Der der, der der der der der, der der, der der der der der…

A staple of Boxing Day telly for many years now, The Great Escape is one of those films, that no matter how many times Ive seen it, if it’s on, I’ll watch it. A great big slice of escapism (clunk!) it’s a very entertaining watch, even though over the intervening 60 years or so since it was made, it has been accused of too many inaccuracies to be taken seriously by those who know about these things. Of course, the real story shouldn’t, by any means, be taken lightly, but for the purpose of this blog, I’m concentrating on film with, on occasions, one’s tongue placed firmly in one’s cheek.

We have in effect put all our rotten eggs in one basket. And we intend to watch this basket carefully.

Among the stellar cast gathered together tomake the film , were Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Coburn (with quite possibly the worst Australian accent of all time) James Garner, Donald Pleasance, Hannes Messemer, Gordon Jackson, Hans Resier, singer Johnny Remember Me’ Leyton and Angus Lennie, AKA Shughie McFee, the one-time chef in the TV soap Crossroads .

They were working from a script based on the book of the same name, from 1950 by Paul Brickhill, who was actually part of the real X Organisation at the real Stalag Luft III camp. The book relates the story of the mass escape by British and Commonwealth prisoners from the POW camp which was based in Zagan in Poland. Later, for the purposes of selling the film to US audiences, the producers and director ‘upped’ the American presence. That director was John Sturges, who’s previous work included Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and The Magnificent Seven. The Great Escape was made at the Bavaria Film Studio, and it’s now iconic soundtrack was by Elmer Bernstein, whose main title is now of course often heard at England football matches.

Perhaps we’re being too clever. If we stop all the breakouts, it will convince the goons we must be tunneling.

Set in 1942, it details how the Germans had built a maximum security ‘escape proof’ camp run by Oberst Von Luger. It was full of many who had previously tried to escape on numerous occasions before and who saw it as their duty to cause as much havoc as possible, even whilst incapacitated. The escape committee was  headed by Big X, Roger Bartlett played memorably by Dickie Attenborough.

Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability

Many of the detained had special skill sets, which are to be put to use before, during and after the escape. There is Hendley the ‘scroungernicely handled by James Garner. He provides all manner of useful contraband, including identity papers which, are copied by Colin Blythe, brilliantly portrayed by the always impressive Donald Pleasance, who during the real War had spent a year in the real Stalag Luft 1, after being shot down serving with the RAF.  Digging the tunnels are the claustrophobic Danny, played by Charles Bronson, who in real life developed the same illness whilst working down mines as a child and Willie, played by John Leyton. Eric Ashley Pitt played by David McCallum comes up with the idea of redistributing the earth dug from the tunnels, back into the compound of the camp, via bags down the trouser legs of the prisoners. The technical advisor on the tunnels was Royal Canadian Air Force pilot Wally Floody who was the real-life tunnel king

The plan is to release 250 men, through tunnels into the countryside, going under the fences erected to keep them in. The three tunnels are named Tom, Dick and Harry .

Afraid this tea’s pathetic. Must have used these wretched leaves about twenty times. It’s not that I mind so much. Tea without milk is so uncivilized.

In the need of someone to scope the land beyond the fences , Big X asks Virgil Hilts, a serial escaper played by Steve McQueen to escape one more time, but then get captured, and bring back the info. required. McQueen, at first, refuses the request

Wait a minute. You aren’t seriously suggesting that if I get through the wire… and case everything out there… and don’t get picked up… to turn myself in and get thrown back in the cooler for a couple of months so you can get the information you need?

With tunnel Tom the furthest forward, all efforts are concentrated to complete it. Only, in the middle of a moonshine driven, 4th of July celebration, led by McQueen and Garner, Tom is discovered.  Ives ‘The Mole’, played by Angus Lennie, loses his mind in despair and starts to climb the barbed wire fence in despair, and is shot dead in a memorable scene.

Oh my God, they found Tom.

Hilts, seeing his little pal killed, immediately changes his mind and offers to go out and then come back with what they need to complete the job. Tunnel Harry is re-activated, and they plan to escape in the March of 1944. And so eventually, the escape begins, even though they quickly discover the end of the tunnel, is short of entering the woods. Still, seventy-six prisoners make it out, guided out in the trees, by Hilts.

Hold on to yourself, Bartlett. You’re twenty feet short.

The various escapees are then seen wandering around the streets, railways stations, and the countryside in uniforms and street clothes made by Griffith the tailor in the camp, all looking for a way out and to freedom.

Hilts is seen riding a stolen motorcycle, just keeping in front of a mob of Germans on his tail. Memorably, he attempts to jump a couple of barbed wired obstacles, coming a cropper among the second one. In real life, insurance concerns prevented Steve McQueen from making the jumps on camera, so the stunt was performed by his pal Bud Ekins,  who later revealed that McQueen did in fact do the jumps for fun, in rehearsals.

Are all American officers so ill-mannered?

Actually, I’ve often thought that one year, some clever technical person could splice a new bit of film into that section, showing a rider, who looks the spitting image of McQueen, actually clearing the second barrier and riding off to freedom. I can just see the faces now, of those sitting eating their turkey sandwiches watching in utter disbelief as he does so.

Elsewhere, Ashley Pitt sacrifices his own life to save Bartlett by being gunned down at a railway station, and Gordon Jackson’s character McDonald lets his guard down by saying ‘thank you’ in English as he later boards a bus with Bartlett and a chase ensues. Hendley and Colin try to get airborne in a small stolen airplane, but are shot down

I can’t see a bloody thing!

Forty eight of those re-captured are then shot and killed by the Gestapo by way of an example, should any other prisoners be thinking of doing the same. In the end, only three make it away. The tunnellers Danny and Willie row a boat downstream and end up on a merchant ship bound for Sweden and James Coburn as Sedgwick, still confusing all with his accent, is taken by the French Resistance to Spain.

I haven’t seen Berlin yet, from the ground or from the air, and I plan on doing both before the war is over.

Hilts is returned to a solitary confinement cooler and the hypnotic bounce of his baseball can be heard over and over again.

It looks, after all, as if you will see Berlin  before I do.

At the time of its release, some, but not all of the critics were sniffy about the film.

New York Times critic Bosley Crowther – ‘The Great Escape grinds out its tormenting story without a peek beneath the surface of any man, without a real sense of human involvement. It’s a strictly mechanical adventure with make-believe men

Time magazine – ‘The use of colour photography is unnecessary and jarring, but little else is wrong with this film. With accurate casting, a swift screenplay, and authentic German settings, Producer-Director John Sturges has created classic cinema of action. There is no sermonizing, no soul probing, no sex. The Great Escape is simply great escapism.’

Well, whatever the critics thought, the public paid no mind to most of it, as The Great Escape earned $11.7 million at the box office, from a budget of $4 million on its way to becoming one of the highest-grossing films of 1963.

Oh, and if you see Steve McQueen get away one Boxing Day, remember it was here, where you heard about that first.

The Mumper of SE5

Read The Mumper’s other weekly musings on the The Speakeasy Blog page




THE SPEAKEASY Volume Three by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)

Illustrations by Lewis Wharton

Foreword by Eddie Piller

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The Speakeasy Volume 3 by Mark Baxter, Bax began writing for the The Speakeasy on the Art Gallery Clothing site in 2017 & has covered various mod related subjects from music to film & clobber to art & literature.




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