Jump to: Spoilers (13)
In this movie, several Americans (including Hilts and Henley) were amongst the escapees. In real life, American officers assisted with the construction of the escape tunnel, but weren't amongst the escapees, because the Germans moved them to a remote compound just before the escape.
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One day, the police in the German town where this movie was shot set up a speed trap near the set. Several members of the cast and crew were caught, including Steve McQueen. The Chief of Police told McQueen "Herr McQueen, we have caught several of your comrades today, but you have won the prize (for the highest speeding)." McQueen was arrested and briefly jailed.
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Wally Floody, the real-life "Tunnel King" (he was transferred to another camp just before the escape), served as a consultant to the filmmakers, almost full-time, for more than a year.
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The real camp can be visited today in Sagan, Poland. It's a ruin now, that's mostly used for archaeological purpose. A replica of the camp is located forty kilometers (twenty-five miles) south, where you can enter a model of tunnel "Harry" yourself. In the movie, they confused the actual names of the tunnels.
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Sir Richard Attenborough said many years later working with Steve McQueen on this movie was one of the toughest challenges he had ever faced, and their on-set relationship was not peaceful. McQueen was not combative, but he wouldn't hesitate to let anyone know if things were not as he would wish them to be, or believed that they ought to be.
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Charles Bronson, who portrays the chief tunneler, brought his own expertise and experiences to the set. He had been a coal miner before turning to acting, and gave director John Sturges advice on how to move the dirt. As a result of his work in the coal mines, Bronson suffered from claustrophobia, just as his character had.
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The real-life escape preparations involved six hundred men working for well over a year. The escape did have the desired effect of diverting German resources, including a doubling of the number of guards after the Gestapo took over the camp from the Luftwaffe.
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James Garner developed his "Scrounger" character from his own personal experiences in the military as a self-described scrounger for his company in the Korean War.
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Several cast members were actual POWs during World War II. Donald Pleasence was held in the German camp Stalag Luft I, Hannes Messemer in a Russian camp, and Til Kiwe and Hans Reiser were prisoners of the Americans. Pleasence said the set was a very accurate representation of a POW camp.
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During production, Charles Bronson met and fell in love with David McCallum's wife, Jill Ireland, and he jokingly told McCallum he was going to steal her away from him. In 1967, Ireland and McCallum divorced, and she married Bronson.
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The actual camp, Stalag Luft III, was located in Zagan, Poland, and the remains of the camp can be found at the following map coordinates: 51.599036, 15.310030.
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Danny says that all he could say in Russian was "I love you". Charles Bronson was fluent in Russian and spoke it as a first language from childhood.
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Paul Brickhill, who wrote the book on which this movie was based, was piloting a Spitfire aircraft that was shot down over Tunisia in March 1943. He was taken to Stalag Luft III in Poland, where he assisted in the escape preparations.
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Donald Pleasence was an aircrewman in the Royal Air Force during World War II, whose plane was shot down. Upon which, he became a prisoner of war, and was tortured by the Germans. When he kindly offered advice to director John Sturges, he was politely asked to keep his "opinions" to himself. Later, when another actor on set informed Sturges that Pleasence was imprisoned in a World War II German POW camp, Sturges requested his technical advice and input on historical accuracy from that point forward.
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Steve McQueen also personally attempted the jump across the border fence, but crashed. The jump was successfully performed by Bud Ekins.
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During idle periods while this movie was in production, all cast and crew members, from Steve McQueen and James Garner to production assistants, and obscure food service workers, were asked to take thin, five-inch strings of black rubber and knot them around other thin strings of black rubber of enormous length. The finished results of all of this knotting were the coils and fences of barbed wire seen throughout the movie.
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Some aspects of the escape remained classified during production, and were not revealed until well afterward. The inclusion of chocolate, coffee, and cigarettes in Red Cross packages is well documented, as is their use to bribe Nazi guards. Other materials useful for escaping had to be kept secret, and were not included in the book or screenplay. Also not revealed until many years later, was the fact that the prisoners actually built a fourth tunnel called "George".
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According to David McCallum, the barbed wire into which Hilts (Steve McQueen) crashes near the end of the movie, which was made of rubber, was made by the cast and crew during their free time by tying small pieces of rubber around larger ones.
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Although Steve McQueen did his own motorcycle riding, there was one stunt he did not perform: the hair-raising five foot jump over a fence. This was done by McQueen's friend Bud Ekins, who was managing a Los Angeles-area motorcycle shop when recruited for the stunt. It was the beginning of a new career for Ekins, as he later doubled for McQueen in Bullitt (1968), and did much of the motorcycle riding on CHiPs (1977).
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The motorcycle ridden by Virgil Hilts that was used for the fence jump was a 1962 Thunderbird Triumph, which was refurbished to look like a bike twenty years older.
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Jud Taylor (Goff) said the camp set was so authentic and impressive that one day he came upon a man walking his dog who was very distressed when he came upon the site. The man was greatly relieved, Taylor said, when he learned it was just a movie set.
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Although the German airfield displays mainly North American AT-6 Texan trainers, it is feasible that this was authentic. The Germans did use the AT-6 in some numbers as advanced trainers, which they had confiscated from the French in 1940.
