The 1963 Film of "The Great Escape"

I'd be very interested to hear from anyone involved in the making of this film, and thus recording their remembrances of the time spent with it.

The real events of the film are detailed here and screen shots of some of the key sequences, shot in and around Fussen in Bavaria, are here.

Fot those interested in the film-making and locations, Don Whistance has made an excellent web site on this aspect, and a link to Walter Riml's site - he was the chief of the 2nd Unit on rhe Bavarian team. A book called "Behind the Scenes -The Great Escape - Gesprengte Ketten" has recently been published, which shows documents and nearly 150 photos from the film. Details are on the web site.

The feature film of the Great Escape was made by the Mirish Company and released in 1963.  The director, John Sturges, had bought the rights to Paul Brickhill's book and was well known for films such as Gunfight At The OK Corrall, Bad Day at Black Rock, and The Magnificent Seven.  Filming on The Great Escape began in the summer of 1962.

The Internet Movie database entry is here.

The screenwriter was the late James Clavell (of SHOGUN and KING RAT fame) who was himself a PoW of the Japanese during WW2.  The film lasts almost three hours, although for television showing it is often cut to just over two and a half hours.  In the UK there is a standing joke that the film is shown every Christmas, often on Boxing Day.

There are four Youtube videos about how the film was made - here is a link to the first one - they are all well worth watching.

The prisoner-of-war camp used in the film was named Stalag Luft Nord and was built amongst pine forests near Munich in Bavaria, with interiors shot at local studios.  The railway station which was supposed to be near the camp was called Neustadt. One of the technical advisors was former F/Lt Wally Floody, a Canadian mining engineer and wartime Spitfire pilot, who had been responsible for the tunnel traps and their camouflage.

Nearly all of the incidences, both serious and humorous, which are shown in the film are completely true, although there is some inevitable telescoping of events, and many characters are rolled into one.  In particular, the method of "stooging" (keeping watch for German guards and ferrets) is well demonstrated, and the method of constructing the tunnels is extremely accurate.  However, the stifling boredom of PoW life, and the extent to which the prisoners attempted to combat this by means of lessons, studying, debating, theatre, etc.  is hardly shown, unless it provided a cover for illegal activities.

Comments from ex-Luft III inmates range from "I suppose they did a reasonable job with the film, for Hollywood" to "it's a complete nonsense." A USAAF PoW commented "The prisoners are too fat!" Typically, the comment is that the weather is never shown as the freezing cold it often was, and that far too little prominence is given to "Roger Bartlett" the film version of Roger Bushell, with far too much importance placed on the fictional part played by Steve McQueen.  One former inmate made a point of writing to his local paper, giving the true version of events, every time the film was shown at his local cinemas.  But this had little or no effect.

There was indeed Christmas Carol singing taking place to mask the sound of "manufacturing" and "building" whilst escape materials, air piping, and compasses were made, and concrete plinths pierced.  The Germans did not seem to notice that, at the time, it was nowhere near Christmas. The trap for "Dick" in the wash-room floor is particularly well shown - the Germans never found it, because 'Dick' had a perfect disguise.  In the film, whilst the escape takes place through the tunnel called 'Harry' the trap is portrayed as being in the wash-room floor, and is definitely that of 'Dick' in real life.

The camouflage of the traps used for 'Tom' and 'Harry' is again extremely accurate and reflect the advice given by Wally Floody.  Manners of the guards and ferrets, and even the way some of them were suborned, is again quite true to life.  "S/Ldr Roger Bartlett" gives a good impression of the driving power behind Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, but his sister said that Dickie Attenborough, who played the part, looked nothing like him.  Dickie even had the facial scar of Bushell, incurred in a prewar-skiing accident (he was an Olympic skier) which often caused him discomfort.


"Two hundred and fifty?  You're crazy.   You should be locked up.   You, too.   Two hundred and fifty guys, just walking down the street?"

Hilts (Steve McQueen) berates Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) and MacDonald (Gordon Jackson). As if the prisoners weren't already locked up!

"Group Captain Ramsey", the SBO or Senior British Officer, has the severe leg injury suffered by his real counterpart, G/C Herbert Massey, who in real life was repatriated shortly after the escape, and who was instrumental in bringing the atrocity to the attention of H.M.  Government.

