In the early 1950s, director John Sturges, then under contract at MGM, read a condensed version of Paul Brickhill’s memoir The Great Escape, which details the mass escape of downed fighter pilots from the German prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III in March 1944. Sturges recognized the story’s cinematic potential and took it to producer Samuel Goldwyn. According to Glenn Lovell’s Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, Goldwyn’s response was, “What the hell kind of escape is this? Nobody gets away!”
Well, not “nobody.” Of the seventy-six POWs who escaped, three eventually made it to Allied territory. The rest were rounded up by the Gestapo, and fifty of them were executed, causing international outrage. But Goldwyn’s was not an isolated opinion. Sturges’s own assistant, Robert E. Relyea, said, “It’s about a bunch of guys in a prison camp who eventually get executed. That’s a tough sell.” The director, though, was a great admirer of Jean Renoir’s World War I POW-camp movie, Grand Illusion, in which the success of the escape is darkened by ambiguity. Sturges would borrow heavily from that film for the famous tunnel-digging sequence of 1963’s The Great Escape.
As the fifties progressed and Sturges was busy making a name for himself as a director with a gift for action sequences—in films such as Jeopardy, Escape from Fort Bravo (both 1953), and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)—a couple of films about World War II POWs came out and were critical and commercial hits, cementing Sturges’s conviction that The Great Escape would land with audiences. Neither film was exactly feel-good either: Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953) has a cynical bite; David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is a rousing war movie in which the two main characters (William Holden and Alec Guinness) are killed. Later in life, Sturges reminisced, “When I said I wanted to make [The Great Escape], everybody thought I was crazy. I don’t think anybody understood how an escape that doesn’t come off could be a picture. I did.”
During the years it took him to secure the rights to Brickhill’s book, Sturges directed the Seven Samurai adaptation The Magnificent Seven (1960), which was a sleeper hit and gave him leverage to finally get his dream project off the ground. It also showed that a film didn’t necessarily need to have female characters to do well with audiences (another one of the original objections to The Great Escape). The adaptation process involved several writers and lasted nearly two years, with novelists W. R. Burnett and James Clavell—the latter an ex-POW brought in to add a British flavor where appropriate, since many of the characters are British—ultimately receiving credit for the screenplay. Sturges also hired Wally Floody as a technical adviser. Floody was a Canadian ex-POW who had designed and dug the tunnels at Stalag Luft III. After seeing the tunnel set built by art director Fernando Carrere at Bavaria Studios in Germany, Floody said, “You must be getting something right because I’m having terrible nightmares.” There are certainly fictionalizations in the film; Steve McQueen’s famous motorcycle chase, of course, is one, as is an attempt to flee the Germans via plane. (It should be noted, however, that many of the real-life POWs did hope to come across airfields during their escape attempts. They were all pilots, after all.) But much of the film comes directly from the book: the ingenious method of dirt dispersal in the yard, the use of bed slats to prop up the tunnel walls, the choir practices held to cover up the sounds of hammering, the catastrophic miscalculation of tunnel length. The script is alternately mischievous, outraged, suspenseful, and mournful in tone, and Sturges does not shy away from any of it. Instead, he leans into the swerves, just like you’re supposed to. He’s as interested in the activities of the “tailor” (tasked with creating civilian clothes out of materials at hand in the camp), or the tender friendship between two prisoners, as he is in McQueen’s thrilling dash to freedom.
