The Great Escape (1963) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • Allied prisoners of war plan for several hundred of their number to escape from a German camp during World War II.

  • Based on a true story, a group of allied escape artist-type prisoners-of-war are all put in an "escape proof" camp. Their leader decides to try to take out several hundred all at once. The first half of the movie is played for comedy, as the prisoners mostly outwit their jailers to dig the escape tunnel. The second half is high adventure as they use planes, trains, and boats to get out of occupied Europe.

  • In 1942, the Germans have built what they consider an escape-proof P.O.W. camp, where they plan to house all the problem P.O.W.s (those that have made multiple escape attempts in the past). What the Germans don't realize is that they've put all the best escape minds in one location. If they can't escape, these P.O.W.s believe it is their military duty to make the enemy place as much effort into their confinement as possible to divert them from other war-related pursuits. Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Bartlett plans not just a one or two man escape at a time like most escape attempts in the past have been, but a massive escape of two hundred fifty men through a series of tunnels. If one tunnel is found, they can focus on the others. Each escapee will be provided with a complete set of forged documents and standard clothing. With their reputations preceding them, each P.O.W. is assigned a specific task in carrying out the plan. Somewhat outside of the plot are Captain Hilts and Flying Officer Ives, who spent their first thirty days in camp in the cooler together. They who are unofficially assigned as the decoys who will make more rudimentary escape attempts. They ask Hilts to make a more serious task of reconnaissance of the local town if he ever does successfully escape, which of course means his recapture to bring the information back into camp and more time in the cooler. Beyond basic logistical problems and the Germans finding out what's going on, they have potential problems in certain P.O.W.s who may become liabilities dealing with their own personal issues.

  • The Nazis, exasperated at the number of escapes from their prison camps by a relatively small number of Allied prisoners, relocate them to a high-security "escape-proof" camp to sit out the remainder of the war. Undaunted, the prisoners plan one of the most ambitious escape attempts of World War II. Based on a true story.

  • Based on a true story, this movie deals with the largest Allied escape attempt from a German P.O.W. camp during World War II. The first part of the movie focuses on the escape efforts within the camp and the process of secretly digging an escape tunnel. The second half deals with the massive effort by the German Gestapo to track down the over seventy escaped prisoners, who are at this point, throughout the Third Reich attempting to make their way to England and various neutral countries.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The year is 1943. During World War II, the Germans have built a special Stalag, or prison camp, designed to house their most troublesome prisoners of war, the ones who make repeated escape attempts. Arriving at the new camp, many of the mostly British prisoners begin immediately to assess its security and begin planning escapes. One American prisoner, Capt. Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) quickly finds a place along the fence where it was difficult for the German guards in the towers to see, and casually tosses his ever-present baseball toward the fence in order to test the Germans, and stepping over the warning wire gets a few machine-gun bullets fired at his feet. Others try different escape tactics; several hide themselves in trucks full of brush as they drive towards the gate, and two of the men even try infiltrating a group of Russian workers marching out of the camp, while two men stage a fight as a diversion. All are quickly found and rooted out, with Hilts and a Scotsman named Archibald Ives being thrown into the "cooler", a isolation cell at the far side of the camp. All this in the first 20 minutes after they arrive. Hilts and Ives become friends during their stay in the cooler.

    After the initial excitement, the POW's begin to make more cohesive plans. The ranking officer of the group, Capt. Ramsey (James Donald) has a meeting with the German Commandant, who assures him escape is impossible, and it would be in everyone's best interest if they would all accept their situation, settle down, and sit out the remainder of the war "as comfortably as possible". Ramsey must however remind the Commandant that it is the sworn duty of all the prisoners to try to escape, thus forcing the Germans to use their finite resources and manpower guarding the prisoners, or chasing them down if they succeed in escaping.

    A few hours later, SS men bring Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) to the camp, as he is a Royal Air Force officer and therefore the responsibility of the Luftwaffe, not the SS. The SS officer promises Bartlett that he will be shot if he is caught escaping again, and then leaves. Bartlett, the leader of many prior escape attempts and nicknamed "Big X" by the other British officers, realizes that by putting all their problem prisoners in one camp, the Germans have unwittingly created a fine escape team. Between them, the POW's have considerable experience in tunneling, and have made many escape attempts. Bartlett quickly organizes everyone into teams and get them all to work. Some, like Lt. "Tunnel King" Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson) begin digging, while Lt. Bob "Scrounger" Hendley (James Garner) begins to gather the materials needed to make everything work for an audacious escape by up to 250 prisoners, far more than had ever escaped at once before. Other men are assigned to make uniforms, forge paperwork, and get to know the German guards and their habits. Bartlett plans to dig three tunnels, over 300 feet long, so that there will be other tunnels to use if one is discovered.

