After more than a decade of trying to get a studio to film a movie based on Paul Brickhill’s book The Great Escape, John Sturges finally got backing from the Mirisch Company to recreate the true-life story of Allied officers escaping from a German POW camp in 1944.
While the screenplay by W. Burnett and James (Shogun) Clavell fictionalizes the characters and compresses events to fit a feature film’s running time, the details of the escape attempt are true-to-life. Even better, the film was actually shot in Germany (even the thickest wooded areas in California don’t come close to resembling the Black Forest area). Not only does Germany look like Germany, but the availability of WWII-era vehicles and uniforms make the authenticity more palpable.
Also helpful in the success of The Great Escape is the cast. Although the DVD artwork features the late Steve McQueen on its cover (and McQueen’s contribution is quite large, especially in the now-famous motorcycle chase, where McQueen did most of the real driving, since he was famous for his love of ‘cycles and fast cars!), Sturges’ movie is an ensemble project.
It’s hard to remember, especially in the post-Vietnam era, that there was a period when war movies had all-star casts (The LongestDay is perhaps the best-known of these, and the trend continued – even as viewership declined – with such films as Tora!Tora! Tora!…Midway [ really bad film, by the way]..and ending with the well-made but poorly received A Bridge Too Far). TheGreat Escape not only reunited director-producer with Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn (whom he’d directed in The Magnificent Seven); it also features the talents of Donald Pleasence, James Garner, David McCallum and Richard Attenborough (who would later go on to direct A Bridge Too Far and Gandhi).
Also reuniting with Sturges was composer Elmer Bernstein, who had scored The Magnificent Seven three years previously. Bernstein’s main theme is pretty catchy and still holds up well in these John Williams and James Horner-dominated years. Bernstein, who recently passed away, also composed the National Geographic television specials’ theme and the score for The Age of Innocence.
The Great Escape’s plot is very straightforward: It’s 1944, and the Germans have built a Stalag (prisoner of war camp) with the sole purpose of gathering the most troublesome captured Allied personnel, most of them British and Commonwealth airmen, with a few American officers tossed into the mix. Most of these POWs have, as the German commandant says early on in the film, “escaped, been recaptured, escaped, recaptured.”
Even though the Luftwaffe officers in charge of the camp understand that the Allied officers and airmen have a “sworn duty to escape,” they are also being pressured by Berlin to crack down on escape attempts, or else the SS and Gestapo will take over administration of the camp.
The POWs, however, are equally determined to escape from this new German Stalag, not only to rejoin their forces in England and elsewhere, but to create as much trouble for the enemy. By forcing the Third Reich to divert thousands of troops and security officers on a countrywide dragnet for the escapees, the P.O.Ws hope to tie up reinforcements that Germany desperately needs in the front lines in the Italian peninsula, the Balkans, and the Eastern Front.
Knowing this, the brilliant Wing Commander Bartlett (Attenborough), also known as “X,” conceives the most ambitious escape attempt yet: 250 men will tunnel their way out from the new camp and make their way to England across Germany and occupied Western Europe.
The screenplay, although sticking to the details of the escape as accurately as possible, compresses time and creates composite characters, a technique often used in “based on a true story” movies. Moreover, in an effort to attract large American audiences, at least two U.S. POWs (played by Garner and McQueen) participate in the breakout from the Stalag; in reality, the escape from the camp near Sagan, Germany, was an all British Commonwealth affair. Nevertheless, for all that, Sturges did a magnificent job as both producer and director, giving audiences an exciting and suspense-filled movie.
Although MGM recently released a Special Edition reissue, I own the first “plain vanilla” DVD. The sound mix is pretty good, and the image is a bit grainy but it’s not too distractingly so. The meager extras include a booklet of behind-the-scenes facts and trivia (as well as the chapter list), the theatrical trailer and a short “making of” featurette.
(And why did Sturges have such a hard time selling this now-classic film to major studios? Get this: Studio heads thought the subject matter was too depressing (most of the escaping POWs were recaptured, and 50 were shot on Hitler’s personal orders), and there was no female romantic lead!)