The first twenty minutes of The Great Escape serve as an example of Sturges’s nuts-and-bolts expertise, an object lesson in how to establish a story efficiently, introducing characters, plot, and atmosphere with minimal dialogue. To the accompaniment of Elmer Bernstein’s fife-and-drum score, a convoy of trucks arrives at the high-security prison camp. The prisoners, all being transferred from other camps because of their dogged escape attempts, disembark and waste no time in looking for potential routes out of the place. Character introductions are casual, with no one man pulled out for special attention. Captain Virgil Hilts (McQueen) strolls along the perimeter, eyeing the fence. Danny (Charles Bronson) and Willie (British pop star John Leyton) take one look at the camp’s layout and have a huddled confab about tunnel length. James Garner’s Hendley, resplendent in white turtleneck and American officer’s uniform, is busted for peering too closely at a truck, inspecting it for parts to steal. There is no sense of intimidation at their surroundings, no sense that they are cowed by the Luftwaffe officers in command.The 1944 escape from Stalag Luft III was the largest such attempt at the camp, but it was far from the first. The main point of a breakout was not necessarily even to make it to freedom. In the film, Richard Attenborough as Big X (loosely based on the South African fighter pilot Roger Bushell), the mastermind of the plan to break 250 men out of the camp at once, declares, “It is my duty to harass, confound, and confuse the enemy to the best of my ability . . . I’m going to cause such a terrible stink in that Third Reich of theirs that thousands of troops that could well be employed at the front will be tied up here looking after us.” When Hilts, the “cooler king,” a veteran of seventeen escape attempts who is reluctant at first to join the “committee’s” plan for a mass escape, is brought back to the camp after yet another failed try, one POW says to another, “I didn’t think they’d catch him so soon.” The reply: “He’s not caught.”
“The idea that a person’s soul is uncapturable is at the heart of The Great Escape’s enduring appeal.”
And he’s not. Just look at the steely glint in his eye, the dangerous grin. There may be a cage around him, but wild animals consider all cages temporary. The idea that a person’s soul is uncapturable is at the heart of The Great Escape’s enduring appeal; the movie’s unfettered spirit ricochets around within its tight structure, igniting multiple storylines. The overall mood is insouciant, a middle finger raised to “those dictatorial sons-a-bitches,” as Sturges called the Nazis. It’s there in the final scene, when McQueen reaches up to catch the baseball glove tossed to him by his sidekick. It’s there in the way Garner sidles up to the German guard he has been assigned to “cultivate.” It’s there in the music, a reworking of a piece Bernstein had written when he was fourteen—his goal had been to create a score that was “jaunty, nose-thumbing in character . . . adolescent rather than adult.” It’s also there when the music drops out, allowing a scene to breathe. And of course, it’s there as McQueen careens over the green hills on his Triumph 650 motorcycle—pure fiction, but who’s complaining?
Sturges had a gift for working with big ensembles, and a great eye for casting. Many members of the cast (McQueen, Bronson, James Coburn) had worked with the director before, and were on their way to becoming big stars. Sturges said of Bronson, “Charlie as a rough, tough guy didn’t interest me.” What did interest him was Bronson’s “tender interior.” And so, in The Magnificent Seven, he had Bronson play a gunfighter yearning for domestic life. In The Great Escape, he cast him as Danny, the “tunnel king,” almost undone by claustrophobia. Sturges’s instinct was spot-on: this is some of Bronson’s best and most touching work. Garner, drawing directly on his own experience in the Korean War, gives a tremendously appealing performance—commanding, subtle, sexy—as Hendley, the resourceful camp “scrounger,” who wheedles supplies out of a naive German guard (Robert Graf) in a scene that deserves to be called a seduction.
Sturges cast English and Scottish actors to surround the American stars. Donald Pleasence, who had himself been a POW in World War II, portrays Blythe, in charge of forging documents (he loses his eyesight in the process). Other key roles are played by Nigel Stock, Angus Lennie, David McCallum, and Gordon Jackson. McQueen was well-known to television audiences from his series Wanted: Dead or Alive, but had also gained attention in two earlier Sturges films, 1959’s Never So Few (which misses McQueen’s charisma desperately whenever he’s not on-screen) and The Magnificent Seven, where his scene-stealing shenanigans drove his costar Yul Brynner crazy and delighted Sturges.
