John Sturges - The Great Escape
Credit: United Artists/Mirisch Company/Criterion Collection
by Conor Truax Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

The Great Escape — John Sturges

July 19, 2023

In the midst of the World War Two, Australian journalist Paul Brickhill was bored by reality; to him, war fever was a case of major hysteria, and despite his advancement from stuttering cadet journalist to sub-editor at a regional imprint, the monotonous prospects of his job breathed enough life for the Dodo to fly. The shock invasion of France was enough to induce him into the coma of adventure, and soon he found himself flying airplanes over Northern Africa for the Royal Australian air force. This was March 1941. He was 34. In March 1943, he will be shot down over Tunisia and taken as a prisoner of war. Flown to Italy, then sent by train to Germany, he is held at the Dulag Luft for a month before being sent to Stalag Luft III, a POW camp run by the Luftwaffe, 150 km southeast of Berlin. He is rounded up with mostly commonwealth prisoners, all of whom have a similar goal: to escape the reality enclosing upon them.

At Stalag, working beside 600 other men, Brickhill assists in the construction of one of three underground tunnels that was designed for escape. Far from boredom, Brickill’s claustrophobia prevents him from attempting to escape alongside the 77 who made it; though like all who escape death, they would only do so temporarily. At word of the execution of 50 of the men, Brickhill resolves to preserve their legacy, and in turn, take a French leave from the confines of the life he’d left when he fell into rhythm with the tune of war.

The result was a book called The Great Escape, which four years later became a major motion picture directed by John Sturges, and starring future Hollywood icons Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, and others. Now considered a Hollywood classic, The Great Escape celebrated the 60th anniversary of its release in  July of this year. Somewhere, a Dodo bird is flying, but please, don’t be fooled: The Great Escape is an American film about largely British endeavors, with baseball mitts and free-flying flags on the Fourth of July appended to the corpse of one man’s perspective. Let me correct myself: The Great Escape is more than a film, because for many, it was the first palatable exposure to a conflict that ended the world that came before it, and ushered in the new one, born from the violent recourse of its precedent.

At the outset of The Great Escape, onscreen text reads: “This is a true story. Although characters are composites of real men, and time and place have been compressed, every detail of the escape is the way it really happened.” In the skeptical hyperreality of our simulated world, it’s almost shocking for a film to begin with a proclamation so bold and arrogant, but with its success, The Great Escape indeed claimed command over reality. With it’s goofy humor, jovial Bernsteinian score, and cool McQueen swagger, the film ropes in audiences with the appeal of its extreme circumstance; in death, the glory sown by the dead (The Men of the War) is reaped by the living (the audience) from the cinematic stakes made fertile by very real sacrifice.

When it was released in 1963, The Great Escape suffered some harsh initial reviews from critics. In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote: “I’ve no way of proving that a few of the wilder episodes in this over-long melodrama, which opened yesterday at the DeMille and Coronet, are so far beyond plausibility that they could not have happened anyplace. And since I’ve seen most of them in other pictures about cheeky prisoners-of-war — three or four in the past year — I must assume that they are derived from common lore. But nobody is going to con me — at least not the director, John Sturges — into believing that the spirit of defiance in any prisoner-of-war camp anywhere was as arrogant, romantic and Rover Boyish as it is made to appear in this film.” This writer’s own viewing experience was similar. We begin in a German POW camp, with a cast of grounded airmen prancing around a jail in the woods. Steve McQueen snarls and surveys the campus; in one hilarious turn, a prisoner makes mention of having measured distances on the grounds within their first walk-around. Almost laughably, the prisoners of war are reduced to schoolboys on summer vacation at sleepaway camp. They all have, as Crowther puts it, a Rover Boyish demeanor — juvenile, adventurous, pranking, and flirtatious — that seems at total odds with their context.

The irony of Crowther’s criticisms, and of mine, is that these are the least contentious points of fact that paint the reality of the situation. By all accounts, Stalag Luft III was run like a summer camp, or a college: prisoners earned degrees in languages, engineering, and law, and built a theater to put on bi-weekly performances of all the chicest West End Shows. Some prisoners even broadcast a radio station called KRGY, while others published two independent newspapers four times weekly. All of these facts, and their depiction, makes one wonder: why even try to escape? In many ways, the prisoners appear in better spirits than their captors. At one juncture, the Kommandant  (Hannes Messemer) says solemnly to Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald): “You and I are both grounded for the rest of the war.”

