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The Great Escape
The Last Escape
Los Angeles opening: 3 Jul 1963
4 Jun--late Oct 1962 at Bavaria Studios, Geiselgasteig, Germany
Duration (in mins):
Duration (in reels):
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(Werner "The Ferret")
([Flt. Lt. Denys] Cavendish "The Surveyor")
([Flying Officer Archibald "Archie"] Ives "The Mole")
([Flt. Lt. William] Willie "Tunnel King" [Dickes])
([Flt. Lt. Sandy "Mac"] MacDonald "Intelligence")
([Lt. Commander Eric] Ashley-Pitt "Dispersal")
([Col.] Von Luger "The Kommandant")
([Flying Officer Louis] Sedgwick "Manufacturer")
([Flt. Lt. Colin] Blythe "The Forger")
([Flt. Lt.] Danny "Tunnel King" [Velinski])
([Capt.] Ramsey "The SBO")
([Squadron Leader Roger] Bartlett "Big X")
([Flt. Lt. Robert] Hendley "The Scrounger")
([Capt. Virgil] Hilts "The Cooler King")
(Strachwitz, Security Sergeant)
(Posen, the Adjutant)
(Dietrich, S.S. officer)
Karl Otto Alberty
(Steinach, S.S. officer)
In 1942 Germany, Allied air force prisoners from England, Australia, Scotland, Canada and America are transferred to a special, maximum security compound, Stalag Luft III. The camp Kommandant, Luftwaffe Col. Von Luger, meets Senior British Officer Capt. Ramsey to warn him that although the newly arriving prisoners are well-known for wreaking havoc throughout the Reich with their constant camp breakouts, they will have no success at Stalag III. Undaunted, Ramsey reminds Von Luger that it is the sworn duty of every officer to attempt escape. Among the new arrivals at the compound are Scottish Flying Officer Archie Ives, American pilot Capt. Virgil Hilts, American R.A.F. Flt. Lt. Robert Hendley, R.A.F. Lt. Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt, Australians Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick and Flt. Lt. Denys Cavendish, Polish R.A.F. Flt. Lt. Danny Velinski and R.A.F. Flt. Lt. Willie Dickes. Within hours of their arrival, Danny and Willie make an escape attempt, trying to blend in with Russian workers while Sedgwick creates a diversion by starting a fight. Although several men successfully hide among piles of tree branches in departing trucks, they are caught at the gate. Meanwhile, Hilts tells Ives that he already has discovered a blind spot between the guard towers, but when he tests his theory by tossing, then trying to retrieve a baseball from the spot, he is stopped by guards and Von Luger sentences him and Ives to twenty days in the isolation block, known as “the cooler.” The next day, Hendley, Ashley-Pitt and fellow R.A.F. Flt. Lt. Sandy “Mac” MacDonald are concerned to note the arrival of British Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett under Gestapo and SS escort. When Von Luger protests the security organizations’ interference, Gestapo head Kuhn declares that Roger is the suspected ringleader of major POW breakouts and will be executed on his next arrest. Later, Ramsey welcomes Roger and informs him that most of his team of experts is also in the camp. When Roger declares his intention to organize a massive breakout of 250 men, Ramsey is taken aback, but Roger insists that their duty is to harass, confound and confuse the enemy. That night, Roger tells several of his men that the prisoners will take up approved camp activities such as gardening and sports, which will serve as cover while others dig not one, but three underground tunnels to the forest nearby. Amazed by the audacity of the plan, the men are galvanized and each leader of a particular group organizes their work for the next several months: master forger Flt. Lt. Colin Blythe requires paper, inks, a camera and current travel documents; tailor Griffith must turn old uniforms and every bit of cloth into suits and Wehrmacht uniforms; and security head Sorren must set up an impenetrable web of communication on the whereabouts of all camp guards. Hendley, known as a “scrounger,” furnishes an odd assortment of necessities through bribery and theft. Mac, head of intelligence, provides Roger with a description of all the wood that can be safely stolen throughout the camp to shore up the tunnel walls. Cavendish, the surveyor, works with “tunneling kings” Danny and Willie, and soon the three tunnels, nicknamed "Tom, Dick and Harry," are begun in the huts closest to the forest edge, with the men digging thirty feet down to mute the activity. Roger soon learns that Hilts and Ives, who became friends while in the cooler, are planning their own breakout, which he allows them to continue to distract Von Luger. Hilts's and Ives’s attempt is quickly discovered and the men are returned to the cooler. As the intensive tunneling continues over the next several weeks, the problem of moving and hiding tons of dirt becomes critical. Ashley-Pitt, in charge of dispersal, devises a plan whereby socks of dirt, held closed by pins attached to strings, are placed