The Great Escape is a 1963 American epic war film based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 nonfiction book of the same name, a firsthand account of the mass escape by British Commonwealth prisoners of war from German POW camp Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Żagań, Poland), in the province of Lower Silesia, Nazi Germany.
The film was based on real events but deviated significantly from the historical record, depicting a heavily fictionalised version of the escape, including numerous compromises – such as featuring Americans among the escapees – in order to boost its commercial appeal.
It was followed by The Great Escape II: The Untold Story in 1988 and a documentary, The Coolest Guy Move Ever: Return to the Scene of The Great Escape, in 2018.
In 1942, having expended enormous resources on recapturing escaped Allied POWs, the German armed forces move the most determined to a new, high-security prisoner-of-war camp supervised by Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger.
Prisoners try to escape almost immediately; USAAF Captain Virgil Hilts and Scottish RAF Flying Officer Archibald “Archie” Ives are both imprisoned in isolation in the “cooler” (solitary confinement block).
The prisoners’ escape committee mount an audacious plan to tunnel out of the camp and break out 250 men, not only to escape, but so that as many troops and resources as possible will be wasted on finding POW’s. Led by RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, “Big X”, and senior British officer Group Captain Ramsey, the men organise into teams. American Flight Lieutenant Robert Hendley is “the scrounger” and blackmailer, who finds anything from a camera to identity cards. Australian Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick, “the manufacturer”, makes tools like picks and bellows for pumping air into the tunnels. Flight Lieutenants Danny Velinski and William “Willie” Dickes are “the tunnel kings” in charge of digging. Flight Lieutenant Andrew MacDonald, Bartlett’s second-in-command, gathers and provides intelligence. Lieutenant Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt of the Royal Navy, devises a method of dispersing soil from the tunnels under the guards’ noses. Flight Lieutenant Griffith is “the tailor”, creating civilian outfits from scavenged cloth. Forgery is handled by Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe. The prisoners work on three tunnels simultaneously, calling them “Tom”, “Dick”, and “Harry”. The work noise is covered by the prisoner choir led by Flt. Lt. Dennis Cavendish, the surveyor.
Hilts and Ives escape again, in vain. When Hilts is released from the cooler, Bartlett asks him to escape, scout the area immediately surrounding the camp and allow himself to be recaptured; Hilts refuses. Meanwhile, Hendley forms a friendship with German guard Werner, exploiting it to obtain travel documents and other needed items. Soon, Bartlett orders “Dick” and “Harry” sealed off: “Tom” is closest to completion. The prisoners are enjoying a 4th of July celebration arranged by the Americans when the guards discover “Tom”. Despondent, Ives frantically climbs the barbed wire fence and is shot dead.
The prisoners switch their efforts to “Harry”, and Hilts agrees to provide reconnaissance from outside the camp. The information he brings back is used to create maps to guide the escapees. Blythe discovers that he is going blind due to progressive myopia; Hendley takes it upon himself to be Blythe’s guide in the escape. The last part of the tunnel is completed on the scheduled night, but it proves to be twenty feet short of the woods due to faulty surveying. Knowing there are no other options, Bartlett orders the escape to go ahead. The claustrophobic Danny nearly refuses to go, but is helped along by Willie. Seventy-six prisoners get away, aided by an air-raid blackout. The escape is discovered when Griffith impatiently exits the tunnel in view of a guard.
All 76 POW’s flee through various parts of the Third Reich. Danny and Willie steal a rowboat and proceed downstream to a major port, where they board a Swedish merchant ship. Sedgwick steals a bicycle, then rides hidden on a train to France, where the French Resistance get him to Spain and safety. Cavendish hitches a ride in a truck but is delivered to the authorities, discovering many other fellow prisoners recaptured. Hendley and Blythe steal a plane to fly over the Swiss border, but the engine fails, and they crash-land. Blythe is shot by German soldiers. As he dies, he thanks Hendley for getting him out. Hendley is recaptured. Hilts steals a motorcycle at a checkpoint, jumping a series of barbed-wire fences at the German-Swiss border to escape from German soldiers; he lands in the wire of the second fence and is recaptured. While waiting to pass through a Gestapo checkpoint at a railway station, Bartlett is recognised by Kuhn, a Gestapo agent; Ashley-Pitt sacrifices himself by killing Kuhn, then he is shot and killed. Bartlett and MacDonald slip away, but MacDonald blunders by replying in English to a suspicious Gestapo officer. MacDonald is quickly apprehended, and Bartlett is recognised and recaptured by Untersturmführer Steinach, an SS agent.
In mid-transport, prisoners in one truck, including Bartlett, MacDonald and Cavendish, are invited to stretch their legs in a field, whereupon they are all shot dead on the pretense that they were trying to escape. Hilts, Hendley and the others are returned to the camp. In all, 50 men were killed by the Gestapo, 23 survived being caught and only 3 successfully escaped, Stalag Luft III murders. Von Luger is relieved of command; Hilts goes to the cooler where he optimistically plans another escape, as he has done before.
- Steve McQueen as Captain Virgil Hilts “The Cooler King”: one of three Americans in the camp, Hilts irritates guards with frequent escape attempts and an irreverent attitude, to the point that he is regularly confined in isolation in the cooler. He has a habit of bouncing a baseball against the cooler cell wall to entertain himself, as he plans an escape attempt.
