Recently watched, for the umpteenth time, one of my favorite movies: The Great Escape. A few questions came to mind…
One tunnel (Tom) began under the wood-burning stove. One (Dick?) began under the drain in the shower. Do they ever show construction on Harry, and where it began?
The forger (Donald Pleasance) needs a camera, which they get through bribery/blackmail of the guard Werner. I’m not sure why they need a camera…but where did they plan on getting their film developed?
Steve McQueen runs into trouble when he is confronted by a German soldier, and instead of talking his way out of it he bolts. I always assumed that it was because he couldn’t speak German; but this time I noticed that they take pains to mention that he’s fluent, in his first meeting with the commandant. Possible plot hole.
I’m willing to stretch my credulity to accept that they were able to construct civilian clothing out of scrounged fabric…but hats? Bartlett and Ashley-Pitt are sporting some snappy fedoras.
This is more of an historical question: camp conditions seem pretty humane. How accurate was that? (They do state explicitly that the camp is run by the luftwaffe, implying that the Gestapo or S.S. would not care as much about the Geneva Convention.)
I think the camera was for those pieces of ID that had photos on them. And given that they were almost certainly taking B&W photos, I imagine that they scrounged the necessary chemicals. (Every time I see the movie, I’m amazed at how elaborate all of the preparations were for the escape.)
Concerning the cameras, my understanding (from a Hitler Channel story on the film), at the request of British and American militaries, a lot of the details on how items were smuggled in weren’t revealed. They wanted to be sure that a future enemy holding POWs wouldn’t know tricks learned from a movie. My guess is Red Cross packages were used.
McQueen’s running away could be a continuity error. But it could also be that even if he spoke German fluently, his accent would give him away. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been in America for decades, speaks English very well but you can tell he’s German (Austrian).
They did not show Harry. In real life, Dick was covered with the stove and Harry was the shower drain. Tom was covered with a slab of concrete in a very dark area of one of the huts. It probably wouldn’t have looked real in the movie.
The book (and others I’ve read) mention cameras, but never mention getting the film developed and printed. They do write some about trading food and supplies the prisoners get from their Red Cross packages with the Germans. It’s possible some materials were gotten through guards that way.
Air Force prisoners were kept under the jurisdiction of the Luftwaffe, where things were far better than under the Gestapo. The book mentions a few times prisoners being threatened with being placed under Gestapo control which would not have been good.
The book of The Great Escape is by Paul Brickhill. See if your library has it. Another book on the same escape is called The Longest Tunnel by Alan Burgess.
There was a National Geographic Channel special about the real story that this movie was based on, and I kid you not, the true story is more incredible than the film. I can’t search for it now, but I will later. Maybe someone else can find it. You can watch the whole program online. It will blow your freakin’ mind.
It occurred to me that the success (such as it was) of the escape hinged on the disparity between living conditions in the US and Britain vs Germany. Allied prisoners were better supplied than their German guards, which made it possible to bribe a guard with cigarettes and coffee.
So if I was running a POW camp, I’d make sure that the guards were the best paid and best comped soldiers in the army. A scrounger is not going to get far with a Hershey bar if the guards all have swiss chocolate in their lockers.
McQueen wasn’t just confronted by a German noncom, he was wearing a German uniform and riding a German Army motorcycle (taken from a German soldier he’d just killed). He wouldn’t have had the proper documents on him either (unless, of course, he’d planned the whole thing in advance, which I doubt he did). I don’t care how good his German was; there was NO WAY he could have talked his way out of that one!
I agree with the above: read the book by Paul Brickhill and watch the NG documentary. All your questions will be answered.
Clayton Hutton wrote a pretty good book about his work during the war. Red Cross parcels were specifically not used, for fear that if the Germans discovered any hanky-panky with them they would stop issuing Red Cross parcels to the POWs.
Not true. Brickhill’s book tells how a “tame goon” brought in developing chemicals for the film. It was indeed used for photo IDs. He never says anything about where the film was developed, or go into any detail about it. He probably didn’t know, and probably didn’t learn in his later interviews. Brickhill was a low-level “penguin” at the camp, and wasn’t on the inside of most of what went on (and didn’t pull a place in any of the escapes). As others have said, read his book. And the many others that have been written about Stalag Luft III.
They hired some ex-inmates as technical advisors, so the "look
" of the camp and the tunnels is apparently right. It looks like the illustrations in the books. One thing that’s always annoyed me is the way they amplified the role of Americans, evidently for the US audience. The Scrounger was a Brit, and there’s nobody as outrageous or audacious as Steve McQueen’s character. He probably would’ve ended up being shot while escaping.
Steve McQueen’s on the cover of my DVD, and I know they got him for his entertainment value, but he’s so completely out of place it’s absurd. I know his motorcycle-jumping is one of the iconic images of the movie (they were still selling posters of it prominently in the 1970s), but do you really think the movie would be a flop without him?