The Great Escape

Dec 10, 1991

Locked behind barbed wire, the men who lived The Great Escape tunneled their way toward freedom with nothing but guts, perseverance and ingenuity. With only their bare hands and the crudest of homemade tools, they sank shafts, built underground railroads, forged passports, drew maps, faked weapons and tailored German uniforms and civilian clothes. They developed a fantastic security system to protect themselves from the German “ferrets” who prowled the compounds with nerve-wracking tenacity and suspicion. It was a split-second operation as delicate and as deadly as a time bomb. It demanded the concentrated devotion and vigilance of more than 600 men—every single one of them, every minute, every hour, every day and every night for more than a year. Never has the human capacity been stretched to such incredible lengths or shown with as much determination and courage.

It all really happened. In the motion picture we made about it, we used as much of the actual detail of physical things and of technique as we could possibly cram in, and as many players reflecting the endless variety of character and emotion of the real men as dramatization would allow. They provided the movie with tremendous excitement, humor and upbeat vitality.

Then the way it really happened turned to terrible and brutal misfortune. Only three made it to freedom, and as an escape, this enormous effort would have to be considered a tragic failure. But this was a story about far more than trying to get 220 men to freedom. It was about freedom itself. I liked to think of it as a microcosm of why our (collective) side won, but it was put much better by George Harsh, an American who was part of it all, in his introduction to Paul Brickhill’s book.

“It is the story of achievement against impossible odds,” he said in part.” And it proves something that I believed then and know now—there is nothing that can stop a group of men, regardless of race, creed, color, or nationality, from achieving a goal once they agree as to what that goal is. The aftermath may be sheer, stark tragedy—that lies with the gods—but the point is, men working together can accomplish anything . . . In one magnificent gesture the seventy-six ragged, verminous men of all nationalities who climbed out of that stinking hole in the ground in Silesia on that windy March night in 1944 thumbed their collective nose at the entire Third Reich and all it stood for. They triumphed, through the only means left to them, over an idea that was rotten from the core out.”

We tried to consolidate this indomitable spirit into the character of Virgil Hilts as, at the end of the picture, he is thrown into the “Cooler” again—unwilling even to think about defeat, much less concede it. The Great Escape was a very successful movie and I take great pride in my part in making it. But that pride is nothing compared to what I feel about having belonged to one of the societies in the world that produced men such as these.