The sequence where several prisoners hide in an outgoing lorry loaded with cut tree branches actually happened, almost exactly as shown; also, the piece where Bronson and Coburn try to escape masquerading as Russian prisoners is remarkably close to an actual escape attempt.  True, too, is the scene where McQueen, having removed numerous bedboards, watches helplessly as a fellow prisoner crashes through his fatally weakened bunk and lands on the man below. McQueen's baseball-at-the-wire episode was actually effected by Jerry Sage in order to make a closer assessment of escape possibilities, using camouflage to allow them to crawl to the perimeter fence. An experiment with a home-made camouflage device showed that the idea didn't work in practice.

The 'Mole' blitz escape effected by McQueen and Lennie was actually carried out by Jack Best and Bill Goldfinch, who both ended up at Colditz Castle, where they masterminded construction of the famous Colditz Glider. I visited Colditz in May 2007.

I have obtained the following cast list from Microsoft's Cinemania CD-ROM database and offer the following comparisons of the real and the imagined:-

Steve McQueen (Hilts, the Cooler King).  Likely to be an amalgamation of several characters, he has no direct counterpart, although one likely candidate is Jerry Sage.  The sequence where McQueen sees a blind spot in the guards' coverage of the perimeter wire is true; this escape was by Toft and Nichols, who cut through the wire but were soon recaptured.  The motorcycle sequences are pure Hollywood and were put in at McQueen's request; he did nearly all the stunt riding himself, as the long shots show.  The single motorcycle was in fact a pair of 1961 British 650cc Triumphs, mocked up in German colours; the final leap is believed to have been done by the American rider Bud Ekins, as it proved impossible for the film company to obtain insurance cover for McQueen to do it himself.  For this leap, there is obviously a ramp of some sort - (either a natural land feature, or a man-made object) just out of camera frame, over which the rider launches the motorcycle to get the necessary height for the jump over the barbed wire fence.

Bud Ekins died in October 2007 at the age of 77.

A stunt rider re-enacted the famous motorcycle fence jump. Here is a still from the jump.

Brendan Foley says "Just a note to say how much I enjoyed your website on Stalag Luft III. I'm a screenwriter and I’m working on the life story of Bill 'Tex' Ash - one of the more colorful characters to stay in the camp on a few occasions (other than on his seven break-outs and frequent stays at camps and prisons in half of Europe). He was certainly one of the Cooler Kings, and was awarded an MBE for his escaping activities after the war. He was a American Spitfire pilot in the RCAF, joined in 1940, shot down in 1942, escaped in 1945 after the Sagan March. I think you might want to consider him as a possible additional source for the hybrid Steve McQueen character in the Great Escape movie."

There was indeed a group of prisoners (headed by Jerry Sage and Davey Jones) who manufactured raisin wine and distilled raw liquor from vegetables and virtually any ingredient.  The party on the 4th July actually happened, although 'Tom' was not discovered on this particular day. 

Internet correspondent Tom Cleaver offers the opinion that the Steve McQueen character was based on F/Lt Barry Mahon of 121 Squadron RAF -the second Eagle Squadron.  Mahon was shot down on Operation Jubilee in August 1942 (where he had just become the 4th Eagle Squadron ace) and sent to Stalag Luft III where he became 'the cooler king' for his many escape attempts.  He was brought in from his most recent escape just before "The Great Escape" and actually received first place to go through the tunnel, but decided against accepting, thereby saving his life.  Barry later became part of the movie business and was active with the makers of "The Great Escape," and served as a technical advisor on the film.  McQueen took a liking to him and had Barry's facts written into his character; Barry allegedly fought hard to get the movie as real as he could, as his own way of paying respects to the dead. 

Another correspondent, Bob Heffner, suggests that the McQuen character was based on John Dortch Lewis, whose exploits as a prisoner of war in Germany provided the basis for Hilts.  Lewis died of pancreatic cancer on August 13th 1999 at his home in Goldsboro, N.C. He was 84.  His obituary mentions his presence in Luft III.

In his book "Sage", Jerry Sage describes the PoWs' early days with home-made sports equipment, using a "baseball" made of old socks stuffed into a tightly-pulled yarn cover. It bounced fairly well and he used it to bounce off the walls during his various times in the cooler. This is clearly how the Steve McQueen archetypal cooler scenes originated!

McQueen's character, and that of Angus Lennie, are representative of two prisoners 'Shag' Rees and 'Red' Noble who enjoyed baiting the ferrets; consequently both spent a fair time in the cooler.

Steve McQueen died of cancer in November 1980, was cremated and his ashes scattered at sea.

