Film - The Great Escape

Great Escape

Susan Omand grabs a motorbike and heads for the Swiss border as she remembers The Great Escape and Steve McQueen...

It’s 35 years to the day since we lost one of the Hollywood greats with the death of Steve McQueen at the age of just 50. Where to start looking at the back catalogue of such a varied and prolific career though? When you ask people for their favourite Steve McQueen film you will get a huge variety of answers – Bullitt, The Magnificent Seven, Papillion, The Towering Inferno... but for me there is only one film and it was from 1963 – The Great Escape. A staple of Christmases past and present it was a household tradition when I was growing up for me and my Dad to watch it whenever we could find it on the telly.

For the (very few I hope) of you out there that don’t know the film, Steve McQueen played Virgil Hilts, an American POW with a knack of infuriating the German guards and spending so much time in solitary confinement that he earned the nickname of the Cooler King. The film itself was based on a true story about a World War 2 German Stalag, or prisoner of war camp, in 1944 and, as the title suggests, a Great Escape, where it was planned that 250 of the prisoners would get out in one night through one of three tunnels under the fence and try to get back to Allied territories. With organisation of, as expected, military precision, teams of men set about digging and shoring up tunnels whilst others set up distractions for the Germans or try to gather some of the commodities, such as civilian clothing, food, maps and papers, that the men would need once they’re on the run. Everyone works to their specialities, tunnellers, forgers, toolmakers and tailors and the plans all seem to be going well until the German guards find a hatchway under the stove of one of the huts. It was the entrance to one of the tunnels so work has to continue on a different tunnel.

It doesn’t all go to plan even then as they are beset by issues like the forger losing his eyesight, various small scale escapes failing and causing friction and a lack of transport infrastructure information, however on the appointed night for the breakout, once all the provisions have been gathered and enough papers forged before the forger goes blind, they break the surface with the tunnel they have been so carefully building only to discover that they are 20 feet short of the woods they need for cover and have to run across open ground in full view of the guards without being seen. Timing the men running between the passes of the guards, over 70 prisoners make it into the woods before the Germans discover and bring an end to the breakout.

The next morning, guards and police scour the countryside looking for the POW's and it’s every man for himself as they try to escape. Many try to move in disguise and travel by train but are captured at checkpoints, others use whatever transport they can find - boat, bicycle and two even steal a small plane. As the day progresses, most of the prisoners are recaptured and fifty of the seventy who made the escape are executed in a show of force by the Gestapo having been rounded up. Only three people definitely make it to freedom. Hilt is recaptured after one of the most famous motorbike chase scenes in movie history and is returned with the rest to the POW camp to discover the fate of his comrades before being returned to the Cooler.

No matter how many times I watch this film, there are three things that stand out for me. Firstly, the stunning cast that they managed to gather reads like a who’s who of Hollywood action heroes of the time. Nearly every one of the actors is a known name, even now. Alongside Steve McQueen we have Richard Attenborough and Charles Bronson. David McCallum, James Coburn, Donald Pleasance, James Garner, Gordon Jackson, the list just goes on and on. Even less well known names still are recognisable faces, like John Leyton, Angus Lennie and William Russell. If you tried to amass that number of actors of a similar pedigree today, the budget would be through the roof! Secondly is the story itself. Although the film is essentially a fictionalised adaptation of Paul Brickhill’s memoir, many of the characters were based on real people, the Stalag really existed and the escape was a real escape. In fact, the real life “tunnel king” from the escape was engaged as a technical advisor on the film and some ex-POW’s requested that details of how maps and tools were procured were left out of the film in case it jeopardised other POW escapes. And the three people who escaped in the film? Yes, they really did escape.

But the main standout for me is Steve McQueen himself. Having come to attention with The Magnificent Seven and with his combination of intelligence, sharp wittedness and rebelliousness as Virgil Hilts being everything the critics and the film-going public were looking for at the time, it’s easy to see why this film, probably more than any other, cemented his status as an A-list Hollywood film star and made the Cooler King into cinema’s King of Cool.

Image - IMDb