But escape they must, by allegiance to their country, and so the men go about digging three enormous tunnels simultaneously in a race to get-to-the-treeline first. In The Great Escape, the most developed tunnel in the camp is discovered during moonshined Fourth of July celebrations, which most certainly did not happen, because in reality most American prisoners had already been transferred out of the camp by that time of the year. In fact, the actual escape did not occur in the summer; it occurred in March of 1944, one year after Brickhill was shot down and three years after he resolved to escape the harsh banality of his untextured everyday, only to find himself thirty feet underground, traversing over 100 meters of tunnel measuring two square feet.

In The Great Escape, there is no clear sense of time; ironically, the film is largely indebted to the pre-war tradition of the movement image — films identified by Deleuze as being concerned with perception, affection, and action — rather than the time image — concerned with optical and acoustic signs of introspection — whose introspective melody was inspired by the atrocities writ large during the war. At the camp, it is always sort-of-summer, even with Hilts’ (Steven McQueen) months-long stays in solitary confinement. And, in abstracting this detail, the film scrapes away the superficial, and incidentally, the soul of the film.

In reality, the camp was covered in snow during the escape, which made it harder to dig tunnels through frozen ground, to dispose inconspicuously of the sand that burned harshly, and to cover the traces imprinted like memories on the ground. More saliently, Sturges’ abstraction of time creates an environment absent of memory, or contemplation; the result is a picture that makes light of the depth of the human experience of war, and which fails to capitalize on an inherent, desperate tension so deeply resonant to the men who were shaped into the characters of The Great Escape  — fifty of them lost their lives, one after the other, after the other — trying to realize it. In the war-torn world shown in The Great Escape, there is the escape from the grating abrasion that gives life its texture. Things aren’t harsh, they’re hollow, and they’re easy to dig holes through. Death is just an alibi somewhere offscreen, far out of frame.

If anything, there is one strength of the film’s atemporality: the monotony that it captures as the sun shines, day in and out, on nothing new. This repetition is made rhythmic with the schoolboy joy of Elmer Bernstein’s score, a soundtrack which exploits military motifs in a copacetic mix with soft, humanizing brushes that makes the prisoners accessible to audiences; in the absence of our interiority that might might forward them as “complete” people, they are rendered as blank slates of projected glory. As the film’s introduction reads, these are composites of real men, and in the depthlessness of their perennial servitude, they are composites of you, and her, and him, and me.

By the time the fifty men are dead, they’ve already been dead for twenty years — and eighty at the time of this writing. Still, their deaths don’t feel real. Did Steve McQueen ever do the epic jump on his motorcycle, attempting to escape the Germans tailing him by leaping over one fence of barbed wire and into the next? Who knows. Well, we do. We know that he didn’t, it was Bud Ekins. Or was it? Unit director Robert Relyea said that shots were taken of McQueen and motocross champion Tim Gebbes doing the stunt, and that the final cut could have been any of the three. Maybe this doesn’t matter. It looks like McQueen, so it is McQueen, and he’ll forever be remembered for that epic jump, the jump he might not have done, because from the vantage of Sturges’ camera, it sure looks like he did it, and spectacularly at that.

By its end, The Great Escape succeeds at the distinctly American feat of dressing a pyrrhic victory as a triumph. Men died, and for what? Men went to war, and why? To fight for new realities, his or hers, ours or theirs, and of course, they won, or rather, we did. Brickhill climbed out of his cubicle and into a fighter jet, and he crashed into a scorched earth so that he could design a new world once again, one full of excitement and victory and its own history to tell. Because The Great Escape is full of lies; this is not the way “it really happened.” But in the contour of these lies sits the truth of the story, whose essence was captured by Brickhill, a man who was there, compressed by claustrophobia like the character Danny Welinski (Charles Bronson), a King of the Tunnel who did not take his turn out of it. Instead, he stuck around to survive the winter, and in his writing and the refractions of its heritage, created a new world filled to the brim with the truth of the resilient, recalcitrant spirit of men, tenuously gripping to a false reality that grants the victims of its compromise their own place in the glory of their own temporal destiny. That destiny is one that is shared with privilege as ours, and it’s one where the war isn’t so bad, because every car chase and gunshot plays to the tune of a sauntering song by Elmer Bernstein.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 28.