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The tunnel sets were constructed of wood and skins filled with plaster and dirt and open on one side with a dolly track running the length of the set in order to shoot scenes of prisoners scooting along through them.
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Steve McQueen accepted the role of Hilts on the condition that he got to show off his motorcycle skills. The motorcycle scenes were not based on real life.
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The medal that Colonel von Luger wears around his neck is the Pour le Merite, also known as the Blue Max. Originally a Prussian military honor, in World War I it was automatically given to fighter pilots who shot down eight planes (later raised to sixteen). The Nazis replaced it with the Knight's Cross, but it could still be worn by officers who'd received it before the Third Reich.
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When celebrating the fourth of July and pouring alcohol, Hilts (Steve McQueen) is thrown off by an ad-lib by Goff (Jud Taylor). While Hilts is drinking, Goff says, "No taxation without representation." McQueen jumps out of character and gives him a look (and mouths, "What?"). Director John Sturges must have signalled to "just go with it" and the scene continued. But it is an obvious ad-lib.
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Group Captain Ramsey, is largely based on the real Senior British Officer Herbert Massey. Massey was injured when shot down and walked with a pronounced limp which prevented him from the escape attempt. James Donald walks with a limp and uses a walking stick in the movie in honor of Massey.
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The scene where Hilts is removing bed boards for tunnel use and Cavendish, not realizing too many boards were removed, comes crashing down through the bunks, is reminiscent of a real incident in Stalag Luft III as described in Paul Brickhill's book. During a drive to scrounge as many bed boards as possible, Roger Bushell (the real-life prisoner who was portrayed by Sir Richard Attenborough as Roger Bartlett) wanted to set an example and donated all of his boards and convinced his bunk-mate to do likewise. A string system was rigged to keep the mattresses in place, but on the first attempt, the strings gave way and Roger came crashing down through the bed on top of his bunk-mate.
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John Leyton (Willy the tunneler) was one of the most popular UK pop singers in the early 1960s. He recorded the title song with lyrics.
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When the Bavaria Studio's backlot proved to be too small, the production team obtained permission from the German government to shoot in a national forest adjoining the studio. After the end of principal photography, the company restored (by reseeding) approximately two thousand small pine trees that had been damaged in the course of shooting.
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The gold medallion Steve McQueen wears throughout the movie was a present from his wife.
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The hooch-making scene in the movie, where the Americans celebrated Independence Day, is believed to be based on the British creating an alcohol distillery for Christmas Day celebrations in 1943. Captain Guy Griffiths, a Royal Marine pilot in Stalag Luft III, who produced forged documents for the escape, also produced a comical illustration of the scene which survives to this day. This painting, along with many others, forms the basis for a Special Exhibition on "Griff" at the Royal Marines Museum (Southsea, England) running from Easter 2010.
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The actual tunnel "Tom" was discovered in August 1943 (not on the fourth of July as shown in the movie). It was this tunnel that was being rushed to finish to allow it to be used by numerous Americans who had helped greatly with its construction and organization. The rush was due to it being known that all Americans in the compound were shortly to be moved to the new South compound a short distance away. Tunnel "Harry" was completed more slowly over the following winter, and "Dick" was used as storage for contraband items and a place to hide dirt from "Harry". There was a final rush to use the tunnel, as the winter hadn't been kind to the woodwork, particularly around the trap door entrance, and the prisoners were very concerned it would be spotted. The night chosen was the next moonless night, despite the weather and ground conditions being far from ideal (it was very cold and snow covered). It was felt that the tunnel would not have survived intact or undiscovered for another month if they had decided to wait for better conditions.
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This movie was shot entirely on-location in Europe, with a complete camp resembling Stalag Luft III built near Munich, Germany. Exteriors for the escape sequences were shot in the Rhine Country and areas near the North Sea, and Steve McQueen's motorcycle scenes were filmed in Fussen (on the Austrian border) and the Alps. All interiors were filmed at the Bavaria Studio in Munich.
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The song sung by Ives and MacDonald on the fourth of July is "Wha Hae the 42nd?" Contrary to common belief, it is not in Gaelic, but in Scottish. The 42nd Regiment of Foot was the Scottish regiment in the British Army, known as "the Black Watch".
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With the deaths of James Garner (Robert Hendley) on July 19, 2014 and Richard Attenborough (Roger Bartlett) on August 24, 2014, David McCallum (Eric Ashley-Pitt) and John Leyton (Willie) are the last surviving stars of the film.
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For the train sequences, a railroad engine was rented and two condemned cars were purchased and modified to house the camera equipment. Scenes were shot on the single rail line between Munich and Hamburg, and a railroad representative was on hand to advise the filmmakers when to pull aside to avoid hitting scheduled oncoming trains.
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Sir Richard Attenborough was a Royal Air Force gunner and photographer who served for three years, unlike his character, based on Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, who was a Spitfire Pilot in 92 Squadron in the early years of World War II.
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The last surviving participant in the actual escape, Dick Churchill, died in 2019 at the age of 99.
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The German characters were cast from actors out of Munich, including Hannes Messemer and Til Kiwe. Both had their own prisoner of war experiences. Messemer had been captured on the Eastern front by the Soviet Army, escaped, and walked hundreds of miles to the German border. Frick served time in an American prison camp in Arizona. He tried to escape seventeen times.
