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A classic 1963 war film, directed by John Sturges and featuring a veritable All-Star Cast including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Donald Pleasance. Inspired By the true story of a mass escape from a German prison camp, by way of Paul Brickhill's (now nearly forgotten) autobiographical account.
During World War II, the Germans decided to put all the allied prisoners with a record of escaping in the same supposedly escape-proof camp, Stalag Luft III. The prisoners promptly formed an escape committee, which coordinated a mass breakout. Tricksters forged documents, suborned the guards, and acquired needed equipment, while others dug secret tunnels.
Seventy-six were able to escape, but only three made it out of Germany. The rest were recaptured, several of them at the last moment. 'Cooler King' Hilts (McQueen) was only caught after an iconic motorbike chase, which ended with him trapped on barbed wire, only inches from theoretical safety - an entirely fictitious sequence. Finally, most of the recaptured escapees were executed.
The film is largely accurate but meddling executives added an unhistorical American character, and, for security reasons, omitted all mention of the help the escapees received from outside the camp. It also contains a series of continuity errors relating to the real-life segregation of American prisoners part-way through the tunnel digging; Hilts is given a couple of lines which are references to this ( based on the book ) while he, for no explained reason, is left there. The other American prisoners do not appear, so the whole thread is meaningless in context.
The film's theme music is very well known and a favorite of English football fans (especially when playing Germany). The story goes that the supporters' club band started playing it when England went a goal behind in a match against Italy; England staged a comeback and ended up winning, and the fans adopted the tune. It's one of Elmer Bernstein's epic masterpieces.
WARNING! There are unmarked Spoilers ahead. Beware.
- The Alcatraz: The camp. The Gestapo interrogation and dungeon scenes in particular.
- All Germans Are Nazis: Averted; some of the guards are shown to be on quite friendly terms with the prisoners.
- The camp commandant is shown to not give the Nazi salute much respect. In the scene in his office with Bartlet he seems to be actively struggling to keep his visible distaste for the Gestapo and SS down to a level that won't get him arrested.
- As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Averted. The Germans are played by German actors (although they inexplicably switch to English in several scenes) and Richard Attenborough amazes everyone by speaking perfect, almost accent-free German in a scene towards the end. It didn't help his character, though. When a character doesn't speak German, or has a terrible accent, their character just isn't meant to speak German. (They even make it a plot point to let the persons with the best German skills escape first.)
- As You Know: Ives reminds Hilts that in the art of tunnel-making, the digging is not the main problem. It's the shoring up with wood and getting the dirt out.
- Badass Bookworm: Steve McQueen's character was studying chemical engineering when he joined the war. Next he's riding motorcycles and beating up Those Wacky Nazis.
- Bittersweet Ending:
- Only Sedgwick, Danny, and Willie manage to escape Nazi Germany entirely ( this is another major departure from the book, because the three who got to England were dutch and Norwegian ). Most of the others are either killed during the escape, or executed afterward. A small number (including Hilts) are recaptured and simply put back in the camp. Also, the Luftwaffe Commandant is being replaced by the Gestapo, who will probably make life more difficult for the remaining POWs. The POWs succeeded in causing the Germans to expend resources capturing them again, but fifty were murdered. It's openly asked: "Was it worth it?" and answered with: "That depends on your point of view."
- Hilts is back in the cooler bouncing a baseball against a wall, planning his next escape as he did so many times before. When the guards place Hilts back in the cooler again, you can visibly see their heads bow, and their actions half-hearted. Proving that even Mooks have emotion.
- California Doubling: Averted. At first when they scouted possible locations in California, it was difficult for them to find locations with appropriate scenery (especially trees). They gave up when it became clear that "Germany looks like Germany" and no other location would suffice.
- Look for postwar Deutsche Bundesbahn markings on the railroad rolling stock, however...
- In his book, Not So Quiet On The Set, Robert Relyea (one of the film's producers) revealed that they also ended up going to Germany over the closer California because the German officials allowed them a lot of leeway. They were allowed to essentially destroy a swath of forest to make the prison (provided they planted new trees after filming) and gave them access to an entire train and an active section of track for however long they needed it. They even provided, unprompted, a senior train official for safety and coordination.
- Cacophony Cover-Up: The prisoners loudly sing Christmas carols to mask the sounds from a workshop. Also when the tunnel is started and is necessary to break a thick piece of slate, some of the prisoners pound some stakes into the ground with mallets for their vegetable gardens (that are part of the distractions as well).
- Chekhov's Hobby: In the cooler, Hilt's tells Ives that he did a lot of motorcycle riding while in college. After the Escape, he nearly reaches Switzerland on a commandeered motorcycle.
- Crazy Enough to Work: Hilts' escape plans. Big X and the others do mention it's so crazy it might work. The first time, it fails. The second time, it works so well, Hilts got captured on purpose to bring back information Big X and the others needed.
- Composite Character: Some of the characters were based on a couple different prisoners rather than just one individual.
- Cultural Translation: Kinda. While there were Americans at the prison camp in Real Life, the breakout was primarily enacted by British and Canadian pilots flying with the RAF.
- The Dead Have Names: A list with the fifty is read at the end
- Driven to Suicide: Ives.
- During the War
- Embarrassing First Name: Don't call Hilts "Virgil."
