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The Great Escape (1963) - Illustrated Reference

Updated on July 21, 2014

The Great Escape was directed by John Sturges and it premiered on the 20th June 1963. Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, James Coburn, David McCallum and Gordon Jackson. Screenplay by James Clavell & W.R. Burnett. Music by Elmer Bernstein. 172 mins.

Based on true events. 76 Allied prisoner’s escape from German prison camp Stalag Luft III by tunnelling. 73 were later recaptured and 50 were shot dead as an example to others. The film is dedicated to the 50.

The film was based on Paul Brickhill’s book The Great Escape published in 1950. Brickhill was an Australian fighter pilot who was assigned to the RAF and was shot down over Tunisia becoming a prisoner of war. He was involved in the elaborate escape plan at Stalag Luft III but suffered from claustrophobia and couldn’t get into the tunnels, he stayed behind.

Wally Floody was technical advisor on the film, a Canadian POW who helped plan and organise the great escape. The Germans, suspicious that he was planning an escape transferred Wally and some others to another prison camp.

Hilts: Wait a minute. You aren't seriously suggesting that if I get through the wire and case everything out there and don't get picked up... to turn myself in and get thrown back in the cooler for a couple of months so you can get the information you need?
Bartlett: Yes.

Steve McQueen (1930-1980) / Captain Virgil Hilts “The Cooler King”

Born in Indiana, USA, the “King of Cool” playing “The Cooler King” Steve McQueen was nominated for an Oscar for The Sand Pebbles (1966).

Other Steve McQueen films include The Blob (1958), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Nevada Smith (1966), Bullitt (1968), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), The Getaway (1972), Papillon (1973) and The Towering Inferno (1974). But McQueen’s signature role was as the cocky Hilts in The Great Escape.

James Garner (1928-2014) / Flight Lietenant Bob Hendley “The Scrounger”

Born in Oklahoma, USA, the charismatic actor was nominated for an Oscar for Murphy’s Romance (1985), Other films Garner appeared in include – Move Over Darling (1963), Grand Prix (1966), Support Your Local Sheriff (1969), Victor Victoria (1982) , Maverick (1994) and Space Cowboys (2000).

On TV James Garner starred as Bret Maverick in Maverick (1957-1960) and as Jim Rockford in the hit TV series The Rockford Files (1974-1980).

Richard Attenborough (1923-) / Squadron leader Roger Bartlett “Big X”

Born in Cambridgeshire, England, actor and director Lord Richard Attenborough was knighted by the Queen in 1976 and made a Life Peer in 1993. He won 2 Oscars for directing and producing Gandhi (1982).

Attenborough’s movies include – Brighton Rock (1947), Dunkirk (1958), Flight of the Phoenix (1965). The Sand Pebbles (1966), 10 Rillington Place (1971), Brannigan (1975), Jurassic Park (1993) and Miracle on 34th Street (1994).

As director his movies include – Young Winston (1972), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Magic (1978), Gandhi (1982), Cry Freedom (1987) and Chaplin (1992).

James Donald (1917-1993) / Group Captain Ramsey “The SBO”

Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, James Donald’s films include – The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Vikings (1958), Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and The Big Sleep (1978).

Charles Bronson (1921-2003) / Flight Lieutenant Danny Velinski “Tunnel King”

Born in Pennsylvania, USA, after two decades of solid TV and movie support Charles Bronson became a global superstar in the 1970’s thanks to the success of movies like The Mechanic (1972) and Death Wish (1974).

Other films Bronson has appeared in include – The Magnificent Seven (1960), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), The Valachi Papers (1972), Mr. Majestyk (1974) and Hard Times (1975).

Donald Pleasance (1919-1995) / Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe “The Forger”

Born in Nottinghamshire, England, Donald Pleasance has appeared in over 100 movies including – Dr. Crippen (1964), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Night of the Generals (1967), You Only Live Twice (1967), Will Penny (1968), Halloween (1978), Dracula (1979) and Escape from New York (1981).

James Coburn (1928-2002) / Flight Officer Louis Sedgwick “The Manufacturer”

Born in Nebraska, USA, the versatile and popular James Coburn won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the film Affliction (1997).

Coburn’s films include – The Magnificent Seven (1960), Charade (1963), Our Man Flint (1966), Duck You Sucker (1971), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), Hard Times (1975), Cross of Iron (1977), Hudson Hawk (1991), Maverick (1994), Eraser (1996) and Payback (1999).

David McCallum (1933-) / Lieutenant-Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt “Dispersal”

Born in Glasgow, Scotland. David McCallum has been far more popular on TV than on the big screen, he was Illya Kuryakin in the hit series The Man from UNCLE (1964-1968), Steel in Sapphire & Steel (1979-1982) and recently as Donald “Ducky” Mallard in the long-running series NCIS (2003-2011).