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The actual escape from Stalag Luft III occurred on March 24, 1944, which was Steve McQueen's 14th birthday.
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The three real POWs to escape were Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Muller (who escaped by ship to Sweden after taking a train from Sagan to Stettin via Berlin) and Dutchman Bram van der Stok (who travelled across Europe to Spain).
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MacDonald (Intelligence) was based on George Harsh, a very good friend of Wally Floody (the real Tunnel King). They were transferred to Belaria before the escape. Harsh was a very interesting character who was from the American south, and had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force as a tail-gunner. In the 1920s Harsh had committed murder and was sentenced to life. A medical student, Harsh performed an appendectomy on a dying prisoner and saved his life. The Governor of Georgia granted him a pardon and he was set free. After the war, he had personal problems as he was plagued by guilt over the crime he committed as a youth. On top of adjusting to life after fifteen years in captivity (twelve years on the Georgia chain gang, followed by three years as a P.O.W.). On Christmas Eve 1974, he shot himself, but survived. A stroke soon left him partially paralyzed. When that happened, Wally Floody and his wife brought him up to their Toronto house and looked after him. He eventually went to live, at his own urging, at the Veteran's Wing at the Sunnybrook Medical Centre. He died in January 1980.
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Hilts (Steve McQueen) was based on amalgamation of several characters, including Major Dave Jones, a flight commander during Doolittle's Raid who made it to Europe, and was shot down and captured, and Colonel Jerry Sage, who was an O.S.S. Agent in the North African desert when he was captured. Colonel Sage was able to don a flight jacket and pass as a flier, otherwise he would have been executed as a spy. Another inspiration was probably Squadron Leader Eric Foster, who escaped seven times from German prisoner-of-war camps.
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One of the masterminds for the real "great escape" was Wing Commander Harry Day. He isn't directly portrayed in this movie, however the book, on which this movie was based, by Paul Brickhill, correctly tells his story. Arguably, his story is the most impressive of the lot, having participated in at least four other mass breakouts and two solo attempts prior to the "great escape" (twice getting free from the camp before recapture). He was one of the first out of the tunnel, but was recaptured in Stettin trying to get help to gain passage out of Germany. He was spared execution and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp with three other escapees. There they dug another tunnel and escaped with another British officer. It's widely believed they were the only people ever to survive an escape from that camp. All were recaptured and held in solitary confinement until being used as hostages at the end of the war. Escaping from his captives, he reached allied lines and was instrumental in securing the safe release of the other hostages.
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United Artists corporation wanted to shorten the film to increase the daily tickets sales. John Sturges was livid. But UA asked for a hefty interest on the one million dollars overage. So Sturges and Harold Mirish - UA executive - went to the Pacific National Bank for a loan. The bank board agreed, provided they could see the film before. They did and loved it, but could not understand how the men got the civilians clothes before the escape. The answer to this issue was contained in the scene that UA wanted to delete from the editing. So the sequence was kept to please the bank executives and get the loan.
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The German National Railroad Bureau cooperated with the production to provide trains and logistics for the railway escape sequences. Platforms were fitted on passenger cars to accommodate huge arc lamps to illuminate the train interiors. On one flat car, a large Chapman crane was set up to swing out over the passenger car and film the jump from the moving train performed by two stuntmen disguised as James Garner's and Donald Pleasence's characters. The bureau attached a special radio operator to the crew to alert the train engineer to any potential traffic on the main line. The shooting schedule was squeezed in between actual runs on the rails. The bureau gave the production certain times and lengths of tracks to work on until a passenger train was scheduled to come by; the film train then had to duck onto a siding until the other passed.
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This movie was shot on-location in a German forest. To make room for the camp set, several trees had to be bulldozed. Director John Sturges had to show the West German Minister of the Interior his plans and, to get permission to bulldoze, had to promise to plant two seeds for every tree felled when production was over.
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Danny the tunnel king is shown to suffer from claustrophobia. Paul Brickhill, who wrote the book on which the film is based, was also a claustrophobe. He was originally allotted an early place in line for the escape, but when his condition became known, he was dropped to the bottom of the list, and he credits this for probably saving his life.
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The nationality of a few of the prisoners in the story was changed, emphasizing American, and de-emphasizing Commonwealth and other Allied.
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There is a movie company called Virgil Films. It replicates the sound of Virgil Hilts bouncing his baseball inside the cooler as the introduction to its movies.
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After viewing the rushes, Steve McQueen decided his part was minor and undeveloped. He was particularly upset that his character virtually disappears from the movie for about thirty minutes in the middle, so he walked out demanding re-writes. John Sturges admitted the half-hour gap was likely a problem, but with the production already behind schedule due to the heavy rain, he felt he couldn't take time out to do re-writes and rescheduling. James Garner said he and James Coburn got together with McQueen to determine what his specific gripes were. Garner later said it was apparent McQueen wanted to be the hero, but didn't want to be seen doing anything overtly heroic that contradicted his character's cool detachment and sardonic demeanor. At the same time, McQueen never really liked his character's calm acquiescence to his time in the cooler, or the famous bit with the catcher's mitt and ball. Sturges considered writing the character out of the story altogether, but United Artists informed him they considered McQueen indispensable to the movie's success, and would spring for the extra money to hire another writer, Ivan J. Moffitt, to deal with the star's demands. McQueen returned to work.