down a man’s pant legs, thus allowing streaming dirt from the pant bottoms to be easily and stealthily spread across the grounds. Soon, the men are gardening with fervor as dirt is continually distributed about the compound. As times passes, the men continue to participate enthusiastically in all sporting and holiday events, choreographed to cover another phase of the tunnel excavation and construction. Having discerned that young German guard Werner, whom the men call “The Ferret,” is malleable, Hendley coerces him to secure a number of crucial items and, later, steals his wallet to provide his roommate Blythe with appropriate travel and identity passes to copy. Later, Roger meets with Hilts, who admits that he and Ives are considering another breakout. When Roger suggests that Hilts escape and allow himself to be recaptured to provide them with exclusive details of the layout of the nearby town and train station, Hilts refuses. Although Danny is plagued by numerous cave-ins as the tunnel construction continues, eventually enough wood is gathered to shore up the walls, rail tracks are laid, electric lighting is set up and a relay trolley system is rigged to pull the men and equipment through the lengthening, narrow passageways. Hoping to set the escape date to coincide with the new moon, Roger orders all work halted on tunnels Dick and Harry to concentrate on completing the shortest tunnel, Tom. After hoarding potatoes for months, Hilts, Hendley and Goff, the only other American in the camp, concoct moonshine from a homemade still and on the 4th of July celebrate American Independence Day with the entire camp. While the men celebrate, Von Luger uses the distraction to investigate all of the empty huts and the entrance to “Tom” is discovered. Ives, overcome by despair at the discovery, stumbles toward the barbed wire fence, blindly intent on escaping, and is shot dead by a guard. That afternoon, Hilts tells Roger that he will escape that night and make the reconnaissance mission. Soon after, Hilts is returned to the camp and placed in the cooler. Work continues on the next shortest tunnel, Harry, and Roger again sets the escape night to coincide with the next new moon. After drawing lots, the men go through “dress rehearsal” to practice their identities as German soldiers or businessmen. As the date looms closer, Blythe realizes that his long-distance eyesight has begun to fail rapidly due to the strain. A couple of nights before the escape attempt, Willie discovers Danny intent on breaking out through the fence and his friend confesses that he is secretly claustrophobic and unable to return to the tunnel. After Willie promises his support, Danny agrees to try the tunnel again. The night before the escape, Roger informs Blythe that he is aware of his near blindness and cannot allow Blythe to go. Pointing out that Roger is as much of a hazard because of his notoriety as the helpless Blythe, Hendley insists on managing Blythe’s departure and Roger reluctantly consents. On the day of the escape, Hilts is released from the cooler and reports to Mac, who informs him that he will be directing each of the men as they exit the tunnel into the forest. After bidding Ramsey farewell, Roger, Mac and Ashley-Pitt enter the tunnel, only to run into a panicked Danny who has bolted, unable to endure the small space. Roger lets Danny and Willie return to the hut and then proceeds to the tunnel’s end. There, Hilts pushes up the last few inches of earth to the outside and discovers, to his horror, that the exit falls some twenty feet short of the forest edge and is in full view of a patrolling guard. Realizing that the travel permits and documents are all dated for that day, Roger frantically wonders what to do, when Hilts volunteers to hide in the forest and, using a rope, to signal each man when it is safe to exit. The plan proceeds slowly, and just as Willie convinces Danny to return to the tunnel, an air raid occurs, extinguishing all the lights in the compound. Although Danny panics in the darkness, Willie keeps him under control and Roger encourages as many men to flee under cover of darkness as possible, including Hendley and Blythe. After the all-clear, Roger, Mac and Sedgwick escape but the next man out trips, alerting the guards. When the next man waiting in the tunnel grows impatient at not receiving the signal to exit, he climbs out right at the foot of the guard. Hilts flees, but the remaining men are stopped in the hut and at the tunnel exit. The next morning Von Luger learns that seventy-six men have escaped and confronts Ramsey. At the town of Neustadt, Roger, Mac, Ashley-Pitt, Hendley and Blythe catch the next train, which is also boarded by Gestapo agents. Fearing scrutiny, Hendley and Blythe jump from the train as the others continue without incident to the next town. Meanwhile several others, having caught earlier trains, struggle