The Great Escape is a 1963 American World War II epic film based on an escape by British Commonwealth prisoners of war from a German POW camp during World War II, starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough, filmed in Panavision.
The film is based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book of the same name, a non-fiction first-hand account of the mass escape from Stalag Luft III in Sagan (now Żagań, Poland), in the province of Lower Silesia, Nazi Germany. The characters are based on real men, and in some cases are composites of several men. However, many details of the actual escape attempt were changed for the film, and the role of American personnel in both the planning and the escape was largely fabricated. The Great Escape was made by the Mirisch Company, released by United Artists, and produced and directed by John Sturges.
The film had its Royal World Premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square in London’s West End on 20 June 1963.
In 1943, having expended enormous resources on recapturing escaped AlliedPOWs, the Germans move those POWs most determined to escape to a new, high-security prisoner of war camp. The commandant, Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger, tells the senior British officer, Group Captain Ramsey, “There will be no escapes from this camp.” Von Luger points out the various features of the new camp designed to prevent escape, as well as the advantages that the prisoners will receive as incentive not to try. After several failed attempts on the first day, the POWs settle into life at the camp.
Meanwhile, Gestapo agents Kuhn and Preissen and SS Lieutenant Dietrich bring RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett to the camp. Known as “Big X”, Bartlett is introduced as the principal escape organiser. As Kuhn leaves, he warns Bartlett that if he escapes again, he will be shot. However, locked up with “every escape artist in Germany”, he immediately plans the greatest escape ever attempted, with tunnels to break out 250 prisoners, so that as many troops and resources as possible will be wasted looking for escapees rather than used at the front line.
The POWs organise themselves into teams. Flight Lieutenant Robert Hendley is “the scrounger” who finds needed materials, from a camera to clothes and identity cards. Australian Flying OfficerLouis Sedgwick, “the manufacturer,” makes tools like picks for digging and bellows for pumping air into the tunnels. Flight Lieutenants Danny Valinski and William “Willie” Dickes are “the tunnel kings” in charge of the digging. Flight Lieutenant Andrew MacDonald acts as intelligence provider and Bartlett’s second-in-command. Lieutenant Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt of the Royal Navy devises a method of spreading soil from the tunnels over the camp, under the guards’ noses. Flight Lieutenant Griffith acts as “the tailor”, creating civilian outfits from scavenged cloth. Forgery is handled by Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe, who becomes nearly blind due to progressive myopia caused by intricate work by candlelight; Hendley takes it upon himself to be Blythe’s guide in the escape. The prisoners work on three tunnels simultaneously, calling them “Tom”, “Dick”, and “Harry”.
USAAF Captain Virgil Hilts, the “Cooler King”, irritates guards with frequent escape attempts and general irreverence. Hilts and RAF Flying Officer Archibald Ives conceive an escape attempt through a short tunnel at a blind spot right near the edge of the camp, a proposal which is accepted by Bartlett on the grounds that vetoing every independent escape attempt would raise suspicion of the collective escape attempt being planned. However, Hilts and Ives are caught and returned to the ‘cooler’. Upon release from the cooler, Bartlett requests that Hilts use his next escape attempt as an opportunity for a reconnaissance of the area immediately surrounding the camp; Hilts turns down Bartlett’s request but assists the prisoners as a scrounger. Meanwhile, Hendley forms a friendship with German guard Werner, which he exploits to obtain documents, and then as blackmail to get hold of other items for the escape. Soon, Bartlett orders “Dick” and “Harry” to be shut down, as “Tom” is closest to completion.
While the POWs enjoy a 4th of Julycelebration arranged by the three Americans, the guards discover “Tom”. The mood drops to despair and Ives, who has been badly affected by his time in the cooler, walks in a daze to the barbed wire that surrounds the camp and climbs it in view of guards; Hilts runs to stop him but is too late, and Ives is shot dead near the top of the fence. The prisoners switch their efforts to “Harry”, and Hilts agrees to reconnoiter outside the camp and allow himself to be recaptured. The information he brings back is used to create maps to guide the escapees.
The last part of the tunnel is completed on the scheduled night, but it proves to be twenty feet short of the woods. Knowing there are no other options, Bartlett orders the escape to go ahead, and Hilts improvises a signal system to allow them to exit the tunnel between sweeps of the guards on patrol. The claustrophobic Danny, having spent much of his time in the tunnel and barely surviving multiple cave-ins, nearly refuses to go, but is helped along by Willie. 76 prisoners manage to escape: however, Griffith impatiently exits the tunnel in view of the guards and the escape is discovered.