- James Garner as Flight Lieutenant Robert Hendley “The Scrounger”: a US citizen serving in an RAF Eagle Squadron. He is responsible for finding materials that will be necessary for the POWs on the outside.
- Richard Attenborough as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett “Big X”: an ambitious RAF officer, himself a veteran escaper and a survivor of torture by the Gestapo, Bartlett is the principal organiser of escapes and is known as “Big X” of the camp escape committee and mounts an audacious plan to tunnel out of the camp.
- Charles Bronson as Flight Lieutenant Danny Velinski “Tunnel King”: a Polish refugee who escaped Nazi-held Poland and went to England to join up in the fight against the Nazis. He suffers from claustrophobia and is fearful of tunnel collapses, primarily coming from his previous experience digging 17 escape tunnels.
- James Donald as Group Captain Ramsey “The SBO”: the Senior British Officer and de facto commanding officer of the prisoners, he serves as an intermediary between the POWs and the Germans. Due to his disability (he walks with a cane), he is unable to participate in the escape.
- Donald Pleasence as Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe “The Forger”: a mild-mannered and good-natured man with a love of bird-watching.
- James Coburn as Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick “The Manufacturer”: an Australian officer who constructs objects necessary to implement the escape.
- Hannes Messemer as Oberst von Luger “The Kommandant”: the Commandant of the camp and a senior Luftwaffe officer, von Luger is very civil with the POWs, and is openly anti-Nazi, especially embittered with the SS and Gestapo. When Gestapo agent Kuhn orders that Bartlett receive strict confinement, von Luger disregards the command with complete contempt, saying that Allied prisoners of war are the Luftwaffe’s responsibility.
- David McCallum as Lieutenant-Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt “Dispersal”: a Fleet Air Arm officer who finds an ingenious way to get rid of the dirt being brought up from the tunnels.
- Gordon Jackson as Flight Lieutenant Andrew MacDonald “Intelligence”: Bartlett’s second-in-command in planning the escape.
- John Leyton as Flight Lieutenant William “Willie” Dickes “Tunnel King”: Danny’s best friend, who seeks to encourage Danny during his struggles with claustrophobia.
- Angus Lennie as Flying Officer Archibald “Archie” Ives “The Mole”: a Scottish airman who has an intense desire to escape, leading him to the precipice of paranoia.
- Nigel Stock as Flight Lieutenant Dennis Cavendish “The Surveyor”: a Flight Lieutenant who has an important duty for the building of the tunnel.
- Robert Graf as Werner “The Ferret”: a young, naive guard, with whom Hendley forms a friendship, which he exploits as a means of obtaining his private documents, and then blackmails to get hold of other items needed for the escape.
- Jud Taylor as Second Lieutenant Goff: the third American in the camp.
- Harry Riebauer as Stabsfeldwebel Strachwitz, the senior NCO amongst the German guards.
- William Russell as Sorren
- Robert Freitag as Hauptmann Posen
- Lawrence Montaigne as Haynes “Diversions”
- Robert Desmond as Griffith “Tailor”
- Til Kiwe as Frick
- Heinz Weiss as Kramer
- Tom Adams as Dai Nimmo “Diversions”
- Ulrich Beiger as Preissen: a high-ranking Gestapo official, and an ardent Nazi. He has a condescending attitude and is the one who brings the captured Bartlett to the camp. He has disdain for von Luger and the Luftwaffe’s honourable treatment of the prisoners, and believes the camp should be brought under the jurisdiction of the SS – the Gestapo in particular.
- Hans Reiser as Kuhn: a Gestapo agent and associate of Preissen. He accompanies Preissen when they bring the captured Bartlett to the camp. An ardent Nazi, he orders von Luger that Bartlett be kept under the most restrictive permanent security confinement, which von Luger refuses to do. Kuhn warns Bartlett that if he escapes again, he will be shot.
- George Mikell as SS Obersturmführer Dietrich: one of the SS agents who had Bartlett transferred to the camp.
- Karl-Otto Alberty as SS Untersturmführer Steinach: one of the SS agents who had Bartlett transferred to the camp.
- In 1963, the Mirisch brothers worked with United Artists to adapt the book to produce the film adaptation.
- The story was adapted by James Clavell, W. R. Burnett, and Walter Newman from Paul Brickhill’s book The Great Escape.
- Brickhill had been a prisoner at Stalag Luft III during World War II.
- In the book, Brickhill noted he had been a very minor member of the X Organisation, one of the “stooges” who monitored German movements in the POW compound.
- The book was previously adapted as a live TV production, screened by NBC as an episode of The Philco Television Playhouse on 27 January 1951.
- The live broadcast was praised for engineering an ingenious set design for the live broadcast, including creating the illusion of tunnels.
- The film became very popular and emerged as one of the highest-grossing films of the year.
- Steve McQueen won the award for Best Actor at the Moscow International Film Festival.
- It is now considered a classic.
- The Great Escape is also notable for its motorcycle chase scene and famous jump scene, which is considered one of the best stunts ever performed.
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): John Sturges.
- Producer(s): John Sturges.
- Writer(s): James Clavell and W.R. Burnett.
- Music: Elmer Bernstein.
- Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp.
- Editor(s): Ferris Webster.
- Production: The Mirisch Company.
- Distributor(s): United Artists.
- Release Date: 20 June 1963 (London premiere, UK) and 04 July 1964 (US).
- Running Time: 172 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English, German, and French.