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The Germans routinely confined enemy aviators in Luftwaffe prisons, regardless of which service they had been in. This accounts for the presence of Ashley-Pitt, a Royal Navy pilot, in Luft Stalag III.
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Director John Sturges' assistant Robert E. Relyea was an amateur pilot and offered to fly the plane for the sequence in which Hendley and Blythe commandeer a plane for their escape. In one segment, he had to simulate the plane losing power and descending over a line of trees. According to Relyea, a farmer in his field saw the plane with its Nazi insignia coming in low over his head and threw his rake at it. Another time, Relyea was arrested when he had to put the plane down in a field that happened to belong to a German aviation official. He also piloted the plane in the crash shot, knocking himself unconscious and being taken to the hospital where he woke up later feeling a sharp pain down his back.
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Paul Brickhill, the novelist whose book was the inspiration for the movie, was not allowed on the set for the shooting.
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Most of the planes in the airfield are actually American AT-6 Texan trainers painted with a German paint scheme, but the one actually flown is an authentic German plane, a Bucker Bu 181 "Bestmann".
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The uniforms of the camp guards represent a mixture of Luftwaffe branches. The officers and half the guards wear gold-yellow collar patches of air crews, including pilots and ground personnel. Strachwitz, the senior N.C.O., and the other enlisted guards wear the red collar patches of the anti-aircraft artillery.
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Early on in the production, director John Sturges began receiving memos from United Artists requesting female roles in this movie. One even suggested having the dying Ashley-Pitt cradled in the lap of a beautiful girl in a low-cut blouse. The studio wanted to cast this bit by having a Miss Prison Camp contest in Munich. Sturges would have none of it. The only women in the film are those glimpsed in the background when Gordon Jackson and Richard Attenborough make their way through the town and none have any dialogue.
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The escape plan was so secretive that all of the POWs were to refer to the tunnels by their code names; Roger Bushell took this so seriously that he threatened to court martial anyone who even uttered "tunnel" aloud.
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The newspaper that Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum) reads on the train is the "Völkischer Beobachter", a real newspaper produced for twenty-five years by the National Socialist German Workers Party. It served as a propaganda sheet for the Nazis, and helped bring Adolf Hitler to power. At its height, it had a circulation of approximately 1.4 million. The headline for the issue seen in this movie translates roughly to "Day after day, the Soviets have high, bloody losses." Given that the escape in this movie occurs in the summer of 1944, this too can be viewed as propaganda. The Nazis had transferred hundreds of thousands of troops to Normandy to stop the Allied advances after D-Day, allowing for the Soviets to launch Operation Bagration on June 22, which pushed the Nazis back into Poland by the beginning of July 13 and sparked the Warsaw uprising. In all, the Soviet advance caused German losses of approximately six hundred seventy thousand dead, missing, wounded, and sick, including one hundred sixty thousand captured. Although the date of the escape is unclear, given the green pastures around the Alps that the escapees encounter, one can easily surmise that the newspaper was putting a positive spin on the battles in the east.
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The motorcycle that Hilts (Steve McQueen) rides is a cosmetically modified Triumph TR6 Trophy. Bud Ekins, who performed the stunt, was a Triumph dealer. Triumph was McQueen's favorite motorcycle brand. The motorcycle sidecar combination that crashes into a ditch is revealed to be a Triumph motorcycle, too. These British motorcycle models were not in existence during World War II, and their appearance is anachronistic.
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After two months shooting in the camp, the production moved to the town of Fussen near the Austrian border for post-escape scenes. Because he was already running out of money, director John Sturges decided to cut back on his original plan to film in several locations. Fussen had all of the elements he needed to simulate the various places where the escapees run, including nearby meadowlands to shoot the required motorcycle sequence.
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Director John Sturges shopped this movie for eight years, but couldn't get a major studio to bite until United Artists stepped in. Sturges credited the success of The Magnificent Seven (1960) with the eventual funding of this movie.
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According to director John Sturges, the screenplay went through six writers and eleven versions, and was still a work in progress during filming. "I'm not proposing that's a good way to make a picture, but it was the right way to make this one", he later said.
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Richard Harris was originally cast as Roger Bartlett, but dropped out because filming This Sporting Life (1963) was behind schedule, and he was displeased with the diminished role of "Big X" after script changes had been made.
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During the jump sequence, the crew was warned at the last possible second that the crane was about to slam into a pole. It was withdrawn in the nick of time.
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Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson appeared in The Magnificent Seven (1960), also directed by John Sturges, and scored by Elmer Bernstein.
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The barracks interiors were constructed on soundstages at the German studio.
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Steve McQueen reportedly rarely mingled with others away from the set, preferring to stay in the chalet he rented for himself and his family and travelling to the set each day in a chauffeur-driven limousine.
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John Sturges was reproached for not putting women in this story, because that could hurt the ticket sales. But Sturges insisted that there was no room for women in a POW camp story.
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Sir Richard Attenborough was cast on short notice after the first choice pulled out.