    After a couple of weeks in the cooler, Hilts and Ives are released, and meet with the others. Hilts has his own plan to dig out, a idea that is so simple it just might work, and he intends to try it that night. Wishing him the best, the main team realizes that Hilts may not succeed, but he'll at least distract the Germans from the other attempts. Hilts and Ives start under the fence that night, but they are caught and the next morning they are back in the cooler again.

    Meanwhile, other prisoners are working on the main escape attempt. Lt. Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) is the forger of the group, and works on fake I.D. papers, while the Aussie Sedgwick (James Coburn) creates amazing tools from scrap metal scavenged around the camp. Lt. Eric Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum) has figured out a way to get rid of all the dirt they're bringing up out of the tunnels, by placing it in bags inside their pants, and then scattering it outside. Hundreds of other men help out in other ways. Some establish gardens where dirt may be scattered, and also receive gardening tools that can be repurposed for the escape. Some scavenge wood and other materials from unused beds. Other men march, sing, and otherwise make noise to drown out the sounds made by the men making equipment and digging. Many men act as lookouts, passing signals when the guards approach, so that the men working have plenty of time to shut down their operations without being noticed. Others stage diversions to distract the Germans so that tools and other items may be stolen. Still others simply get in the way, hindering the Germans' routine inspections and gaining precious minutes for the others to avoid being caught.

    Hendley befriends a young, naive German guard named Werner. He tempts Werner into sharing coffee and chocolate with him, and takes the opportunity to steal Werner's wallet, knowing that Werner does not dare report the theft, since doing so would effectively be admitting socializing with prisoners, an offense which would get him sent to possible death on the Eastern Front. The wallet contains, among other items, Werner's identity card, military paperwork, an Ausweis (permission to be on government property), all items that the forgers need for their work. Later, Hendley is able to use the theft to blackmail Werner into providing him with a camera that Blythe requested. The tunnels get a few feet longer every day, despite stress and fraying tempers, repeated German inspections, and the occasional cave-in underground. The men go to increasing lengths to gather more and more wood to shore up the tunnels. Bartlett decides to concentrate all their efforts on one tunnel for the time being.

    Hilts is released from the cooler again, and meets with Bartlett. He says he intends to try again on July 7, the next new moon. Bartlett tells Hilts that the men working on the main escape plan still know little of the local geography, and asks Hilts to help by making maps of the area around the camp when he escapes, also getting information about the schedules at the nearest train station, even if it means being caught and returned to the cooler. Hilts prefers to act as a "lone wolf" or with his friend Ives, and refuses outright. He and the other Americans in the camp begin to distill alcohol from potatoes grown in the gardens. On the 4th of July, they surprise everyone with gallons of moonshine. A much-needed party breaks out as the prisoners gather outside for a few drinks, while the Germans look on with consternation, having missed the party preparations completely. However, the guards discover the first tunnel during a routine inspection that day. At the height of their celebration the men are suddenly crushed to learn that their greatest hope of escape is now gone. Ives, who had been slowly losing hope, finally cracks and charges the fence, only to be shot and killed. Bitterly resigned, Bartlett tersely tells the men to continue quietly on one of the other tunnels. Hilts, having seen his friend gunned down, changes his mind and decides to help Bartlett, by making the maps he needs. He escapes at the blind spot he saw at the beginning, and turns himself in the next day. Though he's sent to the cooler again, he has the information that Bartlett needed.

    Work continues on the second tunnel at a frantic pace. The men practice their assumed identities and their German, including one man taking a grave risk by dressing as a German soldier (he could be shot as a spy if caught this way). Blythe discovers that his eyesight has been ruined by all the close-up forging work; he cannot see more than a few inches from his face. He tries to hide his disability from the others, but he does not fool anyone. Danny admits to his friend Willie that he is claustrophobic, and cannot take the fear of digging in the tunnels any longer, and intends to try to escape through the fence. Willie talks him out of it, promising to stay with Danny all the way during the escape. Likewise, Hendley promises to take care of Blythe during the escape, despite Bartlett's misgiving about letting the blind Blythe escape. By the time Hilts is released again, the main group is nearly ready. Their clothes have been tailored to make them look like civilians, they have their fake IDs and other forged papers, and they know where to run, thanks to Hilts.

