Monday, 30 January 2017

The Great Escape (1963)

On the night of 24-25 March 1944, 76 prisoners of war escaped from Stalag Luft III.  This was far short of the hoped-for goal of over 200, but still represented the second largest mass escape during the war.  The largest was by French prisoners, which may explain why it's much less well-known in the English-speaking world.

The escape was the brainchild of Squadron Leader Roger Bushell.  It was his third escape, and presented the culmination of his explicit plan to force the Nazis to divert men and material from the war effort to hunt down large groups of escapees.  even if none of the men actually made it safely to neutral territory, therefore, the escape would serve a valuable purpose.

This 1963 adaptation of these events plays rather fast and loose with the specifics of history.  Bushell is renamed to Bartlett, for instance, and many other characters are amalgams of multiple real-life persons.  Also a number of American characters are added to the escapees.  There were none in reality, because the American prisoners had been moved to another camp some months earlier.  In broad strokes however, it is accurate: the escape was made via a long, deep tunnel, and the methods used in the tunnel's construction, as well as of concealing that activity, are largely as depicted.  The film also shows the creation of the clothing the men would wear on their escape, and of the falsified papers they used (though in reality not everyone had the latter).

If one accepts the various liberties taken in the name of excitement - and I think one should - then this is a fine film, though at close to three hours in length it may be a bit long for some people. The actual escape itself does not take place until around the two hour mark, and the rest of the film being dedicated to the PoWs' efforts to make it out of Nazi territory.  It's probably not a spoiler to say that for most of them, this does not end so well.

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