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The official report about the escape claims that 76 prisoners got out. In the film only three of the characters are shown making it all the way to freedom: Sedgwick, Danny, and Willie.
An American named Ray Rahner helped build the tunnel used in the real escape on which the film was based. He was among the Americans transferred to another prison camp shortly before the escape occurred. As a prisoner he discovered a knack for entertaining, and after the war he went into broadcasting under the name Ray Rayner. He was a staple in Chicago children's TV for more than 20 years starting in 1958. Among his many projects, he hosted Ray Rayner and Friends on WGN-TV from 1964 until 1980, which became one of the most popular TV shows for kids in the Chicago area.
The character of von Luger was based on Friedrich von Lindeiner-Wildau. As with von Luger, the real commandant was an Oberst (Colonel), a general staff officer, and a holder of the "Blue Max" (Pour le Merite) medal. However, while the pictures on the wall of von Luger's office are of World War I flying units, von Lindeiner-Wildau earned his Blue Max in the East Africa campaigns in 1905 to 1907 and served as an infantry officer before and during World War I. He retired from the Army in 1919 and only joined the Luftwaffe in 1937 at Hermann Goring's personal invitation.
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There was another earlier mass escape attempt from the same compound as the "great escape". Masterminded by the same "X organisation", in June 1943 a large party of twenty-six prisoners escaped while being escorted by fake guards (prisoners disguised as Germans) being taken to another compound for delousing. All got clear of the camp, but were all recaptured. Several were also participants of the later "great escape". Two POWs, Lorne Welch and Walter Morison, attempted to steal an aircraft, but were caught before they could start the engine. It was this real event that gave inspiration to certain events in this movie. The two real officers were sent to Colditz castle and survived the war.
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When Henley is saying good bye to Ashley-Pitts on the train, he says 'Tally Ho'. This is what RAF pilots called out when they spotted Germans. Henley was warning him.
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James Coburn's Australian accent was non-existent, so the movie used other devices to emphasise his nationality. For example, on entering the workshop, Roger's exasperation with Sedgewick follows with: "Bluey, where the hell is the air pump?" "Bluey" is an affectionate term for a person with red hair, found in Australian slang in the first half of the twentieth century. The consequence of Roger's use of the term, though made in support of the character, was too subtle for wider audiences, and the credit of "Louis" appears for Sedgewick on many lists.
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During the preparation of the movie and the building of the camp, it was heavily raining, though it was the full spring. Locals said that was the worst weather in 38 years.
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Ramsey's title, "S.B.O." stands for "Senior British Officer".
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There are six different languages spoken or sung in the movie: English, German, French, Russian, and one word in Spanish, as well as two words of Latin "Lanius Nubicus" when Flight Lieutenant Blythe is describing the masked shrike or butcher bird in the forgery scene. There is also a song in a light Scots dialect where Ives and MacDonald are singing "Wha Hae the 42nd" in the fourth of July scene just before "Tom" is discovered.
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The last survivor of the Escape, Dick Churchill who was born Richard Sydney Albion Churchill 21 January 1920, in East Molesey, Surrey, England died on 12 February 2019 in Crediton, Devon, England, UK.
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Although there are three tunnels being dug, Tom, Dick, and Harry, only two of the secret entrances are ever shown: the one under the barracks stove, and the one in the showers.
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Donald Pleasence's character was based partly on London-born John Cordwell, later a Chicago architect and then proprietor of the Red Lion Pub on the city's N. Lincoln Avenue. Cordwell died in 1999. Stories about him and the Red Lion are told from various points of view in the collection "Tales from the Red Lion" (Chicago: Twilight Tales, 2007, ISBN 0977985623).
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In reality the escape attempt in March 1944 was widely regarded as a failure.
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In the scene following Hilts' theft of a German motorcycle, he rolls into a nearby town, and stopped by a police officer. He tells Hilts something in German, to which Hilts kicks him away and rides off. The officer asked Hilts where he's going. Hilts doesn't speak German.
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Not one American airman escaped in the tunnel codenamed Harry on the night of 24/25th March 1944. Many people considered the film to be an insult to the 50 POWs who were killed by the Gestapo in late March-early April 1944, because it suggested otherwise.
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No mention is ever made in the story about the Dennis Cavendish or Griffith ("Tailor") characters spoiling the escape. Cavendish's inaccurate surveys placed the exit hole 20 feet short of the woods, and Griffith's mumbling impatience during the actual escape tips off the guards to their activity.
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Donald Pleasance was also a technical advisor for the movie, his Lancaster had been hit badly in 1944 and he spent the last year of the war in a POW camp so he had first hand knowledge of camp life.
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The filming schedule was changed due to heavy rain, meaning that interiors from the middle portion of the movie were shot first.
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Actor Robert Graf (who played the character of Werner) was one of the first cast members to die. He passed away aged 42 from cancer in February 1966, less than three years after the film was released. Coincidentally, one of his lines in the movie is when he tells Henley that he is "not a well man."
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Although the film is based on a historical event, all of the characters are fictional.
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The film was watched by 21 million viewers when it was first shown on UK TV in 1974. There were only three television channels at the time.