    That night is the night of the escape. In the tunnels, Danny's claustrophobia gets the better of him, and he returns to the hut, though he will escape later. Hilts digs the last few feet up to the surface at the end of the tunnel and cautiously pokes his head out, but he finds they've miscalculated; they're 20 feet short of the woods, and now they must try to sneak across open ground without being seen. All the forged travel permits bear the next day's date; they cannot postpone without starting the plan over from scratch. Hilts sets up a rope signal from the woods, and men start to enter the tunnel. Carefully timing the passes of the guards, men begin to escape into the woods. During an air raid, the Germans turn off all the lights, enabling many men to escape during the period of darkness. Afterward, they return to the rope signal. This is a time-consuming process, and Bartlett and his friend Mac must leave their post at the end of the tunnel if they intend to catch their train, passing the instructions regarding the rope signal from man to man. One man stumbles upon exiting the hole, and a guard hears him, though he does not see anything. The next man grows impatient waiting for the rope signal, which Hilts cannot give until the guard leaves the area. He makes a run for it anyway, and the guard sees him, thus stopping the breakout. In the morning, the Germans do a head count and determine that 76 prisoners escaped.

    Guards and police scour the countryside looking for the prisoners. As the morning train pulls into the station, many of the men are waiting in their disguises, and they quietly get aboard. Others are making their getaway by other means. Sedgwick, the Australian, steals a bicycle. Hilts strings a wire across a rural road, knocking a German soldier off his motorcycle, which Hilts then steals, along with the German's uniform. He heads for neutral Switzerland. Danny and Willie find a rowboat and begin rowing downriver. Others follow the roads, walking or hitchhiking. One is picked up quickly at a roadblock, and as the day progresses, many other prisoners are recaptured, one by one.

    On the train, the men discover that the Gestapo and the SS are on board. Bartlett and Mac pose as Frenchmen and fool the police; Hendley and Blythe jump from the train instead rather than take the risk. Meanwhile, Sedgwick stows away on board another train. Hilts kicks a German policeman at a roadblock and makes a brazen escape on his stolen motorcycle, eventually losing his pursuers on a farm, where he discards the uniform. He eventually comes within sight of the Swiss border, but finding the crossing heavily guarded, makes a run for it cross country on the motorcycle. Again, the Germans chase him. Cornered at the border fence, he makes a daring jump over the fence but becomes entangled in the barbed wire, and surrenders, showing the Germans his dog tag so that they do not think he is a spy.

    The first train reaches its destination; Bartlett, Mac, and Ashley-Pitt disembark to get ready for the next leg of their trip. The SS officer who threatened Bartlett with death at the beginning just happens to be there, and he recognizes Bartlett. Ashley-Pitt, realizing what is happening, tackles the officer and shoots him with his own gun, even though he knows he will be quickly shot dead by other policemen in the vicinity, he has sacrificed his own life to save Bartlett. Hendley and Blythe, traveling overland, arrive at an air base, ambush a guard and steal a small airplane, although they are seen doing so. They fly towards Switzerland. Unfortunately, the plane develops mechanical problems before they get there, and the plane crashes. Hendley and Blythe are not seriously injured, but German soldiers arrive on the scene almost immediately. Blythe cannot see them, and they shoot him dead. Hendley is recaptured.

    Sedgwick, now in France, witnesses three German soldiers killed in a drive-by shooting at an outdoor cafe by French resistance guerrillas. The proprietor, who was in on the "hit", agrees to help Sedgwick escape to Spain. Meanwhile, Bartlett and Mac, still posing as Frenchmen, attempt to board a bus for the next leg of their trip. Mac is tricked when a Gestapo officer addresses him in English, and Mac makes the mistake of replying in English, blowing their cover. He and Bartlett must make a run for it. Mac is quickly cornered. Bartlett almost gets away, deceiving several soldiers by speaking perfect German when they confront him. Unfortunately, a nearby SS officer recognized him as having spoken French earlier, and he is recaptured.

    Eventually, most of the escapees have been rounded up by the Gestapo. As they ride back towards the camp in trucks, fifty prisoners are diverted in another direction, where Bartlett, who'd led all his men in the escape, confesses that even though they've failed the affair has been exhilarating. "I've never been happier", he says during a rest stop in an open field. The prisoners turn at the sound of a machine gun bolt, and as they stand helpless, the Gestapo guards gun them all down in cold-blooded murder. The remaining captured prisoners are returned to the camp, and the names of those murdered are read off in a memorial service. Three prisoners escape. Danny and Willie eventually reach a seaport in their rowboat and board a ship bound for Sweden, while the French guerrillas help Sedgwick to the Spanish border, where another man meets him to guide him into Spain.

    The Commandant of the prison camp is cashiered and taken away in disgrace, and replaced by another officer, punishment for the escape happening on his watch. At the same time, Hilts is returned to the camp. Bruised, bloody, but unbowed, he marches defiantly back into the camp and learns of the murder of most of the other escapees. Staggered at the news, he is hauled off to the cooler. He is locked up in his usual room, and the guard hears Hilts playing with his baseball. The German, who doesn't understand baseball, walks away. The movie ends with the notice that it is dedicated to the fifty men who were murdered.

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