Why did they escape in The Great Escape?

I had heard about this film for years, most notably in an Eddie Izzard bit, and finally watched it last week. I guess I was expecting… something like a cross between Papillon and Escape From Alcatraz.

Like, they’re prisoners of war. I knew this to be the plot of the movie and was expecting the Germans in charge of the POW camp to be horrible. To be like, torturing them, or semi-starving them, or at LEAST like… yelling at them a lot.

But no! The prisoners can garden… there are arts and crafts… they can do bird watching lessons. They can play sports. They have enough freedom to constantly hang out in private developing elaborate escape plans. They have little bookshelves in their rooms. Steve McQueen gets to take his baseball glove and baseball into solitary confinement.

What the heck? It ruined the movie for me. I was not rooting for them. I was yelling at them to stay where they were. I didn’t feel sorry for any of the ones who died. YOU COULD HAVE STAYED IN A PERFECTLY NICE SUMMER CAMP TIL THE END OF THE WARRRRR.

The cheerful, singsongy score reminded me of the original Parent Trap. (I just checked Wikipedia to see which film was made first, and saw that there are several foreign remakes of The Parent Trap, and now I want to make it a personal goal to see all of them. But that’s neither here nor there.) (But Wiki does say that The Parent Trap “contains an homage” to The Great Escape, which is odd since the former was released two years prior to the latter.)

I mean, I guess it’s supposed to be a fun movie. Not all dark and about how awful war is. But I was disturbed by the idea of war as a very, very elaborate, very, very high-stakes game of Hide-and-Go-Seek played by overgrown boys.

So what are my questions, or why am I starting a thread on this. Um…

  1. The German POW camps in WWII must have been less pleasant than the one portrayed in The Great Escape, right?

  2. Did this ruin the movie for anyone else? My boyfriend kept telling me it was the principle of the thing, and patriotism, that kept them trying to escape. When I imagine myself in that situation though, I just think - staying alive requires you to do nothing terrible to anyone else… just wait out the war in German summer camp.

They state clearly more than once that the British soldiers consider it their duty to try and escape to either rejoin the fight, or to at least force the Germans to use valuable resources recapturing and then guarding them.

Yes, it was stated clearly. I recall it quite well.

Would it have been a tactic of the Germans to make their POW camps comfortable and fun to discourage POWs from wanting to escape and fight? Ensuring that only the most dutiful would do so?

It is the duty of soldiers, and more particularly officers, to attempt to escape and rejoin their armies if at all possible; which doesn’t mean they should court death or torture to do so.

I don’t think I ever saw that film ( war films bore me ), but I read the books by Airey Neave ( later blown up by INLA , who was was in a different camp at Colditz, and life there seemed mainly dull if you kept a low profile, but rather better than criminal prisons of that time and better than modern prisons. But these were officers’ camps; camps for the rank and file were considerably worse, with forced labour ( although usually not as bad as camps for other purposes maintained by either the Axis or the Allies ). The guards weren’t usually malicious or cruel to POWs when they weren’t a threat.

Generally speaking POW death rates were low and most soldiers weren’t necessarily gung-ho about returning to the fray; but the British officer class did have an element of enjoying organising escape committees and digging tunnels for the fun of it.

Depends on the front.
In Western Europe they allowed regular Red Cross inspections and were, all things considered, pretty tame. Mostly in an effort to get their own prisoners treated decent, of course, but the fact that it was the Luftwaffe running the camps (as opposed to, say, the SS) may have played a part as well. Besides, it doesn’t really pay off to rough up your prisoners - that’s just sowing a bloody revolt. Letting them garden and play baseball makes sense.

The movie is somewhat based on the antics the prisoners of Castle Colditz got up to, and reading about it does make it sound like the famed ultra-high security prison was run in almost… quirky fashion. Highlights include :

  • running dozens of moonshine stills, and bribing guards with potato booze
  • bribing guards with better quality food and cigarettes from RC care packages
  • staging plays and even a French orchestra, asking the Germans for tools, props, costumes and make-up ; which they obtained on the condition they not be used for escape. They by and large weren’t, the inmates kept their word.
  • routinely throwing water bombs at the guards and horsing around during roll call, just because.