to get out of Germany: Sedgwick bicycles toward the French border; Hilts steals a Wehrmacht motorcycle and uniform and heads to Switzerland; Cavendish hitchhikes on a delivery truck; and Danny and Willie row a small boat down a river. At the next town, Roger, Mac and Ashley-Pitt disembark from the train, but when Ashley-Pitt observes that an SS agent seems to recognize Roger, he attacks the agent and is shot running away, allowing Roger and Mac time to evade detection. Shortly afterward, Cavendish is picked up by German soldiers and taken for interrogation by Kuhn, and discovers several of the others have already been recaptured. Out in the country, Hendley and Blythe come across a small airfield and steal a German fighter plane, which they pilot toward Switzerland until the engine gives out and they crash-land in a field. Unable to see the German soldiers who are approaching, Blythe walks directly toward them without raising his hands and is shot as Hendley rushes to his side and is arrested. Near the Swiss border, Hilts is confronted by German soldiers and leads them on a long cross-country chase on the motorbike. At the border, which is marked by a sprawling double set of wooden and barbed wire fences, Hilts jumps the speeding cycle over the first fence before soldiers shoot out the bike’s tire, sending him sliding into barbed wire. Sometime later, in a French village, Resistance members befriend Sedgwick and assist him in reaching Spain, while Danny and Willie have rowed to a neutral port, where they board a docked Allied freighter. Still in Germany, as Mac is boarding a bus, he is tripped up by a Gestapo agent speaking English, an amateurish mistake that he had tried to warn his men to avoid. He and Roger then dash through the village, only to be arrested by Kuhn’s men and placed with Cavendish and the others. The next morning, the men are told they will be returned to Stalag III, but when the truck in which they are riding stops for a break, the prisoners are killed by a barrage of machine gun fire. Back at the compound, Von Luger informs Ramsey of the deaths and that eleven other escapees will be returned to the camp. Hendley and a small group arrive later and when informed of the dead, Hendley wonders if the high cost was worth it, but Ramsey declares that Roger’s intended mission to harass the enemy was a great success. The SS arrive to replace Von Luger as Hilts is returned and, after Goff hands him his baseball glove and ball, he assumes his familiar spot in the cooler.
The Mirisch Company, Inc.
A Mirisch-Alpha Production
United Artists Corp.
Robert E. Relyea
(2d unit dir)
Jack N. Reddish
(2d asst dir)
W. R. Burnett
Daniel L. Fapp
(Dir of photog)
(Asst film ed)
(Sd eff ed)
Robert E. Relyea
(Asst to prod)
Allen K. Wood
C. Wallace Floody
Germany and United States
Based on the book
The Great Escape
by Paul Brickhill (New York, 1950).
Westrex Recording System
World War II
Prisoners of war
World War II
Forgers and forgery
Germany. Air Force
Great Britain. Royal Air Force
World War II--Resistance movements
The working title of the film was
The Last Escape
. The following written prologue appears in the onscreen credits: “This is a true story. Although the characters are composites of real men, and time and place have been compressed, every detail of the escape is the way it really happened.” The closing credits include the following written epilogue: “This picture is dedicated to the fifty.” The cast of characters listed at the end of the film introduces the principals by showing shots of them from within the picture, with their names and respective character names superimposed. The list begins with Robert Graf as "Werner 'The Ferret,'" then proceeds by order of importance, ending with Steve McQueen as "Hilts 'The Cooler King.'" Although the copyright claimant for the film is Mirisch-Alpha, the production companies were The Mirisch Corporation and Alpha Corp., the latter of which was the company of director-producer John Sturges. As noted by Sturges in interviews conducted in the mid-1970s, which were later used for a modern source book, Alpha and Mirisch were co-owners of the picture, with United Artists supplying the funding for it in exchange for exclusive distribution rights.
According to the interviews with Sturges, he had been intrigued by Paul Brickhill’s book for many years and credited his success with the The Mirisch Company's
The Magnificent Seven
(1960, see below), for making it possible for him to film
The Great Escape
. The earlier film co-starred McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, who were reunited in
The Great Escape
. In other interviews, Sturges noted that he had tried in vain to interest various studios in adapting Brickhill’s book for the screen, but they felt that the picture would be too depressing and would not appeal to women because there were no female characters.