After attempts to reach neutral Switzerland, Sweden, or Spain, almost all the POWs are recaptured or killed. Hendley and Blythe steal a plane to fly over the Swiss border, but the engine fails and they crash-land. Soldiers arrive and Blythe, his eyesight damaged, stands and is shot. Hendley surrenders as Blythe dies.
When Bartlett is identified in a crowded railway station by Gestapo agent Kuhn, Ashley-Pitt overpowers and shoots him with his own gun, but is killed by soldiers while attempting to escape. The resulting confusion allows Bartlett and MacDonald to slip away, but they are later caught while boarding a bus after MacDonald blunders by replying to a suspicious Gestapo agent who wishes them “Good luck” in English. MacDonald is quickly apprehended, but Bartlett manages to temporarily escape, until he is recognised and arrested by SS
Lieutenant Steinach. Hilts steals a motorcycle and is pursued by German soldiers, jumps a first-line barbed wire fence at the German-Swiss border and drives on to the Neutral Zone, but becomes entangled in the second line of the barbed fence and is captured.
Three truckloads of recaptured POWs are driven down a country road and split off in three directions. One truck, containing Bartlett, MacDonald, Cavendish, Haynes, and others, stops in a field and the POWs are told to get out and “stretch their legs”. They are shot dead under the pretense that they were trying to escape. In all, 50 escapees are murdered; Hendley and nine others are returned to the camp. Von Luger is relieved of command of the camp by SS Lieutenant Steinach for having failed to prevent the breakout. It is heavily implied that he will be executed.
Only three POWs make it to safety: Danny and Willie steal a rowboat and proceed downriver to the
Baltic coast, where they sneak aboard a Swedish merchant ship, while Sedgwick slips through the countryside on a stolen bicycle before hiding aboard a freight train to France, where he is guided by the Resistance into Spain. Hilts is returned to the camp alone in handcuffs and taken back to the cooler – ironically just as Von Luger is relieved of his command. Lieutenant Goff, one of the Americans, fetches Hilts’s baseball and glove and throws them to him when Hilts and his guards pass by. The guard locks him in his cell and walks away, but momentarily pauses when he hears the familiar sound of Hilts bouncing his baseball against a cell wall.
- Steve McQueen as Capt. Virgil Hilts, the “Cooler King”
- James Garner as Flt. Lt. Robert Hendley, the “Scrounger”
- Richard Attenborough as Sqn. Ldr. Roger Bartlett, “Big X“
- James Donald as Gp. Capt. Ramsey, the Senior British Officer (SBO)
- Charles Bronson as Flt. Lt. Danny Velinski, the “Tunnel King”
- Donald Pleasence as Flt. Lt. Colin Blythe, the “Forger”
- James Coburn as Fg. Off. Louis Sedgwick, the “Manufacturer”
- Hannes Messemer as Oberst(Colonel) von Luger, the Kommandant
- David McCallum as Lt. Cmdr. Eric Ashley-Pitt, “Dispersal”
- Gordon Jackson as Flt. Lt. Andrew MacDonald, “Intelligence”
- John Leyton as Flt. Lt. William Dickes, the “Tunnel King”
- Angus Lennie as Fg. Off. Archibald Ives, the “Mole”
- Nigel Stock as Flt. Lt. Dennis Cavendish, the “Surveyor”
- Robert Graf as Werner, the “Ferret”
- Jud Taylor as 2nd Lt. Goff
- Hans Reiser as Kuhn (Gestapo)
- Harry Riebauer as Stabsfeldwebel(Sargeant) Strachwitz
- William Russell as Sorren
- Robert Freitag as Hauptmann(Captain) Posen
- Ulrich Beiger as Preissen
- George Mikell as SS ObersturmführerDietrich
- Lawrence Montaigne as Haynes, “Diversions”
- Robert Desmond as Griffith, “Tailor”
- Til Kiwe as Frick
- Heinz Weiss as Kramer
- Tom Adams as Dai Nimmo, “Diversions”
- Karl-Otto Alberty as SS Untersturmführer Steinach
- Michael Paryla as SS Officer on train (uncredited)