The Great Escape
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The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags are used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.

For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for The Great Escape can be found here.

Two hundred and fifty POWs in a high-security, supposedly escape-proof, WWII stalag plan to escape. Led by Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), they plan to dig a series of tunnels from under the camp and out to the surrounding forest. From there, they will all disperse and, using forged documents, try to get out of Germany. The question is how many will actually make it.

The Great Escape is based on a 1950 novel of the same name by Australian writer Paul Brickhill [1916-1991].

Paul Brickhill based his story on the true events surrounding the mass escape from Stalag Luft III, a WWII German prisoner-of-war camp that housed captured air force personnel near Sagan (now Zagan), Poland, 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Berlin. Brickhill was unable to make the escape himself due to claustrophobia, but he was actively involved in implementing the plan.

American Flight Lieutenant Hendley (James Garner) watches British Flight Lieutenant Colin Bythe (Donald Pleasence) make cups of tea out of old tea leaves. He asks "What are you doing here, Colin?" Blythe gives Hendley the story about how he was shot down, after which Hendley says, "No, I mean what do you DO here?" Two meanings to Hendley's question have been suggested. One is something like "How the heck did a fragile, erudite chap like you end up here?" A more likely explanation is that Hendley was asking what Blythe was doing in a special POW camp built to hold all the best Allied escape artists. Hendley knew that Blythe wouldn't be in that particular camp if he hadn't shown some exceptional skill at escaping. Blythe's reply is, "I'm the forger."

This was quite a common method of tunnel escape. You dug a shallow tunnel and pass the soil back by hand to the chap behind you, thus traveling mole-fashion under the ground. There are several drawbacks, notably air supply. As Hilts says, you'd need air-holes or some sort of breathing-straw. Such shallow tunnels were subject to earth-falls and were all too easy to discover by seismograph. They may only have been successful in the early part of the war before the Germans got their act together. But some did get out this way.

Of the 79 escapees, 50 are recaptured by the Gestapo, taken into an open field, and executed. Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum) is gunned down in a railway station. With the help of the French Resistance, Sedgewick (James Coburn) makes it to Spain. Danny (Charles Bronson) and Willie (John Leyton) manage to board a Swedish merchant ship. Hilts (Steve McQueen) is recaptured when his motorcycle runs into a barbed wire barricade and is returned to the camp as is Hendley and the rest of those recaptured. Kommandant Von Luger (Hannes Messemer) is relieved of command and replaced. In the final scene, Lieutenant Goff (Jud Taylor) tosses a baseball and glove to Hilts as he is led back to his cell in the cooler. As the German officer locks the cell and begins to walk away, the sound of a baseball being bounced against the walls of the cell can be heard. The film ends with the caption "This picture is dedicated to the fifty." The actors of each of the main characters are then identified.

As in the movie, 79 men got out, 50 were murdered at various times and places, and three—Bergsland, Muller (both Norwegians), and van der Stok (Dutch)—made it to safety. Of the remaining 26, Langlois, Reavell-Carter, and Trent were immediately caught at the mouth of the tunnel. Armstrong, Bethell, Brodrick, Cameron, Churchill, Day, Dodge, Dowse, Dvorak, Green, James, Marshall, McDonald, Neely, Nelson, Ogilvie, Plunkett, Poynter, Royle, Shand, Thompson, Tonder, and van Wymeersch were recaptured later but survived.

Tim Carroll, in The Great Escapers, wrote that, in 2004, only seven of these men were alive. Since then, the deaths of Jimmy James, Sydney Dowse, Tony Bethell, Les Brodrick, and Michael Shand have been widely reported in the British press, which would leave Dick Churchill in Devon and Paul Royle in Australia to tell the tale.

One WW2 escape film strongly recommended by those who have seen The Great Escape is Stalag 17 (1953), in which POWs search for a traitor in their midst. In Von Ryan's Express (1965), an American POW attempts to lead British soldiers from a German camp in Italy. In Saving Private Ryan (1998), US soldiers attempt to rescue a paratrooper behind enemy lines. Three other "great escape" films include The Colditz Story (1955), The Wooden Horse (1950), and The Password Is Courage (1962). If you like WW2 films in general, you might try The Dirty Dozen (1967), in which 12 military prisoners, all with death sentences, are recruited to raid a German R&R center. Similarly, in The Guns of Navarone (1961), British and Greek soldiers attempt to destroy two powerful German guns on the island of Navarone that are preventing the escape of British troops from a neighboring island. There's The Thin Red Line (1998), which focuses on the conflict at Guadalcanal, and Idi i smotri (1985) [Come and See], a Russian film set in Byelorussia. Clint Eastwood's companion films, Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and Flags of Our Fathers (2006), portray the battle of Iwo Jima from the American viewpoint as well as the perspective of the Japanese soldiers. In The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), British soldiers attempt to blow up a bridge that they themselves built to accommodate the Burma-Siam railway. A more recent movie that uses the idea of a tunnel escape is Stephen King's The Shawshank Redemption (1994).

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