The Ost Front is a whole 'nother, much more depressing story.

Well, they address the issue in the film IIRC. It’s not really about patriotism or even pride, the scarred guy in charge wants to sow chaos and confusion behind the German lines to weaken the front and end the war quicker, thereby saving the lives of many.

Also, many alpha males in that camp. They can’t have taken the German commander smugly and condescendingly telling them “the war is over for you, my boy” nicely.

Also, they knew that even if they failed, every extra German soldier sent to guard them is one less soldier killing Allied troops.

That’s an interesting point you make. During the film I kept wondering aloud if the reason the Germans were being so kind to the POWs - when, based on my general bits-and-pieces knowledge of what prisoners of war undergo, I’d expect them to be much harsher - was that they were all western European and thus all very human to one another. It’s harder to dehumanize/torture/kill people who aren’t that different from you. Like the Christmas Truce of World War I.

But I hadn’t considered that it was in part because they were all officers.

I know what you’re saying but as a nitpick, it was only the death rate for western POW’s that was low in German camps. The death rate for Soviet POW’s was far higher.

The death rate in Japanese POW camps was also terrible. Worst of all was the death rate for Chinese POW’s held by the Japanese. When the eight years of fighting ended in 1945, Japan released the surviving Chinese POW’s they were holding. There were less than a hundred of them.

Kobal2, great reply, thank you. Lots of information there. Interesting how wacky that POW camp was.

I suppose what makes a military person heroic is that they’re willing to cross the line of “I may be killed for this” in order to thwart the enemy. I can imagine it being appealing to hide Jews (which one could be killed for), because it’s a direct way to help. The less direct way to help - diverting attention and power toward escape attempts and away from killing Jews/Allies - is harder to imagine. I guess it’s hard to imagine risking my life for the abstract (probably correct) idea that diverting German resources IS saving lives. Easier to imagine risking my life to help a flesh-and-blood person standing in front of me.

Indeed. Although, in one of the worst of their crimes, the Germans solved the problem of gaining 100s of 1000s of Ivans during Barbarossa by not feeding them — not entirely through deliberate decision, but also because of unprepareness — until after some incredible number of deaths they stabilized the situation and started keeping them alive, and recruiting them to fight against the Allies if possible ( which many did, voluntarily or not ).
The soviets took a lot of Axis prisoners also; but were even more careless. Around 5% came back. And that long after the war, the Allies kept them as cheap/slave labour for as long as they could get away with it.

Yeah, a great uncle of mine spent a few years in Changi. It was a life changing experience for those who lived through it.

A good friend of mine spent the war in Changi. Life-changing indeed.

This is the idea of what it is to be a POW I am most familiar with. Which is why it was jarring to see The Great Escape, which presents that particular camp as pretty much like a summer camp.

Terrible POW camp + escape = Amazing, wow, so glad they escaped

Fun/easy/eccentric POW camp + escape = You fought for the principles you believe in within this war, which is noble, but ultimately you are another casualty of the concept of war, which is a shame

Having thought more about this, I take back what I said about “not feeling sorry for the [movie characters] who died trying to escape from the POW camp.” They’re not just movie characters, for one. I knew that, but reading the replies of Quartz and stui magpie drove this home.

I’m reminded of the thought experiment that asks whether you’d choose to let one person you know and love die, or an airplane of 200 strangers. No one’s ever in this position in war. The moral dilemma in war is more like: would YOU risk dying to POSSIBLY kill the person who puts the fuel in the airplane that will plummet toward the earth, killing 200 strangers.

The person who puts the fuel in the airplane is as much a pawn of war as you are, for one. And also, even if the person who puts the fuel in the airplane dies, there’s likely another waiting to do his job in case of his death, which means your death is at best as symbolic gesture toward your principles or the principles of your country. So is it worth it?

This is getting into Great Debates territory, probably, or at least beyond the scope of the movie this thread is about. But that’s where starting this thread has led me. Thinking about what constitutes heroism. Why people are willing to die in a war.

I didn’t expect starting this thread to lead me to think seriously about war, but it has, so thank you to those who replied.

