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Movie Review

The Great Escape

Reviewed by: Brett Willis

Better than Average
Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Older Child to Adult
War Docudrama
2 hr. 50 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
July 4, 1963 (wide)
Copyright, United Artists click photos to ENLARGE
Relevant Issues
Box art from “The Great Escape”

War in the Bible

What is the Biblical perspective on war? Answer

Prisons in the Bible

About despair, fear and hope

Featuring: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough,Charles Bronson, James Coburn, James Donald
Director: John Sturges
Producer: John Sturges
Distributor: Logo: United Artists Releasing, a subsidiary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)
United Artists Releasing, a subsidiary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

Treated lukewarmly by critics when first released, “The Great Escape” later came to be regarded as one of the greatest WWII films ever. It’s also an enjoyable glimpse into the early careers of several major stars. Unlike the eyewitness book by former POW Paul Brickhill on which it is based, the film compresses some events and uses fictitious composite characters; but the great tunnel escape is shown pretty much as it actually happened.

A large number of escape-prone Allied Air Force officers are transferred to a new German maximum-security prison camp at Sagan—“all the rotten eggs in one basket.” The Camp Kommandant, Von Lugar (Hannes Messemer), tells senior Allied officer Ramsey (James Donald, “Bridge on the River Kwai”) that the prisoners should quit trying to escape, sit out the war and enjoy the relatively comfortable camp facilities. Ramsey reminds him that it’s an officer’s sworn duty to try to escape. “Big X” Bartlett (Sir Richard Attenborough, “Jurassic Park”), the officer in charge of coordinating escapes, has just endured three months of Gestapo/SS torture; he plans to strike back with a mass escape of 250 men.

Most of the prisoners are British (including Canadians and Australians); there are a few Americans, including Hendley (James Garner) and the authority-snubbing Hilts (Steve McQueen). A young and muscular Charles Bronson plays a Polish prisoner, Danny Velinski. The cast also includes Donald Pleasence, James Coburn and David McCallum.

The men proceed with escape plans, knowing that if they’re caught making any more escapes it could cost them their lives and it might cause command of the camp to be transferred from the regular German Air Force to the SS. We see examples of sacrifice: the fiercely independent Hilts agreeing to do a one-man escape and then let himself be recaptured so he can give recon information to the planners of the mass escape; Velinski digging seventeen escape tunnels (including three massive ones in this new camp) even though he’s claustrophobic.

The ingenious methods of hiding the tunnel dirt, creating civilian clothes and forged papers, and bribing/blackmailing German guards for needed supplies (explained in the book in greater detail) are also interesting. Profanity is limited to a few occurrences of d* and h*. There are some on-screen deaths, but the scene of a mass machine-gunning of prisoners is discreetly handled off-camera. There’s some hand-to-hand fighting, not very realistic-looking by today’s standards.

Why were a certain number of recaptured prisoners killed, while others were returned to the camp? The book explains that Hitler, angered by the mass escape, originally ordered that ALL the escapees were to be shot (in violation of the Geneva Convention). When reminded by Göring of the possible fallout, he settled for “more than half of them,” and eventually a nice round number was chosen so that everyone would know it was murder, but no one could prove it (deterrence without guilt).

The first half of the film has a lot of humor, but the story as a whole is tragic. It reminds us again what kinds of sacrifices are involved in war. Both the book and the film are worth your time.

[Postscript: I’m told that there was a negative side-effect from this film, even though it’s not the film’s fault. Apparently someone decided that it would be great to start with the basic setting of the film and then exaggerate everything—make the Allied prisoners more arrogant and the German guards denser, give the camp a country-club atmosphere and make security nonexistent. Thus was created the TV comedy series “Hogan’s Heroes,” which offended a lot of people, but managed to run for 7 seasons.]

Viewer Comments
I first saw this movie in the theaters in its initial release when I was in college. I was extremely impressed with it and have always considered it one of the best of war movies and particularly of World War II films. I had read the Paul Brickell book and was not disappointed with this movie version although obviously characters were in many instances composites. The essence of the book and history were well presented. I am a Steve McQueen fan and although I would have preferred a little more seriousness from him at the beginning of the movie, nonetheless the underlying intensity of his character and the others comes through very well. One can only imagine the need for humor in the grim circumstances of a prisoner of war camp. James Garner, James Coburn, and the other actors comprised a good balance of contrasts and personalities bound together by their imprisonment and desire to escape.

The difference in life views and principles between the SS personnel and the Allied airmen is well presented and contrasted with the character of the German officers and men who respected the prisoners. Within those contrasts is a lesson for Christians to consider. How are we called to treat our enemies and who are our enemies? Seeing the willingness of so many other prisoners to help even though they themselves could not go is a vidi reminder of servanthood and sacrifice. The music, photography, and pace of the movie are top rate and even though there may be some predictability to some events, the stark drama of a “great escape” is compelling and entertaining. My personal measure for a great movie is my own desire to see it again. I watch this movie on video a couple of times each year and each time am totally aborbed in it. It continues to entertain. I highly recommend it. My Ratings: [Excellent! / 5]
Gary McKean, age 60