112. The Great Escape (U.S 1963)

Director: John Sturges

Starring: Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, James Donald, Gordon Jackson, Charles Bronson., Donald Pleasance, many more...

Music: Elmer Bernstein

Cinematography: Daniel L.Fapp

Screenplay: James Clavell, WR Burnett, Walter Newman

Book: Paul Brickhill

Minor Roles: Nigel Stock (Owen MD!), Angus Lennie (Shughie McFee from Crossroads!)

Fact 1: Although American prisoners were involved in the building of the tunnels, they didn't participate in the actual escape.

Fact 2: Donald Pleasance was an actual RAF prisoner of war.

Fact 3: Charles Bronson was so enamored of David McCallum's wife Jill Ireland, that he shagged her, married her and included her in many of his very terrible films!

Fact 4: Carry On star Peter Butterworth was a real-life prisoner at Stalag Luft 3.

Lie: Steve McQueen was convinced that the mock up of Stalag Luft III was in fact North West schools' favourite Welsh retreat Colomendy. He thought every day was 'own clothes day' and consequently didn't wear a uniform in the film. He fell out with director John Sturges when he insisted that Friday afternoons on the set should be 'Golden Time', and that he and his fellow actors should be allowed to bring in toys and games

In one line: 76 Allied prisoners escape German prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III; 50 are murdered.


The German high command are angered by the persistent escape attempts of a significant number of Allied prisoners and decide to "put all our rotten eggs in one basket." Roger Bartlett (Attenborough) is the head of the 'X' organisation and uses the prisoners' skills to engineer a mass breakout via three long tunnels built far below the ground. 76 make The Great Escape, but Hitler orders the execution of all those caught on enemy territory....


Following the opening titles, a bold red piece of inter-titling tells us that although some names have been changed, what we are about to see is the "true story" of the escape from Stalag Luft 3. Never has such bollocks been passed off as truth - certainly not until Matthew McConaughey's disgraceful film U571 which credits the Americans with the capture of the first German Enigma machine.

If you take away any notions of real life history, morality, fairness and the dreadful American cultural imperialism that pervades all 172 minutes, then The Great Escape is an enjoyable, exciting film that was a staple of many people's youth.

Unfortunately (if you are truly sentient), you can't.

In many ways, The Great Escape is a dreadful American travesty of a remarkable piece of British history, and is a disgraceful 'memorial' (as it claims to be - "this is for the 50") to the very brave men who were slaughtered by the Nazis.


As I say, this could have been (partly) an American story, but an administrative decision moved the American prisoners to a different part of the compound a short while before the actual escape - otherwise they would have been flying over barbed wire fences in their jeans and sand coloured suede boots.

I have  to admit that I used to love this film until my late teens when a really nutty, but well-read Republican gentleman (who usually hated the British military) pointed out that it was an 'abomination' of the true story, and that all  the Americans survived - even if they were playing Poles or Australians with really shitty accents.

He had a point.

There are some good 'bits' to be 'had' even now. Donald Pleasance is 'splendid' as gentle forger Blyth; there's some very pretty German scenery and there's a good story that makes the three hour running time whizz past.

However, it's not just the re-writing of British history that grates. There's some spectacular bad acting. Garner, normally so dependable, is OK until he has to show his reaction to the death of Blyth - it's a masterclass of ham acting and over-emoting. Coburn and Bronson are just fucking terrible with Coburn's hilarious "I'm the lifeguard!" (whilst watching Coburn shower) being a particular low-light.

Two Frenchmen celebrate the deaths of some German soldiers with vintage brandy. They don't give any to Coburn because of his shit accent and his appalling treatment of British chanteuse and celebrity spunk bucket Lyndsay de Paul.

Worst of all though is McQueen. His 'big speech' (when asked to escape and be re-captured)  to Jackson and Attenborough is the worst thing in the whole film.

"250! Just marching down the road! You're crazy! You too!" he tells Dicky and Jacko.

"Yes. We're crazy. But you're just embarrassing and a shit actor. And a cunt," they reply in unison, in a long-lost early draft of the script.

I saw a bit of The Great Escape last Sunday. I carried on watching despite missing the first hour. It tells a great story, I was still hooked and felt dirty and ashamed of myself at the end. I really wanted them to escape and though I hated McQueen, I was urging the fucker to clear that fence.

Worst of all though, when 'Intelligence Officer', Gordon 'Mr Hudson' Jackson fell into the German policeman's trap, forgot his French and said "Thank you" to the sinister German's "Good luck", I heard myself saying (out loud): "What a wanker."

I was wrong.

I was the wanker. For watching the fucking thing.

 7/10 as a fairly exciting war film; 0/10 as history.



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