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In a subtle bit of foreshadowing during the first few minutes of the film, director Sturges cuts from Sedgwick inspecting the wash basins directly to Danny and Willie estimating the dimensions from the camp to the woods. These are the only three characters who are shown completing the escape to freedom at the end.
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An urban legend persists that Harrison Ford turns up in this movie as an uncredited non-speaking extra, four years before his first credited appearance in a movie or on television. The scene, from where where this theory came, is where Bartlett and MacDonald are on-board the train and find themselves sat down opposite two uniformed German officers and are then asked for their travel passes by an undercover Gestapo man. As the camera changes angles, In the foreground there is a Nazi youth with a brown shirt, tie, and a swastika band on his left arm. This youth does indeed bear a striking resemblance to a youthful Harrison Ford, who would have been nineteen or twenty years old when this scene was filmed in 1962, however there are two facts that indicate this is almost certainly not Ford. Firstly, this movie was shot completely in southern Germany, so it is more than likely a local person who was hired as an extra. The second fact is that on close examination of the person in question he seems to have a Kirk Douglas type dimple chin, which Ford does not have.
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During the shooting of the film, Charles Bronson was very close to David McCallum and his wife Jill Ireland, who was pregnant. McCallum had to leave the set for two days when she had a miscarriage. Charles Bronson kept an eye on her at this moment and fell in love with her. John Sturges disapproved of this behavior because he wanted no feud between actors on the set when McCallum returned. But McCallum perfectly understood the situation.
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The film features no main female characters.
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Sir John Mills turned down the role of Roger Bartlett.
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Four actors in this film,(Richard Attenborough, Tom Adams, Angus Lennie and James Garner) all died in 2014.
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James Garner was only two years older than McQueen, but he was taken with Steve's youthful style and rebel attitude. Garner took up car racing in private life, and started wearing turtleneck sweaters, even in his concentration camp role as Hendley. He began lobbying director Sturges for more dynamics in his part, just as Steve was doing. McQueen, instead of being flattered, became paranoid that Sturges was favoring Garner and started acting-out off screen, even to the point of refusing to shoot scenes. Though his agent had to fly out to Germany twice to settle him down, his petulance ultimately got him his motorcycle scenes, which were not in the original script, and his leap to stardom.
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The coaches of the train have the logo of the "Deutsche Bundesbahn", the national railway of the Federal Republic of Germany. In the Third Reich they should have had the logo of the "Deutsche Reichsbahn".
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The great escape is a long film. Even after all of the time spent preparing for and executing the escape, almost a third of the movie is still left for the manhunt.
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Included among the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die", edited by Steven Schneider.
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The working title of the movie was "The Last Escape".
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Four hundred trees were dug up and bundled in burlap. The saplings were replanted elsewhere, and mature trees were replaced two for one.
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In 1951, Philco-Goodyear Play house did an adaptation of "The Great Escape" with E.G. Marshall, Everett Sloane, and Rod Steiger.
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Several members of the cast and crew were actual military veterans and some were even POWs; most of whom served during World War II. Director and producer John Sturges and composer Elmer Bernstein served in the U.S. Army Air Forces, while author Paul Brickhill was a fighter pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force who was shot down over Tunisia. Brickhill was sent to the German POW camp "Stalag Luft III", where he was involved in organizing the "Great Escape" and subsequently authored the book about the event-- he did not participate in the escape however due to his claustrophobia. Screenwriter and producer James Clavell was a captain in the British Army's Royal Artillery and spent three years in a Japanese POW camp on the island of Java. Wally Floody, the film's technical advisor, was a fighter pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, flying Spitfires in the 401 Squadron. He was also shot down and imprisoned at "Stalag Luft III". Having worked as a mining tunnel engineer prior to the War, Floody designed and built three tunnels called "Tom", "Dick" and "Harry" for the famed "Great Escape", earning the nickname "Wally the Tunnel King". Executive producer Walter Mirisch tried to enlist in the Navy but was medically rejected for military service due to a heart murmur. Still eager to serve his country during the War, Mirisch moved to Burbank, California, to work at a plant that manufactured bomber planes; there he wrote technical articles, sharing knowledge with other military manufacturers. Star Steve McQueen served in the U.S. Merchant Marines near the end of WWII and later enlisted in the Marine Corps, where he saved the lives of five other Marines during an Arctic exercise, pulling them from a tank before it broke through ice into the sea. He was later assigned to the honor guard responsible for guarding the presidential yacht of Harry S. Truman. McQueen served until 1950 near the start of the Korean War. Actor Charles Bronson flew 25 missions as an aerial gunner aboard a B-29 Superfortress while serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces; he also received a Purple Heart for wounds received in battle. James Garner served in the Merchant Marines during the War; Garner later enlisted in the California Army National Guard and saw combat as a rifleman in Korea, where he received two Purple Hearts. Both Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasence served in the Royal Air Force (RAF); Attenborough was attached to the RAF Film Production Unit, where he flew on several missions over Europe, filming the outcome of RAF Bomber Command sorties from the rear gunner's seat. Pleasence, on the other hand, was a crew member of an Avro Lancaster NE112, a heavy bomber aircraft, and was shot down during an attack on Agenville, France. He was captured and imprisoned in the German POW camp "Stalag Luft I". Pleasence produced and acted in many plays for the entertainment of his fellow captives. Actors James Donald and Nigel Stock served in the British Army; Donald worked for the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) before being assigned to British Army Intelligence, where he typed up decoded enemy messages. Stock was assigned to the London Irish Rifles and the Assam Regiment, the infantry regiment of the Indian Army. Several cast members served in the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany during the War: Actor Til Kiwe was a paratrooper in the German Afrika Korps and was captured and sent to a POW camp in Colorado, where he made several escape attempts; Kiwe performed many of the exploits shown in the film. Robert Graf was conscripted into the Wehrmacht and sent to the Eastern Front; he was wounded in 1944, and assigned to war production duties in Munich. Both Heinz Weiss and Hannes Messemer served in the German Army; Messemer was captured by the Soviets but managed to escape on foot back to Germany. Some of the younger cast members served in the military after World War II: James Coburn was in the Army and served in Korea. Lawrence Montaigne was in the Marine Corps. William Russell served in the Royal Air Force while David McCallum, Angus Lennie, Tom Adams, John Leyton and Arthur Atkinson were soldiers in the British Army; Atkinson also served in the French Foreign Legion and was active fighting in Angola.
