In defense of “The Great Escape”

About a decade or so ago, I persuaded one of my daughters to sit and watch “The Great Escape” with me. My motivation was that I wanted to share something that had been, without a doubt, my favorite movie when I was a kid.

Early on — I think it might have been the scene in which Steve McQueen’s character, Hilts, and his new Scottish friend Ives, are sent to the “cooler” for the first time — my daughter raised an objection: What’s with the light, sprightly music in the background? This is about men at war being held prisoner of the Nazis and risking their lives to escape. They’re being put in solitary confinement, a harsh punishment that can cause lasting psychological damage (and as we soon find out, has pushed Ives to the edge of cracking up). Why the cute music? Why does it seem the actors are playing it for laughs?

She knew that her grandfather had spent the rest of the war in such a camp after being captured in the Ardennes, and it was a sufficiently horrible experience that he never, ever wanted to visit Europe again.

I had never noticed that incongruity, because, well, I had first seen the film at the age of 10, and I thought it was awesome in every way, and had never questioned the out-of-place comical touches that, after all, made watching the film all that much more fun.

I tried to explain that films were different in the ’50s and ’60s — Hollywood tended to sugarcoat everything — and war films especially. The country had this hugely positive feeling about the Second World War, and over the past couple of decades had sanitized it to the point that, to kids of my generation, it looked at times like one great lark. I knew at least in theory of the cost of war — I used to look at those pictures of American bodies in the surf at Normandy and Saipan in the big Time-Life picture books about the war. Still, the fact that the war was something we all felt good about was something I didn’t question. For instance, I watched the film starring Audie Murphy in which he re-enacted the deeds that made him a hero, and nothing that I saw in the film prepared me for what I learned years later — that Murphy had a terrible time with PTSD after the war.

And I knew, by the time my daughter pointed out that problem, that the true story of The Great Escape had definitely received the Hollywood treatment. To begin with, Hilts was complete fiction, and although there were some Americans in the camp, their roles in this escape were fairly marginal. (I think. I’m finding some contradictory info about American David M. Jones.)

Still, even though I know all that, and even though the film doesn’t hold the exalted position that it did in my personal list of favorites, I got a little defensive this morning when I read about the death at 101 of the next-to-last survivor of the escape, Australian Paul Royle. This was the part that got me:

Paul Royle revealed last year on the 70th anniversary of the tunnel escape in March 1944 that he was no fan of the Hollywood interpretation of the story.

“The movie I disliked intensely because there were no motorbikes … and the Americans weren’t there,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp., referring to McQueen’s dramatic bid to outrun the Germans on a motorbike.

Gordon Royle said his father was angry that Hollywood would create an adventure out of soldiers doing their often tedious and dangerous duty of attempting to escape.

“He felt the movie was a glamorization of the tedium and the drabness of the actuality,” Gordon Royle said.

“The idea that they got on a motorbike and soared over a barbed wire fence is far from the reality, which was darkness and cold and terror,” he said….

First, Mr. Royle had a million times greater entitlement to an opinion on the film than I ever will have. That said, allow me to raise some objections to his criticism:

  • True, no Americans were involved in the escape, as they were moved to another part of the camp before the tunnel was ready. However, one author who wrote about the escape notes that earlier, “US airmen watched out for patrolling Germans during the tunnel’s construction.” Marginal, but participation nonetheless.
  • I accept service completely on the fact that Hilts was entirely a fabrication, from his cowboy insouciance to his baseball and glove. But I should point out that if you paid close attention to the film, you’d see that the three Americans depicted as being in the camp were not central to the escape effort, except for Hendley — and he had the fig leaf of technically being in the Canadian air force and therefore not officially an “American.” The fictional Hilts was a complete outsider, playing no part in the X organization. The essentially true story of the escape planned and executed by British officers with a few allied pilots thrown in was clearly told.
  • While the entire story was fictionalized, there was at least some verisimilitude between the central character, Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, and his real-life counterpart, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. Their stories are a fairly close match. Bushell had been captured and tortured by the Gestapo after a previous escape, and had developed an intense hatred of the Nazis by the time he became Big X in Stalag Luft III.
  • The central facts of the plan — the simultaneous digging of three tunnels, named Tom, Dick and Harry, and the discovery of Tom by the Germans — are accurately depicted.
  • The grimness of the experience was there, despite the veneer of jazzed-up adventure. There was Danny’s terror in the tunnel, Ives’ eventually suicidal despair, and the central fact of the murder of the 50 — the men to whom the film is dedicated — by the Gestapo. No reasonable person watching this would conclude that being a POW was fun.

    Ashley-Pitt demonstrates how they'll get rid of the dirt.

    Ashley-Pitt demonstrates how they’ll get rid of the dirt.