James Garner (1928-2014) (Hendley, the Scrounger).  Again, no direct counterpart, although there is some similarity with a fluent German-speaking prisoner who insisted on being known as Axel Zillessen, his "cover" name.  He reckoned that if he was used to being called this, he wouldn't be caught out by checkpoint guards. He suborned one of the most dangerous ferrets, by carefully chipping away at his morale, and bribing him with chocolate and cigarettes, which were plentifully supplied by the Red Cross. 

James Garner died on July 19, 2014.

A Daily Mail report noted that Marcel Zillessen, who was the real scrounger portrayed by Garner, died at Whitby on Jan 12th 1999.  A fluent German speaker born in 1917, his father's business has involved him with frequent trips to Germany before the war, and refusing the opportunity to spy for Britain, he enrolled in the RAF and became a fighter pilot, being shot down and taken prisoner on April 6th 1943, in North Africa.

 

Richard Attenborough (left,1923-2014) (Roger Bartlett, Big X).  Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, correctly breveted and ranked, with Bushell's eye injury, fluent German, and driving determination. Attenborough died on August 24, 2014.

 

 

 

 

James Donald (right, 1917 - 1993) (the SBO) .  Group Captain Herbert M.  Massey, age correct (Massey was a First World War career officer) correctly breveted and ranked and with Massey's badly wounded leg.

Charles Bronson (Danny Velinski, Tunnel King).  An amalgamation of F/Lt Wally Floody, F/Lt Ernst Valenta and F/O Danny Krol who were all tunnel specialists.  Also very representative of F/O Wlodzimierz Adam Kolanowski, the architect of the tunnel traps.  Kolanowski, Krol and Valenta were all shot by the Gestapo, but Floody was transferred to Belaria shortly before the escape.  Bronson's character (along with that of John Leyton) reaches safety, and the two who escaped in this way were really Per Bergsland (aka Rocky Rockland) and Jens Muller.  Bronson's part thus encompasses no less than five real people. 

Charles Bronson died on August 30th 2003.

Certainly several prisoners were claustrophobic, including W/C Harry Day who never once let on about it despite frequent inspections of the tunnel and its workings.  It is documented that some prisoners were refused places on the tunnelling team, due to known claustrophobia, and had to be found other escape activities to occupy them.

 

Donald Pleasence (left) (Colin Blythe, the Forger).  An amalgamation of Desmond Plunkett, the map maker, and F/Lt Gilbert "Tim" Walenn, the real forger.  Pleasence had been a real-life member of wartime aircrew; he had flown as a wireless-operator with No 166 Squadron, flying Lancasters from Kirmington, being shot down on a Agenville operation on 31-Aug/1-Sep-1944, Lancaster NE112 AS:M; he died in France on 2-Feb-95.  Walenn was murdered; Plunkett survived.  Blythe is shot by a German sharpshooter.

 

 

James Coburn (right, in light blue shirt (Sedgwick, the Manufacturer).  An amalgamation of Al Hake, compass maker, and Johnny Travis, the real manufacturer.  Coburn also reaches safety (although the shooting of the three German officers in the riverside café is ficticious), and this, the third successful escaper, was in real life Bob van der Stok, who escaped into Holland and Belgium, then over the Pyrenees into Spain and Gibraltar.  The scene where Sedgwick produces a large suitcase which has to go down the tunnel is true, but the real escaper in this case was Tim Walenn, the real-life forger.  Hake and Walenn were murdered; Travis did not escape.

James Coburn died in November 2002.

David McCallum (left), (Ashley-Pitt, Dispersal). A very close match to Peter "Hornblower" Fanshawe, a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm pilot who was the real sand dispersal specialist.  The method of sand disposal shown in the film is an exact match for the real events.  Fanshawe was transferred to Belaria shortly before the escape, but Ashley-Pitt was one of the victims.

Gordon Jackson (MacDonald, Security).  This is a compilation of George Harsh and Tim Kirby-Green (both security) and Bernard Scheidhauer (Bushell's escaping companion).  Harsh was one of those transferred to Belaria just before the escape, but Scheidhauer, a Frenchman, partnered Bushell.  It was Scheidhauer, used to speaking English in the camp, who inadvertently answered a Gestapo agent in English, a mistake which led to he and Bushell being caught.  This is shown very clearly in the film.  Scheidhauer, Kirby-Green and Bushell were amongst the 50 victims.  Gordon Jackson died on January 14, 1990.

Tom Adams, plying the part of the "diversions" officer Nimmo, died on Thursday December 11th 2014. He has also starred in The Onedin Line and General Hospital.

