper, the BBC’s series of Colditz. And William Russell went on to more daring escapes, too, leaving the Great Escape to become one of Dr Who’s very first travelling companions. He can also be seen as one of Marlon Brando’s polo-necked courtiers in the opening minutes of Superman.
The cast includes Englishmen of different classes, Scots and Americans. James Coburn plays an Australian (though I’m not sure he bothers with the accent) and Charles Manson plays a Pole. It’s interesting that while Coburn later meets up with French and Spanish resistance, we see nothing of Germany’s allies. It implies that Germany fights alone against the rest of the world.
“We may all sit out the war as comfortably as possible?”
There’s some interesting stuff going on with the Germans. Von Luger, the Kommandant is seen to be a reasonable man, who regrets any violence. We feel for Werner as James Garner’s Hendley plays him for a sap. The Luftwaffe come across not as evil people but as genial jobs-worthies, doing the best at their jobs.
This is all the more evident when we know that the Kommandant doesn’t lose his job because of the escapes but (in scenes omitted from the film) because the investigation into the escapes discovers his black marketeering. As far as the film is concerned, he’s a decent enough bloke.
It’s the Gestapo who are the villains. Thuggish and vicious, it doesn’t justify the killing of 50 prisoners that Bartlett had been given due warning at the beginning of the film. The implication is that they’re responsible for his scars, and the great escape is his way of getting back at them. He makes no distinctions between Luftwaffe and Gestapo – he tells Ramsay that they’re “all the same”.
“Two hundred and fifty!?!”
Bearing in mind it’s all based on true facts, there’s some peculiar things about the plan.
If the tunnel’s using up all the cross-beams from the bunk-beds, where does everyone sleep? The guards would surely notice them sleeping on the floor… So are they sharing bunks?
The home-made clothes, stitched from blankets, old uniforms and boot polish, would have been less noticeable in time of war, as everyone was having to make do and mend. But where did Hendley get all the materials from? (That’s actually a question asked in the film, to which the response is “Don’t ask.”)
The escapees are all very immaculate for people who’ve scurried through 300 feet of dirty tunnels. Did they have time to wash and brush up prior to boarding their train?
Why isn’t Hilts in uniform? If he’d just been prepared for being shot down over Germany, he’d surely have packed something less conspicuously American than slacks and a tee-shirt.
And where did he get his baseball glove from?