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.”
“The idea that a person’s soul is uncapturable is at the heart of The Great Escape’s enduring appeal.”
“The film is about a serious subject, told without self-seriousness. Because of this, it doesn’t date at all.”
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