  • The film showed only three men making it all the way to freedom, and that’s how many did — even though in the film one of them was Australian, like Mr. Royle, and that was not accurate. (Two were Norwegian and one was Dutch, although all three had flown for the RAF.)
  • The role that Mr. Royle played — distributing dirt from the tunnels by releasing it from bags within his trousers and mixing it into the compound dirt with his feet — was clearly depicted. Although in the film that is most closely associated with naval officer Ashley-Pitt, played by David McCallum (whom our generation would later know as Illya Kuryakin), you see that a large number of men participated in that part of the operation. (And frankly, that’s always been one of the most amazing aspects of the escape to me. It’s astounding that they got away with it. How did the guards not notice something on that scale?)
As a kid, I had this poster on the wall in my room.

As a kid, I had this poster on the wall in my room.

In the end, it’s hard to defend the role Steve McQueen played in the film — except in this convoluted way: His jump over that fence at the Swiss border on that German motorcycle was the most exciting thing I had ever seen in a film to that point in my life, and the one thing that solidified it as my favorite. Yes, it was a complete lie. But it engaged my lifelong interest in the escape, and caused me to read books about the true story later in life.

So in that regard it served a purpose. Although I can easily see how a man who suffered through the actual experience would find it irritating in the extreme, and I’m sorry for that. He certainly has the facts, and all the moral weight, on his side. I just thought I’d speak up for something that meant a lot to me as a kid.

23 thoughts on “In defense of “The Great Escape”

  1. Pat

    I loved the film, too, but I haven’t seen it lately. It was almost like their gall kept them sane and sufficiently desperate at the same time.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    The little bits and pieces that are available out there on the Web can be confusing. Above, I willing relegated any Americans involved in the escape attempt to marginal roles, acting as lookouts early on (before they were transferred out) for the Brits and others doing the real work.

    But Wikipedia reminds me of the involvement of David M. Jones, a fascinating American hero. Jones had flown in the Doolittle Raid in 1942 (meaning that he trained for that in Columbia, I suppose), survived it after bailing out over China, and later ended up at Stalag Luft III after being shot down in North Africa. He would survive the war and rise to become a major general in the Air Force.

    His role was far from marginal, in fact far more central than that of the fictional Hilts. He was selected to serve on the escape committee, and “led the digging team on tunnel ‘Harry’.”

    I wish I knew more about that. I went to a book I have on the subject, The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III by Tim Carroll, which has more than a page of material about Jones. Unfortunately, most of it is about his experience as a Doolittle Raider, and regarding his activities at the Stalag it says only that he “would become one of the hardest and most persistent diggers in Stalag Luft III.” It doesn’t even say he was involved in this particular escape plot, much less leading the digging on “Harry.”

    Would it even be possible to sort all this out at this date? The only surviving escapee is 95-year-old Dick Churchill — and how much would he know? The escape involved hundreds of men, and how much of the plan or of the roles of others would each man know?

    The men who knew the most — Roger Bushell and the rest — were murdered by the Gestapo after being recaptured.

    It’s weird that something so recent — less than a decade before I was born — would be so opaque. Kind of makes you wonder about the reliability of history overall…

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    Okay, so you really liked the film growing up. Nice try defending the Hollywood whitewash. I’m with your daughter: this sort of upbeat, madcap take makes a very serious, dangerous, life-scarring business into entertainment for little kids, who will grow up to be strong advocates of military action, because deep down, they believe it’s going to be Steve McQueen on a motorbike with a sprightly soundtrack.
    Real war isn’t Hogan’s Heroes or M*A*S*H (the TV show).

      1. Barry

        Yes, I think she can be more condescending and insulting. She’s a pro at it.

        I love The Great Escape. I own a Blu-ray copy of it and watched it again this summer. (My grandfather, a WW 2 vet who served In the Battle of the Rhineland as a member of the Ninth US Army in Central Europe also loved the movie ).

        Back to the movie, I thought the music was perfect for the situation because it was a direct reflection on the attitude and approach of Hilts in the movie, especially when he was put in the cooler.

        Like many actors of the time, quite a few of them were actually veterans. James Garner and Charles Bronson were both wounded during their military service.

        Donald Pleasence was a member of the Royal Air Force and had been shot down and spent a year as a prisoner of war in Germany.

        1. Barry

          Edit- BTW

          McQueen served 3 years n the Marines (at one point spending 41 days in a brig when he was late returning from shore leave) – but ultimately chosen for an honor guard and eventually honorably discharged and was credited for saving 5 other Marines during an exercise.

            1. Barry

              I doubt it. But who knows.

              It was a movie after all.

              Casablanca wasn’t reality either, yet it has reality elements to it.

  4. Jennifer Fitz

    No comments on Great Escape, but I’m reminded of my thoughts on The Sound of Music after reading the autobiography of the real family. I was struck by how the screenwriters managed to completely change the story, but still capture the essence of the mounting pressure and danger the family was facing. Usually it irritates me when a film veers so sharply from its source, but in that case, it didn’t bother me. No good reason, I guess I was just feeling sympathetic about what the genre calls for, and why the screenwriters might decide to make the changes they did.

