Director: John Sturges
Producer: John Sturges and James Clavell
Written by James Clavell and WR Burnett
From a book by Paul Brickhill
Cinematography: Daniel L Fapp
Score: Elmer Bernstein
The story (really in case you’ve never seen in) what! involves an allied plan for a massive breakout from a German P.O.W. camp during World War 2. The Nazis had created a high-security, escape proof prisoner of war camp for those annoying detainees who have attempted escape from their other prison of war camps. These prisoners are not discouraged at all, as they plan a huge escape of 250 men. The first half of the film has a comedic tone as they fool their guards and they find creative ways to dig their tunnels. The second half of the film is filled with high adventure and pathos as they flee to safety and their doom. In the UK there is a standing joke that the film is shown every Christmas, often on Boxing Day.
The cracking screenplay, by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, was based on Paul Brickhill's novel about this true event. Australian James Clavell was a P.O.W. himself in Singapore during W.W. II and had first hand experience of life in a prison camp. W.R. Burnett was a prolific novel / screenwriter for over 40 years.
There's now a growing generation that knows ‘The Great Escape’ more from pop-culture references like ‘The Simpsons’ than it does from the movie itself. With the recent passing of Charles Bronson, too many of the original cast are now gone. The film is now 40 years old, but has still done a remarkable job of standing up to time and avoiding the inevitable slide into cliche.
What still works so well in the film is the storytelling and cast. The first hour of the movie is rather genial. Camp commandant Von Luger's plea to the POWs that they "sit out the war as comfortably as possible" together, is so heartfelt that for a few seconds you're almost tempted to root for them to take up his offer (at least, until the Gestapo show up). However, once the Germans discover the first escape tunnel, and the first POW is killed, the situation becomes much more grim. Once the escape is under way, director John Sturges masterfully switches gears, juggling six or seven stories all at once, marching nearly all of them to the same inexorable climax, as false hope mounts upon false hope. By the time Richard Attenborough informs us that he's "never been happier", you realise that its not going to finish with a Hollywood ending.
It’s hard to decide who gives the best performance in the movie. Obviously McQueen steals the show as the American rogue but it should be stated that Donald Pleasences character is portrayed sensitively – he also was a POW during the war having been shot down in the RAF. David McCallum looks the part is the naval flyer. Attenborough is faultless and James Donald is the perfect SBO, even to the detail of the limp which his character, Group Captain Herbert Massey, had. Final word should be given to James Coburn as the typical aussie pilot who tries to take a refrigerator with him down the tunnel.
The history behind the film is also interesting. Hitler ultimately calmed down after being reasoned with by Goering, Feldmarschall Keitel, Maj-Gen Graevenitz and Maj-Gen Westhoff, and dictated that more than half the prisoners be shot and cremated. So, as depicted in the film, several of those recaptured were not executed and were indeed returned to confinement. In fact, even those executed were not "shot on the spot" for the most part, but were actually executed later after being turned over to the Gestapo; most being shot while being allowed to relieve themselves, under the guise of "trying to escape".
There are many accounts as to how much more humane the environment was within the camp (which even had a popular and very successful theatre, featuring prisoners who would later be name performers) than many other POW camps...to quote one source
‘It must be made clear that the German Luftwaffe, who were responsible for Air Force prisoners of war, maintained a degree of professional respect for fellow flyers, and the general attitude of the camp security officers and guards should not be confused with the SS or Gestapo. The Luftwaffe treated the POWs well, despite an erratic and inconsistent supply of food’
Finally, virtually all the major engineering aspects in regards to the tunnels and the initial escape in the film are as they were actually achieved in the real escape. The technical advisor Wally Floody himself an inmate ensured that Sturges (not that it would have been his intention) did not take too many liberties. The film certainly tinkers with the tone and character portrayal, but not in the key elements that are disparaged out of sneering ignorance.