Gordon Jackson (1923-1990) / Flight Lieutenant Andy MacDonald “Intelligence”

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Gordon Jackson’s films include – Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), The Ipcress File (1965) and Kidnapped (1971). Popular on TV in Upstairs Downstairs (1971-1975) and The Professionals (1977-1983).

John Leyton (1939) / Flight lieutenant Willie Dickes “Tunnel King”

Born in Essex, England, John Leyton was an actor and singer, his biggest pop hit was “Johnny Remember Me” which reached no.1 in UK charts in 1961. His films include – Guns at Batasi (1964), Von Ryan’s Express (1965) and Krakatoa East of Java (1969).

Angus Lennie (1930-) / Flying Officer Archibald Ives “The Mole”

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Angus Lennie’s films include 633 Squadron (1964), Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) and One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975).

Hilts: I haven't seen Berlin yet, from the ground or from the air, and I plan on doing both before the war is over.
Von Luger: Are all American officers so ill-mannered?
Hilts: Yeah, about 99 percent.
Von Luger: Then perhaps while you are with us you will have a chance to learn some. Ten days isolation, Hilts.
Hilts: That's CAPTAIN Hilts.
Von Luger: Twenty days.
Hilts: Right. Oh, uh, you'll still be here when I get out?
Von Luger: Cooler!

Hannes Messemer (1924-1991) / Oberst Von Luger “The Kommandant”

Born in Saarland, Germany, Hannes Messemer played the prison camp commander who wasn’t that keen on saluting Hitler. The actor has also appeared in Mission to Venice (1964), Is Paris Burning? (1966) and The Odessa File (1974).

Hilts: How many you taking out?
Bartlett: Two hundred and fifty.
Hilts: Two hundred and fifty?
Bartlett: Yeah.
Hilts: You're crazy. You oughta be locked up.

The Great Escape was filmed near Munich, Germany, where a replica of Stalag Luft III was constructed.

Three tunnels were dug, they were named Tom, Dick and Harry, the men were ordered to refer to the tunnels by their names and never to use the word “tunnel” in conversation.

Tom was discovered by the Germans and dynamited, Dick was abandoned because the area they would have come out of was cleared for camp expansion it was ultimately used to store dirt and supplies. Only Harry was left.

On a moonless night on March 24 1944, 76 prisoners escaped Stalag Luft III. Only 3 managed to evade the Germans and reached a neutral country. Hitler ordered the execution of 50 of the recaptured prisoners, with the excuse that they were shot while escaping.

A previous escape from the same prison camp was filmed as The Wooden Horse (1950) it was directed by Jack Lee and starred Leo Genn, Anthony Steele and David Tomlinson. Three men successfully escaped by tunnelling in October 1943.

John Sturges (1910-1992) was a successful director of character-driven action adventure movies he received an Oscar nomination for Bad Day at Black Rock (1955).

Sturges other films include – Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960), Hour of the Gun (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968), Marooned (1969) and The Eagle Has Landed (1976).

Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004) was one of the most popular film composers in Hollywood history, his music for The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven are amongst the most popular and instantly recognisable film scores.

Bernstein was Oscar nominated 14 times winning once for Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), his films include – The Ten Commandments (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Hawaii (1966), True Grit (1969), The Bridge at Remagen (1969), Zulu Dawn (1979), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Ghostbusters (1984) and Wild Wild West (1999).

Steve McQueen loved the motorcycling scenes and did most of his own stunts, one stunt he wasn’t allowed to do was the motorbike jump over the barbed wire fences. McQueen also doubled one of the Germans giving chase on a motorbike, so at one point he was essentially chasing himself.

Danny: Willie, since I was a boy, I hate and fear little rooms, closets, caves.
Willie: But Danny, you've dug seventeen tunnels.
Danny: Because I must get out! I hide the fear, and I dig.

Charles Bronson played Danny the Tunnel King, who suffers from claustrophobia. Before getting into acting Bronson was a coal miner and like his character suffered from claustrophobia too.

Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn had worked together previously in The Magnificent Seven (1960) which was also directed John Sturges.

Steinach: Herr Bartlett! Your German is good. And I hear also your French. Your arms... UP!

Some of the characters were based on real life POW’s Richard Attenborough’s Big X was based on RAF squadron leader Roger Bushell who was the main focus of the book. He was one of the first few to escape through the tunnel but was caught the next day at a railway station. He and others were murdered by members of the Gestapo who were themselves tried for war crimes and executed.

Steve McQueen’s character was based on several POW’s one of them had escaped seven times from various prison camps.

David McCallum would bring his wife, actress Jill Ireland, to the set, Charles Bronson was so smitten by her he jokingly told McCallum he was going to steal her away from him. A few years later the couple divorced and she married Bronson.