John Leyton (Willie, tunneller).  No particular representation amongst the tunnellers, but one of the two (Per Bergsland and Jens Muller) who together reached Sweden.  John, until the film, was better known for his magnificent singing voice ("Johnny Remember Me") of several pop songs of the early 60s, and is still performing.

Angus Lennie ((Ives, The Mole).  Again no direct representation; but he is referred to by Gordon Jackson as "Piglet" at one point in the film, just before Tom is discovered.  This can be no other than F/L Henry W "Piglet" Lamond, a tunneller and escapee who didn't escape in this event, but was a prolific tunneller and escaper on other occasions.  As far as Lennie's character is concerned, some prisoners certainly did go 'round the bend' and tried ill-conceived or absurd escapes, sometimes with fatal consequences. Flt Lt Henry W "Piglet" Lamond was a New Zealander. In late March 2004 I was told that "I just wanted to make a couple of corrections to something on your website. They concern [my grandfather] Wing Commander Henry W "Piglet" Lamond. Firstly he is still very much alive. He is 88. Secondly, he wasn't actually one of the two hundred men originally chosen to escape. He did, however, take part in many tunnels. He, along with Jack Best & Bill Goldfinch, were the first men to build a tunnel & escape from Stalag Luft lll. They were caught about a week later where Jack & Bill were moved to Colditz (they were later involved in the glider escape that didnt actually happen due to the end of the war). My grandfather took part in all of the other tunnels built at Stalig Luft lll. He retired from the RAF in the mid 80s a Wing Commander."

Angus Lennie has been in the BBC "Monarch of the Glen" series, 2000 onwards. His agent, Marilyn Collis, says "Angus Lennie was honoured and delighted to be asked to appear in the film The Great Escape and was very proud to be able to portray the essence of the spirit of those wonderfully brave men who were part of the real Escape. The film was, though, as you discuss, a fictionalised account and will, therefore, never be an exact portrayal of how things truly were. As an actor, Angus is humbled to know that you show interest in his time whilst filming but feels that the stories and remembrances of the true heroes should speak for themselves." (3rd July 2007)

I am saddened to report that Angus Lennie died, aged 84, on Thursday, September 18th 2014, the day of the Scottish Referendum, without knowing of the result, which was to be announced the following day.

Nigel Stock (1919 - 1986) (Cavendish).  During the film interrogation of this character, the dialogue represents that between the Gestapo and one of the victims, who before his being taken away by the Gestapo, recounted his interrogation to a fellow escaper, who survived the murders.

Robert Desmond (Griff, the Tailor).  Obviously Tommy Guest, who was a prewar tailor and whose team made the civilian clothes from bits of blanket and uniforms.  Guest did not escape. Desmond died in 2002.

Hannes Messemer (1924 - 1991), left, (von Luger, the Kommandant)Oberst Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau, an excellent representation of an honourable career Luftwaffe senior officer who was a humane, and where possible, kindly man, respected by the prisoners.  Arrested immediately after the escape, he developed heart trouble.  He and his two immediate subordinates (Broili and Pieber) were sentenced to one year's fortress arrest.  (von Lindeiner was interrogated by the RAF SIB at the London Cage, and proved extremely pro-British and very helpful.) The actual Kommandant at the time of the announcement of the murders was Oberst Braune and his demeanour at the time - one of shock, disbelief and horror - is well represented.

The Gestapo man (Kuhn, played by Hans Reiser, 1919 - 1982) in the leather coat who is so nasty to Bartlett ("If you escape again and be recaptured, you will be shot") at the start of the film and the bald bespectacled Gestapo man (Preissen, played by Ulrich Beiger, 1918 - 1996) who is so delighted at the capture of most of the escapers ("Ah - Herr Bartlett! You are going to be sorry you put us to so much trouble") have no direct counterparts in real life.  However, if the bounds of credibility, artistic licence and real information may be stretched, they may be interpreted as being (a) Sturmbannfuhrer Johannes Post, deputy Gestapo chief at Kiel and together with his subordinate Lux, responsible for the murders of over twenty-five of the escapers.  Post and his cohorts were hanged; (b) Dr Wilhelm Scharpwinkel, or (c) Dr Leopold Spann as any of these three Gestapo men would readily fit the bill.  (d) Dr Gunther Absalon is another candidate.  More details of these men are on the main page.  Robert Graf (1923 - 1966) was Werner the ferret.