      1. Bryan Caskey is reporting that “brown-paper packages tied up with strings” were actually not among some of Maria’s favorite things.

  5. Burl Burlingame

    Some years ago I and my teenage daughter saw both “the Great Escape” and “Bullitt” in a retro theater screening. She wondered about the tone of “Escape” also. My explanation was that movies aren’t reality, they are impressions, and that music in movies is mean to underscore emotion, and that the people making such films in the 1960s were mostly veterans who knew that the most effective propaganda is ridicule.

    Bram van dee Stok, the Dutch chap who escaped into Spain, settled in Hawaii and I got know him pretty well. He still had his hand-forged identity papers, and they looked amazingly real. I asked him about the movie, and he said it was “an entertainment” that telescoped events and people, but also that without the movie, the public would know nothing about the escape.

    BTW, “Bullitt” doesn’t hold up. Except for the car chase, it’s awful.

    1. Barry

      So true.

      I just assumed adults didn’t watch reality based movies and assume everything they observed on screen was real – or very close to real. I guess one shouldn’t assume.

      Of course some movies try to get as close to the truth as possible, but even the great majority of those efforts have flaws and holes in them that are created by the director, or the budget constraints of the producers.

      Just imagine how odd the scenes in The Great Escape would have been had the music score been super serious when Steve McQueen’s character was trying to be “Mr. Cool” as he was sent back time and time again the “brig” in those scenes. That would have been goofy- and poor filmmaking.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      You may be right about “Bullitt,” but it sure was cool at the time.

      Cool enough that when I first got a Blu-Ray player, and went out to buy some Blu-Rays to play on it, “Bullitt” was one of the first five or so movies I bought. (Partly because it was on sale, I’ll admit.)

      By the way, I generally prefer to watch regular DVDs. Maybe it’s just my TV, but all the Blu-Rays seem to have this flaw: The dialogue is so low that you can hardly hear it, and the sound effects are so loud that they rattle the windows. Makes it hard to watch…

    3. Brad Warthen Post author

      One thing that’s hard to explain to our kids, this particular film aside, is just why movies were so uniformly awful in the 50s and 60s. Or early 60s anyway (before “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Graduate).

      It’s just amazing to me that the American public kept buying tickets when the acting, the direction and almost everything else about movies in that era were just so horrible…

      1. Barry

        I disagree with you -and so did the American public.

        I think there are boatloads of great movies from that era.

        Saw a great one just last week. Witness For The Prosecution is one of my all time favorites.

  6. Brad Warthen Post author

    During this discussion, I’ve been thinking: I’d really like to see a serious, completely factual film retelling of the story of the escape.

    When you read about the actual guys and what they really did, it’s fascinating enough. For me, anyway.

    Maybe it wouldn’t be very commercial, but I’d be very interested to see it…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I mean, seriously — which is more interesting: The fictional Hilts, or the real-life David Jones, who had been one of the Doolittle Raiders?

      And why turn Roger Bushell into Roger Bartlett? The real man was interesting enough.

      There would be problems. For instance, the film shows us how Barlett and McDonald are captured, and it’s very dramatic. Do we even know the particulars of how Bushell was captured? Probably not. He was killed in cold blood, and the Germans who caught and shot him probably weren’t big on telling the story once the war was over.

      But why not tell the true story of Bram van dee Stok’s escape through Spain, instead of the fictional Sedgwick’s escape through Spain? Near as I can tell, it’s just as interesting. You’d have to lose the corny way Sedgwick hooked up with the Resistance, but I’d rather see how van dee Stok actually DID contact the Resistance…

  7. Colf

    Great post. I agree that it was absolutely the prerogative of Mr. Royle to despise the film because of his part in the escape but I also agree with your initial observation – that films were different back then.

    If taken as a fictionalized film based on true events rather than a historical document I feel that this is still a terrific adventure movie. There were many times when Hollywood would insert Americans where there weren’t any – see 1945’s Objective Burma as an example. The Brittish actually banned that movie as they found it so insulting.

    Also, regarding the Great Escape – there was a TV film in the 1980s “The Great Escape II” which tried to retell the story in a more realistic way. Not a great film and not easy to come by. I tracked down a copy on iOffer years ago. The Great Escape II was not a sequel as the title would suggest. The first half of the film re-tells the escape itself using the real life names of the escapees, the second half is when we see the reality and aftermath of the escape – which does change one’s perspective.

    But do I want to see this stark reality as an entertainment? I wholeheartedly agree that a film like The Great Escape couldn’t/shouldn’t be made today but taken as a product of it’s time it is a great film – and will probably lead more people to research and learn about the true events than would ever do so otherwise – certainly more than the TV film would.

    I can remember a friend who was pursuing a masters in history becoming irate and incensed at me for mentioning the film “The Odessa File” because it was fictionalized and not true history – when apparently the film is what led to the capture of the real Nazi Eduard Roschmann who was the villain fictionalized in the film. Unfortunately the ultimate outcome of that story is somewhat convoluted…

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