A Feb 1961
news item reported that Walter Newman would adapt Brickhill’s book, and in the mid-1970s interviews with Sturges, the director confirmed that Newman worked on the screenplay, fleshing out an initial treatment prepared by William Roberts. According to Sturges, Newman’s work created the initial basis for many of the characters and the details of the escape, but because Newman could not finish his screenplay in time to finalize the funding, he was replaced by W. R. Burnett, who was announced as the screenwriter in a Jul 1961
item. In a featurette created for the picture’s 1998 DVD release, Sturges revealed that a total of six writers worked on the screenplay, of which there were eleven versions. The director admitted that there was no complete script even after filming began, and that writing continued throughout production. In the mid-1970s interviews, Sturges related that after Burnett had completed his work on the script, writer James Clavell, who was credited above Burnett in the onscreen credits, was hired to add more detail to the English characters. Clavell continued working on the script on location, and later, during production, Ivan Moffat was brought on to enhance the action sequences and expand the part of “Capt. Virgil Hilts,” played by McQueen. Sturges and others confirmed that Moffat was responsible for the recurring baseball tossing that Hilts uses to pass the time in the cooler. Clavell also wrote the 1963 novel
, a much darker view of POW life in a Japanese prison camp, which was adapted into a 1965 film (see below).
Feb and Mar 1962
items stated that John Mills was considered for a role, as was Richard Harris, who was included in the cast in the film's initial appearances on
production charts. Sturges’ 1970s interviews reveal that, although Mills had turned down the part of “Roger Bartlett,” Harris had committed to the role but was prevented from making the picture by a scheduling conflict. Michael Wilding was also cast in the picture, according to Sturges, but he, too, had to drop out.
Several news items in early 1962 reported that principal photography would take place in California, not abroad, and in the mid-1970s interviews with Sturges and several of the principal crew and cast members, it was stated that Sturges originally wanted to shoot some second-unit, establishing shots in Germany, with the majority of filming to take place in Idylwild, CA, in the mountains near Big Bear, where the prisoner of war camp would be built. According to Sturges, they were prevented from filming in California because the Screen Extras Guild would not give them the necessary cost-cutting concessions to hire nonprofessionals for the more than 600 extras needed for the production.
In order to keep the budget under $3.9 million—the amount loaned to The Mirisch Company and Alpha Corp. by UA—the filmmakers decided to shoot the picture entirely on location in Germany. The interiors, including the interiors of the barracks and the escape tunnels, were shot on two sound stages at the Bavaria Studios in Geiselgasteig, near Munich. The entire exterior set of the camp was built on the backlot of Bavaria Studios, in what was considered to be national forest land. In order to receive government permission to clear the area and construct the camp, the filmmakers agreed to replant the area after production, as well as redistribute the uprooted trees throughout Germany. The camp area, recreated by the design team from historical research, covered approximately 500 yards by 300 yards and took about six weeks to build. Although several other location sites had been planned initially, in order to save money, most of the sequences showing the various prisoners fleeing, including the film’s iconic motorcycle chase, were shot on location in and around Füssen, Germany.
In interviews, McQueen’s former wife, Neile McQueen Toffel, revealed that when McQueen took note of James Garner’s character’s (“Flt. Lt. Robert Hendley”) distinctive attire and number of lines in the script, he protested and requested that his part be enlarged. In modern interviews with Garner and Donald Pleasence (“Flt. Lt. Colin Blythe”), both actors related that McQueen walked off the picture for six weeks while changes were made to the script. The entire motorcycle sequence was added specifically for McQueen, a well-known dirt bike enthusiast, although sources conflict about when the sequence was written, whether it was before or during production, and also about exactly how long McQueen held up production.
Stuntman Bud Ekins, a close friend of and double for McQueen, performed what became an iconic action film stunt: the motorcycle jump over a six-foot-wide wooden fence as Hilts attempts to cross the Swiss border. Due to insurance reasons, McQueen was not allowed to make the jump, but did perform the other elements of the biking sequences, including doubling as the German cyclist chasing Hilts. Toffel stated in her memoir that if she were to select a moment in McQueen’s career that launched him into international stardom, it was the cycle jump, which for many years was credited to the actor, not Ekins. In a mid-1970s interview, Ekins confirmed that he did the jump, for which he was paid $750, and also that he was hired to create the motorcycles used in the sequence, which he constructed from new British bikes modified to resemble World War II-era German vehicles.