James Garner was in the military during the Korean War and based his character on the experiences he had as a scrounger at the time.

Donald Pleasance really was a prisoner of war, his plane was shot down over Germany in 1944 and he was taken prisoner. Director John Sturges would ask him for technical advice during filming.

Donald Pleasance role of Blythe the Forger was loosely based on James Hill, unlike the movie character Hill survived the war and didn’t go blind. Hill went on to become a movie director his most successful film was Born Free (1966). Hill also directed the Sherlock Holmes / Jack the Ripper movie A Study in Terror (1965).

The Great Escape received an Oscar nomination for Best Editing, and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture – Drama.

The Great Escape was one of the biggest hits of 1963 grossing about $5.5m in rentals in the US. Over the years thanks to numerous TV showings (usually at Easter or Xmas) it became one of the best loved war movies of all time.

The Critics Wrote –

"A first-rate adventure film fascinating in its detail, suspenseful in its plot, stirring in its climax and excellent in performance." (Judith Crist)

"Early scenes are played largely for laughs, occasionally at the expense of reality, and there are times when authority seems so lenient that the inmates almost appear to be running the asylum." (Variety)

"A great adventure picture, tense with excitement, rich in character, leavened with humor, novel in setting and premise... should be one of the year's biggest box office pictures... Sturges and his writers have admirably recreated the spirit of these men. Elmer Bernstein's music has the throb of excitement." (Hollywood Reporter)

"It's a strictly mechanical adventure with make-believe men." (Bosley Crowther, New York Times)

"The picture is long but it speaks very well for its intensive quality that time passes quickly. An outstanding picture." (Motion Picture Herald)

"Direction exciting. Photography brilliant. A magnificently-made drama of suspense, adventure and excitement blazes forth... Sturges shows a command of visual and narrative values that throb with excitement." (Film Daily)

"Based on an improbable true story, this is one of the most exciting action adventures ever made, helped along by Elmer Bernstein's stirring score, a very strong cast, and a screenplay which skilfully mixes action, character and comedy" (Chris Tookey)

John Sturges with James Coburn, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson
John Sturges with James Coburn, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson


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    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 5 years ago from London, England

      Thanks iamaudraleigh, appreciate your comment and kind words. Steve McQueen was a standout in this film, when people think of The Great Escape they think of McQueen on the motorbike evading the Germans.

    • profile image

      iamaudraleigh 5 years ago

      Nyone who writes about Steve McQueen is great in my book! Your review of this excellent movie is fantastic! Well written and informative indeed! Voted up and shared!

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      I remember that song very well Jools. I was surprised when I found out the actor in this film was the singer!

      I wouldn't be surprised if the film is on TV again this Xmas, the BBC used to show it all the time.

      Thanks for commenting!

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 6 years ago from North-East UK

      Steve, I love this movie - see it loads of times and no doubt will get to see it again over Christmas here in the UK - almost as stalwart as Wizard of Oz at this time of year. My favourite actor in the movie is James Garner. I forgot about John Leyton being in it, he had a No 1 single in the UK with 'Johnny, Remember Me' in the 60s but a short movie career.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 6 years ago from Essex, UK

      Mentioning who got away, it appealed to my sense of irony that the flamboyant motorcyclists and flyers and train passengers all failed, while the ones that got away peacefully cycled or gently rowed their way to freedom - sometimes slow and steady wins the day.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Greensleeves, it is appreciated. Yep that was a memorable scene. Both Bronson and Coburn managed to escape, along with John Leyton. But the war in Europe only had a year left to go so many of the prisoners left at the camp lived to write about it.

      While I don't think I have claustrophobia, I doubt I would have gone into those tiny tunnels, unless it was a short distance maybe otherwise no way.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 6 years ago from Essex, UK

      One of the most star-studdded films of the 60s and one of the best war movies. Great fun guessing which mode of transport is going to be employed next, and which characters are going to make it to freedom and which won't.

      My favourite scene? James Coburn is sitting in a cafe in the middle of occupied France, seemingly without a friend in a hundred miles, when bizarrely he receives a telephone call from someone apparently asking for him by name (just a ruse to get him out of the way before a resistance assassination of German officers takes place).

      Nice to read about this classic, so voted up Steve.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      yeah I really liked Attenborough in this film, he was a late casting choice they had someone else in mind for Big X.

      But Steve is the star of the film for me, when I was young McQueen and Bronson were two of my top faves, Coburn too, much preferred them to the pretty boys Newman, Redford and Beatty. :)

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      Yes. If I had to pick a favourite, I'd say Garner - though I love all the performances. Attenborough is my favourite of the Brits.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Hi Flora, I'll probably get round to those films you mentioned one of these days, now that I've got the format for these hubs how I want them the only limit is how many pictures I can find and if there is enough interesting background info on the film. Otherwise it'll just be a straighforward review.