- Good Is Not Nice: Bartlett, in part due to the The Chains of Commanding is sometimes unnecessary blunt and cold to some of the fellow escape artists under his watch. He also refuses to give due credit to a Luftwaffe that applies some professional courtesy and is milder compared to other Nazi branches.
- Heroic BSOD: Ives in the cooler, Danny having an attack of Claustrophobia in the tunnel.
- Ives suffers a 2nd one during the 4th of July celebration, which leads to his suicide.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Lt. Cmdr. "Dispersal" Ashley-Pitt at the train station, among others
- Honor Before Reason: "Colin is not a blind man as long as he's with me!!"
- Hope Spot: After most of the escapees are rounded up, the leaders try to remain upbeat and talk about the possibility of escaping again in the future. A few seconds later...
- In Memoriam: "This film is dedicated to the fifty"
- In-Series Nickname: Everyone in the main cast has an awesome nickname, like The Tunnel King and The Scrounger
- Inspired By
- In Universe Nickname: Danny is the "Tunnel King".
- Last-Name Basis: Everyone except Roger, Colin, Danny, and Willy.
- Late Arrival Spoiler: The execution of most of the recaptured escapees.
- Make It Look Like an Accident: The 50 are reported as "shot while escaping" and not like the real thing, war crimes victims. The allied prisoners are not fooled by the obvious lie and even Von Luger is ashamed by the murders.
- Meaningful Echo: "It looks, after all, as if you will see Berlin before I do"
- Military Moonshiner: Americans Hilts, Hendley, and Goff celebrate the Fourth of July by distilling some paint-peeling hooch and sharing it with the other prisoners.
- POW Camp: The entire setting.
- Punch Clock Villain: Colonel von Luger and Werner "The Ferret".
- Punishment Box: The Cooler.
- Pyrrhic Victory/Was It Really Worth It?:
Ramsey: Roger's idea was to get back at the enemy the hardest way he could, mess up the works. From what we've heard here, I think he did exactly that.
- Race Lift: Averted, save for a downplayed country lift. There were mostly British-Commonwealth prisoners in the camp and the movie reflects that. On the other hand the Americans were transferred to other camps just before the great escape but the movie has only three American characters, one of them fairly minor. American actors James Coburn and Charles Bronson (of Polish-Lithuanian ascendancy) are playing an Australian and a Pole, respectively.
- Rated "M" for Manly: Oh Hell yes.
- Reassigned to Antarctica: A reassignment to the bloody Eastern Front is mentioned as a potential and terrifying punishment for incompetent Wehrmacht guards.
- Running Gag:
- Hilts and his baseball and glove when he's in the Cooler.
- Cavendish, who yells "Alley-Oop!" before jumping into his upper bunk. He eventually falls through to the lower bunks when his bed slats are stolen to reinforce the tunnels.
- Scenery Porn: Lots of it, particularly in the post-breakout portion of the film.
- The Scrounger: James Garner's character, Hendley.
- Sequel: The 1988 Made for TV Movie The Great Escape II: The Untold Story, which stars Christopher Reeve and basically picks up where the original film left off. It's almost 100% fictional, though. It also features Donald Pleasence again, this time as a Nazi officer.
- Shown Their Work: They went to great lengths to accurately build a German POW camp. Of course, it did help that several of the actors had been prisoners of war during WW 2:
- Donald Pleasence, who had been in a German POW camp, made a few suggestions to John Sturges, who wasn't aware of that fact, and was told to keep his opinions to himself. However, when the director learned that Pleasence knew what he was talking about, he was asked for advice all the time.
- Charles Bronson had actually been a coal miner and actually was claustrophobic because of it.
- James Garner had been the scrounger for his unit in the Korean War.
- Stiff Upper Lip: Roger, Mac, Colin, Cavendish, and a lot of the British officers.
- Stock British Phrases: The British officers tend to use these.
- Tempting Fate:
Hendley: Over this range, then twenty more minutes and we've got it made!
- Those Wacky Nazis: The villains, the Gestapo. Many of the guards of the camp, ruled by the Luftwaffe are just antagonists.
- Thwarted Escape: Painfully. There are various cameos lifted out of context, which are referred to in the opening sequences of the book as having taken place elsewhere; James Coburn and Donald Pleasance have several of them including the train jump, and the attempted theft of the aircraft, although the real escapers didn't manage to start it and were caught on the ground. The lorry theft is another.
- Train Escape: A way a number of them try to escape.
- Tricksters: Everyone.
- Tunnel King: Danny and Willie are the Trope Namers. Archibald 'The Mole' Ives also qualifies.
- Worthy Opponent: Von Luger respects his prisoners as fellow soldiers and officers doing their duty and fighting for their country.
- You Have Failed Me...: Von Luger is carried off by the Gestapo and we are not told what takes place.
- Subverted in real life. His counterpart was indeed removed but survived the war and ended up testifying for the prosecution at Nuremburg.
- You Just Told Me: MacDonald tries to pass himself off as a German citizen by speaking fluent German to some SS officers. One of them says to him, "Good luck." In English. The escapee replies, "Thank you." Also in English. Oops. Bartlett's real-life counterpart is described as having been caught this way.
- Made worse by the earlier scene where the prisoners are rehearsing: Mac uses the exact same trick on one of the prisoners he tests.
- The early stages of the real plan actually involved a large number of American prisoners. Unfortunately as the tunnels progressed the Germans decided there were now enough Americans in the camp to justify giving them their own compound and transferred them all over at about the time where the film puts the July 4th celebration.