There's something fundamentally British about The Great Escape. Obviously, it's a largely British story in the first place, even though it was made by an American studio and featured a bundle of American actors — some equipped with uncertain accents (James Coburn's Aussie number take a bow.) What's so British about it is how for several generations it has been indelibly associated with Christmas afternoon TV/Bank Holiday afternoon TV/wet Sunday afternoon TV — in fact there were times when The Wizard Of Oz, The Sound Of Music and The Great Escape together in one copy of the Radio Times just screamed "National Holiday." And while the others introduced us to fantasy worlds and singing nuns respectively, The Great Escape did something far more important.
It was for many their first introduction to war. More importantly, The Great Escape does not just document a dramatic and enormously significant true life event that took place in the latter stages of World War II — an event now not experienced by anyone under the age of 56 — it humanises it. In the dog days of WWII, the Germans decided to round up all those already keen on escape into one super POW camp — Stalag Luft III. Paul Brickhill was one of those, and wrote a book in 1950 about the most audacious prison camp escape in history. John Sturges spent the next 13 years trying to make a movie of it, and it was only the success of his all-star ensemble western The Magnificent Seven the previous year that allowed him to raise the $4 million needed to get the movie up and running. The Great Escape, shot over the course of 1962, was filmed on location in Europe, where ironically the studio-built camp was housed at Bavaria studios in Germany.
It could be argued that given their leniency in embracing the production of a film that dealt with such recent history, the German characters were appropriately mellowed. But this worked in the film's favour. Ironically, for a film about the Allies' escape methodology, The Great Escape often finds its heart in the performance of Hannes Messemer, the newly-appointed camp Commandant, Colonel Von Luger. His comment to flier Hilts (McQueen) that, "We are both grounded for the duration of the war," plus his reluctance to return the "Heil Hitler" salute to the SS served to humanise a country that less than 20 years before had been pilloried for the actions of a rather short and deeply horrendous tyrant. No mean feat for a patriotic all star action movie.
Sturges got his film together, his cast in place, his European locations in hand (plans to shoot in the mountains above LA were quickly abandoned.) Six weeks in, his star went AWOL. Steve McQueen, AKA Hilts, "The Cooler King", after watching rushes for a movie that Sturges claims never had a script, decided his character wasn't strong enough. Garner and co. got him back and one motorcycle jump later, the world was a different place. McQueen jumping that bike over the barbed wire fence remains one of the most indelible images of cinema. Who cares if McQueen didn't actually do the stunt — he tried but fell: stunt rider Bud Ekins crosses the fence.
The final act of The Great Escape is a masterfully sustained piece of action and tension as the various escapees struggle for freedom via train, bicycle, motorbike, row boat and hitchhiking. Sturges cuts between all their exploits and leads us to the inevitable tragedy as 50 of the 76 that actually escaped are shot by the Germans, their lack of uniforms allowing Nazis to treat them as spies rather than POWs.
The final element was added in post production — Bernstein's fantastic score. "What is so wonderful about this film is Elmer Bernstein's music," co-star David McCallum once said. And he's right — from the opening shot of the prisoner's arrival at Stalag Luft III, it hits a defiant note.