It wasn’t so much that they were all officers (I don’t believe they were), but the conditions at Luftwaffe camps (which housed only airmen) were generally better than other Stalags, due to Goering’s old-fashioned views on chivalry and camaraderie among aviators. It’s noteworthy that Himmler was constantly trying to get his hands on the Luftwaffe’s system of camps, partly in the belief that Goering was too soft on enemies of the Reich, and he was increasingly backed by Hitler as the situation worsened for Germany. (Hence the so-called “Kugel [Bullet] Order” authorizing escapers to be shot, and Hitler’s order that more than half of the 76 be killed.)

As for the actual quality of life in Luft Stalag III, I suggest you read the book The Great Escape by Paul Brickhill, who lived through the whole thing. You’ll see that the movie differed from the book in many respects. (For one thing, there was no single Steve McQueen figure; he was put into the movie purely to draw the American audience.) The things about camp life Brickhill dwells on the most are the near-starvation rations they were on and how friggin’ cold it got in the winter. The worst thing the Germans could do to punish them for minor infractions was to withhold their mail and Red Cross parcels.

I love the movie, but my biggest gripe about it (as with most period movies, especially Westerns) is that everything was too damned clean, the accommodations were way too comfortable, and the POWs were too well fed and too well dressed to be convincing.

With regard to their treatment at the hands of the guards, some were pretty tame while others were very gung-ho. The POWs courted the former and did their best to confound the latter, but you could easily wind up shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or otherwise just spooking a guard. Brickhill tells of an American sergeant (US airmen were eventually segregated from the Brits at Luft Stalag III) who was killed simply for standing in the doorway of his barracks watching a flight of Allied bombers go overhead after the prisoners were ordered inside.

If you were a Pole, Norwegian, Dutchman, whatever, serving in the RAF, you might or might not survive the war if you were captured; if you were a Russian POW, you would be segregated from your Western allies and probably worked to death.

The hatred that all Allied airmen must have felt for the Germans was another big factor in their wanting to escape and rejoin the fight. Sitting on your ass in a POW camp for the duration reeks of cowardice and dereliction of duty.

One final point worth noting: Every enlisted man who flew over Europe in the USAAF was a sergeant of one grade or another. The Army Air Force instituted the policy after learning that sergeants (along with commissioned officers) received preferential treatment from the Germans if they were captured.

I remember Kurt Vonnegut writing in Slaughterhouse Five about how the British POWs in some camp were there four years or more ever since Dunkirk, well fed, well read and constantly amusing themselves by putting on shows and playing games with the guards to pass the time. As he wrote it, the Brits were roundly disgusted with tired, ill, frostbitten American POWs just captured after the Battle of the Bulge, and their host (the camp commandant) hastened to assure them that the Americans would be transferred as soon as possible to Dresden.

For the record, they were not killed en masse as depicted in the movie. They were told they were being driven back to camp in automobiles in groups of two or three; after being on the road for a couple of hours, the cars would stop in the middle of nowhere and the Germans (all Gestapo officers, I’m pretty sure) told them to get out and relieve themselves. They were then shot in the back of the head while they were taking a leak, just like in a gangster movie, and their bodies were taken to the nearest town and cremated.

The one bright spot in this story is that after the war, the British hunted down everyone involved in the operation and, IIRC, made sure that they were put to death themselves. (Brickhill writes about this as well.)

Also, at this point (December 1944–February 1945) a lot of POWs probably realized that all they had to do to survive the war was to sit tight and wait to be liberated any day now. They might have been able to live with that attitude in the final months of the war, but it certainly wasn’t the case for most prisoners in '43 and early '44.

IIRC, Brickhill also writes about one diehard who was recaptured but not executed and ended up in a concentration camp; he kept on trying to escape right up until the Allies rolled into town.

I had a British Indian Army officer Great Uncle who was imprisoned by the Italians, Japanese and the Germans (in that order) and his used to say that he actually gained weight as an Italian “guest”. He had to take a walk to freedom from the Oder to the Elbe from the Germans.

National Geographic Channel has a special on this. The movie is based on a true story.