The Great Escape
marked Ekins’ first feature film work, after which he went on to work as an actor and stuntman in numerous other pictures, including McQueen’s 1968 hit movie
In his mid-1970s interviews that were used for a modern source book, Robert E. Relyea, who is credited onscreen as “assistant to producer,” revealed (as confirmed by Sturges) that he directed much of the second-unit footage, including some of the motorcycle stunt sequence. Relyea also served as the pilot of the old, re-constructed aircraft that doubled as the German reconnaissance plane and as the plane on which Hendley and Blythe attempt to escape. With a dummy standing in for Pleasence, Relyea doubled for Garner and flew the plane for the crash-landing stunt. According to Relyea, because NATO refused to cooperate with the production and allow it to film on their airbase near Munich, a Luftwaffe airbase was used instead.
A number of the cast and crew members had had real-life military experiences that helped to inform their work on
The Great Escape
, including Pleasence, who served in the Royal Air Force during World War II and was placed in Stalag Luft 21, a German POW camp, after his bomber was shot down over France. Garner, who served in the U.S. Army during the Korean war, worked as a “scrounger,” like his character Hendley. C. Wallace “Wally” Floody, a technical advisor on the film and former Canadian Royal Air Force pilot and engineer, spent nearly two years in the real Stalag Luft III as one of the “tunneling kings” until his transfer to another camp just before the breakout. Brickhill also served as a technical consultant on the film, according to Sturges, helping to verify details during pre-production, construction of the sets and designing of the costumes. Hannes Messemer, who played “Col. Von Luger,” was a German POW in a Russian camp before escaping and walking hundreds of miles from the Eastern Front back to Germany. Additionally, a number of the German crew members had either served as POW camp guards in Germany or had been imprisoned in American POW camps in the United States, according to the 1970s interviews with the filmmakers.
As stated in the opening prologue, the film was based on a true incident. Brickhill, a fighter pilot in the Australian Royal Air Force, chronicled his time as a prisoner-of-war in the real Stalag Luft III, which was located ninety miles outside Berlin in Sagan, in what is now Poland. [Although the filmmakers applied to visit the camp, at the time of production, it was in East Germany and was not accessible to Americans.] The camp held captured Allied air force personnel, including South Africans, New Zealanders and Norwegians in addition to the British, Scottish, Canadian, Australian and Americans highlighted in the film. Brickhill’s job, during the more than two-year-long escape project, was as the leader of security “stooges” who guarded the forgers who needed as much light as possible for their work. As in the film, "ferret" was the name Allied POWs gave to German security guards who patrolled the camp searching for escape tunnels. Brickhill wrote that the head of the escape, South African Roger Bushnel, “Big X” (Roger Bartlett in the film), eventually forbade Brickhill and a small handful of others from making the escape on grounds of their claustrophobia, a condition reflected in the film. Although acknowledging that the decision at the time was frustrating, however correct, Brickhill admitted it likely saved his life.
Work on constructing the three escape tunnels and producing the clothes, forged identity papers and myriad of other items necessary for the escape project began in late 1942. The breakout took place on the night of 24 Mar 1944 and did, as portrayed in the film, divert a great number of German military and police to track down the escapees. As shown in the film, despite discovering that the tunnel exit was just short of the intended cover of the forest, seventy-six men succeeded in escaping, and three men did evade capture, but, unlike in the film, no Americans were involved. Adolf Hitler personally ordered the execution of the fifty recaptured prisoners, whose memories are commemorated by three markers in the R.A.F. cemetery in Britain.
In the 1970s interviews, Sturges revealed that the film was made with the intention of having an intermission after the death of “Archie Ives,” but despite the picture’s length, it was shown without interruption.
The Great Escape
was one of the top-grossing films of 1963 and received an Academy Award nomination for Film Editing. Critics generally praised the film, with trade reviews correctly predicting its box-office success, and even those critics who were not enthusiastic, such as Bosley Crowther of
, still finding its story engrossing. Most reviews agreed with
, which called the picture "simply great escapism," and Arthur Knight in
, who called it "the most exhilarating and sobering adventure of the year."
The Great Escape
remains one of the most popular World War II films of all time, marked not only by McQueen’s motorcycle sequence, but Elmer Bernstein’s distinctive, rousing score. The picture was selected as #19 on AFI's 2001 list of the one hundred most thrilling American pictures of all time. In 1988, NBC broadcast a two-part movie,
The Great Escape II: The Untold Story
, which starred Christopher Reeve and was co-directed by Jud Taylor, who made his last feature-film appearance as “Goff” in
The Great Escape
before quitting acting to become a prolific television director.
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Los Angeles Times
2 Jul 1963
Part IV, p. 8.
Motion Picture Herald
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New York Times
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The Times (London)
17 Mar 2004.
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Display Movie Summary
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