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Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson appeared in Never So Few (1959) and The Magnificent Seven (1960), which were also directed by John Sturges.
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Richard Attenborough took his part in this film after Richard Harris backed out. After establishing himself as a director, but returning to acting in Jurassic Park (1993), Attenborough said he would only act again if he was allowed to replace Harris again, this time in the role of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films. He was passed over, but his grandson Tom Attenborough voiced Harry in the video games based on the films. Also appearing in the film was Alfred Enoch, son of William Russell.
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In issue 73 of Your Sinclair Magazine in January 1992, the Spectrum stealth game adaptation of this movie was voted the 23rd best game of all time.
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Included among the American Film Institute's 2001 list of the Top 100 Most Heart-Pounding American Movies.
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The German airfield where James Garner and Donald Pleasence hijack an airplane was Landsberg Air Base, also known as Fliegerhorst Penzing, located a few miles east of Landsberg am Lech, Germany. It was briefly an American air base between 1945 and 1957, when it was returned to German Air Force (GAF) control. The base was used to train the fledgling GAF pilots and used the Harvard Mark IV, a version of the North American T-6 "Texan," built by Canadian Car and Foundry. So, technically, the T-6's used in the movie were actually Harvard Mark IV's. The shelter in which Garner and Pleasence were hiding before they hijacked the German plane was a grass-covered concrete revetment built for Fouga Magister jet trainers used by the GAF, starting in 1957. The shelters not only protected the airplanes, they suppressed the noise of the high-pitched jet engines.
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At the 02:29:12 mark in the 1998 DVD release, as Hendley and Blythe are flying across a lake headed for Switzerland, in the background can be seen the towers of Neuschwanstein Castle, built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria as a retreat for the reclusive monarch. After Ludwig's death in 1886 it was immediately opened to the public and is visited by more than 1.6 million tourists as year, sometimes as many as 6,000 a day. The castle has also appeared in several other films, among them Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, and was the inspiration for the Cinderella Castle at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
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William Russell starred as security chief Sorren in this movie. It was released on July 4, 1963, just a few weeks before he signed on for Doctor Who (1963) as the first male companion. Angus Lennie and Nigel Stock also appeared in the series, but not with Russell.
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Bartlett, referring to the S.S.'s decision to imprison him with so many other escapees, remarks "There's madness in their method." This is a reversal of "Though this be madness, yet there is method in it", from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Sir Richard Attenborough appeared in Hamlet (1996). The line is spoken by Polonius, who many scholars believe to have been modelled after Sir William Cecil, the character Attenborough played in Elizabeth (1998).
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Bronson's character, Danny, tries to slip out of camp using what little German he knows. He does the same thing with Lee Marvin at the German chateau in "The Dirty Dozen".
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The plane taken by Garner and Pleasence, was a Bucher Bu181 Bestmann. One of its uses was as a trainer, as Garner said. It was a two-seater which first flew in 1939. The plane is sometimes misidentified as an Me108, which had folding wings and a different engine.
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Neuschwanstein Castle is glimpsed for a moment. That would have indicated the plane was flying through southern Bavaria towards Switzerland.
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In this film, Danny, portrayed by Charles Bronson, is kept from escaping though the wire by another prisoner. In The Dirty Dozen, Wladislaw, also portrayed by Bronson, stops another prisoner from escaping through the wire.
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The scene where James Garner befriends a German soldier would later be seen in "Hogan's Heroes" where Sgt. Andrew Carter speaks with a guard about his supposed pet mouse.
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In both this and The Password is Courage, both tunnels come up short of the tree line.
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The motorcycle Steve McQueen rode in the movie was not a "Thunderbird Triumph" as the article states. It was a Triumph Trophy TR6.
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The raucous July Fourth revelry of prisoners would be seen in a different setting in the film "Cool Hand Luke."
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Perhaps inspired by the success of this movie, the 1971 TV offering, "The Birdmen," depicts a real life escape attempt by allied prisoners from a castle fortress. It was based on events that happened at Colditz Castle, where several of the characters in this film were sent in real life.