McQueen was reportedly irritated by his role in The Great Escape, thinking he didn’t have enough to do. One of the movie’s most exciting and well-known sequences, the climactic chase in which Hilts steals a motorcycle at a checkpoint and jumps multiple barbed-wire fences, was added to beef up McQueen’s part as well as allow him to show off his skills. The moment when Hilts uses a dip in the land to propel the bike up over one of the barriers was performed by McQueen stunt double and pal Bud Ekins. (Editor Ferris Webster deserved his Oscar nomination for that cut alone. The illusion that it is the actor himself is total.) McQueen’s complaints aside, it is hard to imagine a more perfect marriage between actor and part. As with all great movie stars—and McQueen was the ultimate movie star—he gives a performance that moves out of realism and into the mythic.Even when McQueen’s body is still, which is rarely, you can sense electricity sparking, signaling readiness for action. There’s always a latent urgency in him. When he moves, he means it. His greatest gift—mentioned by practically everyone who worked with him, including Sturges—was his ability to observe, listen, and react. Hilts’s character arc is about relinquishing his individuality to submit to the group: not an easy thing for someone like McQueen. There was always something a little frightening about him: those icy eyes, that tight smile. When Hilts does succumb, the emotional payoff is enormous.
“The film is about a serious subject, told without self-seriousness. Because of this, it doesn’t date at all.”
The Great Escape opened into the weirdo world of 1963. The most successful films that year show an industry in crisis. Cleopatra went so over budget that it practically bankrupted Twentieth Century-Fox, and yet it was still the highest-grossing film of the year, its gigantism a sign that the unwieldy studio system was in the process of collapsing. In retrospect, the star-studded The V.I.P.s, also featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, feels like a dying gasp of the old star system. At the same time, smaller films that did well, such as Hud and Lilies of the Field, pointed the way toward the more personal filmmaking that would come to define the end of the decade. Viewed alongside a complex film like Hud, The Great Escape seemed juvenile and old-fashioned to some critics. But the “Rover Boyish” (according to Bosley Crowther in the New York Times) high jinks of The Great Escape are a feature, not a bug. The film is about a serious subject, told without self-seriousness. Because of this, it doesn’t date at all. It’s an ode to ingenuity and cooperation. Sturges was not at all a member of the counterculture, but The Great Escape’s spirit is pure up-yours antiestablishment, making it a forerunner of M*A*S*H, to Kelly’s Heroes, to The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, to all the deconstructing, demythologizing war films to come.
Like David Lean, Sturges had begun as an editor. He had a feeling for how to put things together. He once said, “If you know how to cut pictures, you know how to make ’em.” Watch the opening sequence of his Last Train from Gun Hill (1959). Watch the shoot-out in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). Watch Bad Day at Black Rock: its use of CinemaScope rivals even that of Elia Kazan’s East of Eden. Watch how Sturges crosscuts between locations in Jeopardy. Watch how fluidly he moves among the different stages of preparation in The Great Escape, without once losing momentum. The centerpiece moment of this aspect of the film is a gorgeous horizontal panning shot of men lying in a tunnel, passing bags of sand back to one another, a long chain of cooperation, and a metaphor for the larger story. It is not a single “hero’s journey.” The hero is the group.
Sturges’s reputation does not rival that of a Hitchcock or a Hawks, and yet he has many heirs. Jerry Bruckheimer, Steven Spielberg, and Ron Howard all name-check him as an influence. Paul Thomas Anderson, also gifted at working with large ensembles, said in a 1997 interview: “You can learn more from John Sturges’s audio track on the Bad Day at Black Rock laserdisc than you can in twenty years of film school.” A characteristically humble Sturges summed up his career this way: “I guess I proved I’m a pretty good storyteller.”
At his best, he was more than that. But being “a pretty good storyteller” is not a small accomplishment. When you watch The Great Escape in a packed theater today, and the audience erupts into cheers when McQueen/Ekins sails over that barrier, you know you’re in the presence of something eternal, a movie that has gone far, far beyond the bounds of its time. It has entered the cultural bloodstream.