      I've decided to add the birth place of each actor as well as the birth (and death) dates. And instead of highlighting each movie title in bold its now in italics, easier on the eye. I might go back and edit some of the previous Illustrated hubs so they can have a uniform look.

      I'm guessing James Garner is your favourite in this film? I think I saw him on your 100 list.

      Thanks for commenting Flora, always appreciated!

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      I read the book in junior high -grade 8 I think. We had to read non-fiction books once a semester - our choice - and this was one of mine. Maria Von Trapp's autobiography was another. I cannot remember the third.

      I love this film and have lost track of the number of times I have seen it. I am quite familiar with most of the behind the scenes story of this film and the cast including which characters were individuals (Attenborough) and which were amalgamations of prisoners (McQueen). For example, there was no one person in the great escape who deliberately allowed himself to get caught after escaping.

      McQueen's character wasn't totally defined through most of the filming and this annoyed him. He was always very preoccupied with how large a role his costars had compared to him. He hated Yul Brynner.

      I am quite familiar with the careers of and am a fan of the first 8 actors you discuss. I cannot find any complaint with this film.

      When you said that your next hub was a movie on my list, I was able to narrow down which ones I thought the movie title could be. this was one of them. I also wondered about The Guns of Navarone. I can also see you doing a Murder on the Orient Express hub some day.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Ronin2012.

      It took a few evenings to finish but I'm happy with it.

    • profile image

      Ronin2012 6 years ago

      very well described!

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Acer, really glad you liked the hub I was worried there wasn't enough info! I have to balance how much to add to these hubs before they start getting boring, people hate reading reams and reams of text. Don't they? :)

      Hey I thought you were a young guy! Great Escape is 48 years old! Your memory is a lot better than mine, I can't remember what I ate last night. ;)

    • Mentalist acer profile image

      Mentalist acer 6 years ago from A Voice in your Mind!

      This is an awesome orgy of information Steve,you've out done yourself,Bravo!

      Watching this movie at the age of 4 with my father at a drive-in must be one of my earliest memories.I remember I did not like the cheese on the pizza my father bought and this worried my mother.I've seen this movie about 3 times and find that the movie wants you to develop your own sense of the movie by being intelligently understated with winks and nods with the off into the sunset ending.In other words,I felt it was up to me to see the genius in this movie to an extent.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      You know I've just realised this might be the only movie hub I've done without a photo of at least one woman in there somewhere! There are no women in The Great Escape, and that's my complaint! :)

      Usually these big war films have a pretty (and usually bosomy) actress somewhere in the line up, Sophia Loren in Operation Crossbow, Ursula Andress in The Blue Max, Pier Angeli in Battle of the Bulge. But not The Great Escape. Lawrence of Arabia was an all-guy picture too.

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 6 years ago from Virginia

      Looking at the photo you found I would say that it does not look like him...but when you watch the movie it looks more like Ford....IMDB used to list The Great Escape as one of his has since been removed. So I guess I will go with it is not him...but I still think he was human in Blade Thanks for finding the photo.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Bruce, appreciate the comment, anecdote, info and kind words amigo!

      I watched the film again earlier while finishing this hub, still so enjoyable!

      Your comment about Harrison Ford intrigued me and i rummaged thru hundreds of screenshots to see if I can find a picture of him. The closest I could find was a Nazi youth that looks a little like him, Ford would be about 20 when this film was made. I've uploaded it to hubpages if you want to check it out, here is the url.

      Is it him? The film was made in Germany, why would they get a young American guy to play a young German guy in Germany?

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 6 years ago from Virginia

      Excellent Illustrated Reference on an excellent movie. The Great Escape is one of my favorite movies of all-time. I can watch this movie over and over...reading your tribute to the movie has me motivated to watch it all I have to do is talk my wife into it.

      The cast is awesome in their roles...with McQueen, Garner, Coburn and Bronson really standing out in my mind. My father loved this movie and his favorite scene was near the end when Coburn/Segwick ducks behind the bar at the French restaurant.

      The soundtrack is awesome as uncle(another Great Escape fan) had the album and listened to it all the time. Lots of information that I did not know....I hope that they have a 50th anniversary Blu-Ray I really want this movie on Blu-Ray. I thought this movie was awesome when I was 10, 25 and has never waivered in my mind....awesome job.....voted up awesome and interesting.

      So where do you fall in the Harrison Ford question?. Some people say he had an uncredited part in the movie....and others say it is just somebody that looks like him. The scene is near the end of the movie when the escapees are on the train.