Whilst the film does suggest that the convoy of trucks carrying the captured airmen was split three ways, the actual murders were not en masse, but the captured prisoners were taken in small groups and killed whilst in transit.  Details are on the main page.

For Christmas 2001 my wife Sandy bought me the film on DVD and it runs to 2 hours 45 minutes, it has been interesting watching it with the French dialogue! The DVD includes a short documentary on the making of the film, with interviews of some of the actors such as David McCallum, James Garner, Donald Pleasance, James Coburn and members of Steve McQueen's family.

It is not widely known that Harrison Ford is one of the passengers in the sequence where McDonald (Gordon Jackson) and Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) are seated on the train and then have their papers checked by the Gestapo. Ford is the Hitler Youth young man seated in from of of them as they sit down. If you don't believe me, try this clip.

Andrew Steinmetz asks "I am fiction writer from Canada. In the film The Great Escape, there is a young Gestapo who arrives at 'Neustadt' to check for POWs on the train. This young Gestapo is played by a relative of mine, Michael Paryla. Michael Paryla is about the only actor in the film without a final credit at the end of the movie. Interestingly his mother (part Jewish) and father (Communist) were both actor and both fled Breslau in 1933. Could you direct me to a film historian who might be able to shed more light on the making of the film, and who might be interested in knowing more about Michael Paryla?"


If you think you know the film well­:-

1.       Which five languages are spoken in the film (one is very brief!)

2.      John Leyton's character (Willie, the Tunneller) has non-standard RAF uniform.   What's different about it?

3.      Which Christmas carol is being sung by the unfortunate prisoner as he falls through his bunk after Hilts has removed some more bedboards?

4.      Who gave who "Ten out of ten for this, old boy." ?

5.     Tom was Danny's number-what tunnel?

6.      When told "The photograph doesn't do you justice" who replied "I'd like to see one of you under similar circumstances." ?

7.      Name the café in which Sedgewick contacted the Resistance.

8.      What is the first German phrase spoken in the film?

9.      Who, having warned an escapee about a particular danger, was subsequently caught out by it?

10.  What did Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum) give as his profession when his papers were checked on the train?

11.  Who was commanded to "Look sharp!" and by whom?

12.  Whose job "Just didn't work out"?

13.  What warning did Hendley give to Blythe when the latter was starting the training aircraft's engine?

14.  Why were the ceilings in the prisoners' huts creaking?  (This scene is often cut from the TV version.)

15.  Who remarked dryly "I'm watching him.   I'm a Lifeguard."

16.  What was signified by a prisoner banging the dustbin lid?

17.  What diversion made it possible for some of the prisoners to conceal themselves in the lorries carrying sawn-off tree branches?

18.  At what stage does a lanius nubicus enter the story?

19.  What profession was Ives before he joined the RAF, and what RAF rank was he?

20..  Which German found the concealed entrance to "Tom"?


ANSWERS

1 English, French, German, Spanish and Russian. Also Latin, if you count the description of the bird during the drawing class.

2 He wears an Army khaki battledress top, but with RAF pilot insignia.

3 The Twelve Days Of Christmas.

4 Bartlett gave Hendley 10/10 for acquiring Werner the guard's wallet, with false ID papers and other useful information.

5 Seventeenth.

6 Ives said this to Strathwitz after being discovered hiding in the lorry carrying tree branches.

7 Cafe Suzette.

8 "Aussteigen!" (Disembark).

9 Macdonald had warned another prisoner not to inadvertantly respond in English whilst being questioned in German at a checkpoint.

10 Ashley-Pitt is asked "Sie reisen fur einen Firme? (You are travelling for a company?)" and he replies "Ja, fur mein Geschaft (Yes, for my business)" and hands the Gestapo man a [fake] buiness card.

11 The drill squad, by Hendley, as the cue to start dumping sand from their trouser legs.

12 Hilts commented thus to von Luger as the latter was being led away, under arrest.

13 "Don't move or you get a mouthful of propeller!"

14 The sand disposal team were concealing tunnel sand amongt the beams and rafters.

15 Sedgewick, to a ferret, as Danny was showering away tunnel dirt after a snap inspection and search.

16 Ferrets entering the camp compound for a snap search.

17 A contrived fist fight, described by Sedgwick as "knuckles".

18 The bird being described by Blythe during the bird-drawing class, which was a cover for the preparation of false documents. Note that the verbal description actually fits the ferret better than the bird shown on the blackboard!

19 Flying Officer Ives had been a jockey.

20 Werner.


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