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One of the younger passengers on the train is wearing a uniform of the Hitler Youth, or Hitlerjugend.
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The song sung by Ives and MacDonald on the fourth of July is "Wha Hae the 42nd" , This is also the song that you can hear Gordon Jackson, who played MacDonald, sing in the film The Eureka Stockade in the scene where he is in the wagon driving to a picnic.
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This film is part of the Criterion Collection, spine #1027.
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Nigel Stock plays Cavendish the surveyor. He plays a similar role called Cole in The Password is Courage.
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Karl-Otto Alberty appeared in The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988), in two different roles. In each role, however, he appeared opposite Natalie Jastrow, played in the first mini-series by Ali MacGraw, and in the second by Jane Seymour. MacGraw had been married to Steve McQueen, while Seymour had been married to Michael Attenborough, son of Sir Richard Attenborough.
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In one scene, the prisoners sing a Christmas song about Jesus Christ. Donald Pleasence later appeared in two star-studded Christ biopics, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and Jesus of Nazareth (1977). David McCallum also appeared in the former.
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Gordon Jackson and Angus Lennie sing the Scottish folk song "Wha Saw the Tattie Howkers" in this film. Gordon Jackson sings the same song in Eureka Stockade (1949).
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Von Luger's name translates to "of Luger"---also the name of a German pistol used in WW2.
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Included among the American Film Institute's 2005 list of 250 movies nominated for AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores.
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During some time off from the production, James Garner and John Leyton were visiting Munich and got caught up in the Schwabing Riots on Leopold Strasse. Police clashed with college students and at one point Garner said he was "pushed and shoved around" and was detained by a police officer, who took his wallet and passport. Eventually the officer returned them and let the Garner go. Later, Garner was quoted in the press saying negative things about the police, adding, "this wouldn't happen in the states." He later had to apologize in order to avoid being deported.
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At the beginning of the movie, the trucks transporting POW's have their rear cargo area flaps down. This would cause carbon monoxide buildup in the cargo area which would kill the POW's.
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During the climactic motorcycle chase, director John Sturges allowed Steve McQueen to ride (in disguise) as one of the pursuing German soldiers, so that in the final sequence, through the magic of editing, he's actually chasing himself. McQueen played the German motorcyclist who hits the wire.
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The shooting of the recaptured escapees was one of the charges at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial of Hermann Göring and other Nazi leaders.
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Roger Bartlett was modelled after Roger Bushell, a British officer who was involved in the real escape and, like Bartlett, was executed for his role therein. The scarring around Sir Richard Attenborough's eyes is a tribute to Bushell, who received such scarring from a competitive skiing accident.
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The individual incidents in this movie are mostly true, but were rearranged as to both the timing and the people involved. (A note at the start acknowledges this.) For instance, of the seventy-six who escaped, there were three who got away, and fifty who were murdered in reprisal, but the murders occurred in small groups, not all at once. (Fourteen Germans were executed after the war for their parts in them.)
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There is a superstition that whenever a prisoner attempting escape is told "good luck" by a fellow prisoner, the escape will fail. Ironically, these are the same words that the German officer uses to capture Bartlett and MacDonald near the end of the movie.
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Of the real twenty-three recaptured P.O.W.s who were spared execution, seventeen were returned to the camp, four sent to Sachsenhausen concerntration camp, and two to Colditz castle.
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The compound where the real escape occurred from (North compound of Stalag Luft III) was opened in late March 1943. Prisoners being transferred from other compounds of this camp as well as other camps around occupied Europe. The escape occurred on the night of March 24/25, 1944, and the last of the executions was believed to have happened on April 12, 1944. Therefore, the time frame for this movie is a little over a year.
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A subtle choice by the director is to show that not all the German soldiers are Nazis, Werner "the ferret" openly speaks ill of the Nazi practices but mentions he can't complain of them, whilst Colonel Von Luger is more subtle, he wears a medal one handed out prior to the Nazi Regime but still allowed to be worn, when given instructions by the gestapo and SS he merely puts them under recommendations, and when he is informing Ramsey of the death of the 50 he himself is horrified and can't bare to look the SBO in the eye, this along with even more subtle details such as possibly letting Hilts and Ives out of the cooler after 15 days as opposed to the 20 he sentenced them to (possibly for good behaviour as well) and not shutting down the 4th of July celebrations (which actually worked in his favour as they discovered Tom in the process).
It's considered an error that Hilts and Ives are released from the cooler after only 15 days despite being given a 20 day sentence although it's possible they were released early for good behaviour as Von Luger is clearly very un Nazi.
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The German officer who arrived at the camp at the end to arrest Von Luger is the same officer who captured Bartlett and returned him to the Gestapo.
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In real life, the forger was James Hill, so obviously the stuff about him going blind and being shot dead is fictional.
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In the final exchange between Hilts and the outgoing camp commandant, Von Luger, the inference is that the officer is headed to his death, while the prisoners would likely see liberation by the allies.
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The blame for the failure of the escape to get out more than 76 prisoners was entirely the fault of Cavendish. If his survey had been correct the tunnel wouldn't have been 20 feet short. Also, it was Cavendish who fell exiting the tunnel, drawing the attention of the German guards
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