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  • Writer's pictureThomas Duncan

The Great Escape (1963)

What is this movie is about?/Elevator Pitch: Resistance at all costs in the face of extreme adversity.

Plot Summary: In WWII, a group of allied officers who have a history of escape, are placed together in a high security prison by the German Luftwaffe as these men have various skills to plan, organize, and carry out elaborate escape plans. The prisoners' escape committee, the "X" Organization, led by "Big X" RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), soon plan a tunnel escape of 250 men. Among the group are American Flight Lieutenant Bob Hendley (James Garner), Australian Flying Officer Sedgwick (James Coburn), Flight Lieutenants Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson) and Willie Dickes (John Leyton) and Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen).


  • John Sturges, Director

  • James Clavell and W. R. Burnett, Writers

  • Elmer Bernstein, Music

  • Steve McQueen as Captain Virgil Hilts 'The Cooler King'

  • James Garner as Flight Lieutenant Bob Hendley 'The Scrounger'

  • Richard Attenborough as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett 'Big X'

  • James Donald as Group Captain Ramsey 'The SBO'

  • Charles Bronson as Flight Lieutenant Danny Welinski 'Tunnel King'

  • Donald Pleasence as Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe 'The Forger'

  • James Coburn as Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick 'The Manufacturer'

  • Hannes Messemer as Oberst von Luger 'The Kommandant'

  • David McCallum as Lieutenant-Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt 'Dispersal'

  • Gordon Jackson as Flight Lieutenant Andy MacDonald 'Intelligence'

  • John Leyton as Flight Lieutenant Willie Dickes 'Tunnel King'

  • Angus Lennie as Flying Officer Archie Ives 'The Mole'

  • Nigel Stock as Flight Lieutenant Dennis Cavendish 'The Surveyor'

  • Robert Graf as Werner 'The Ferret'


  • The Great Escape was wide released on July 4, 1963.

  • It grossed a rough $11.7 million that year making it the 16th highest grossing film of 1963.

  • The film enjoyed mostly positive critical reviews during its initial release and has since enjoyed mostly positive critical response.

  • The Great Escape was nominated for one Academy Award for film editing.

  • In a 2006 poll in the United Kingdom, regarding the family film that television viewers would most want to see on Christmas Day, The Great Escape came in third, and was first among the choices of male viewers.

  • In an article for the British Film Institute, "10 great prisoner of war films", updated in August 2018, Samuel Wigley wrote that watching films like The Great Escape and the 1955 British film The Colditz Story, "for all their moments of terror and tragedy, is to delight in captivity in times of war as a wonderful game for boys, an endless Houdini challenge to slip through the enemy's fingers. Often based on true stories of escape, they have the viewer marveling at the ingenuity and seemingly unbreakable spirit of imprisoned soldiers." He described The Great Escape as "the epitome of the war-is-fun action film", which became "a fixture of family TV viewing".

  • The Great Escape holds a 94% rating among critics on RT, an 86 rating on Metacritic, and a 4 out of 5 on Letterboxd.

Did You Know:

  • In this movie, several Americans (including Hilts and Henley) were amongst the escapees. In real life, American officers assisted with the construction of the escape tunnel, but weren't amongst the escapees, because the Germans moved them to a remote compound just before the escape.

  • Wally Floody, the real-life "Tunnel King" (he was transferred to another camp just before the escape), served as a consultant to the filmmakers, almost full-time, for more than a year.

  • The real camp can be visited today in Sagan, Poland. It's a ruin now, that's mostly used for archaeological purpose. A replica of the camp is located forty kilometers (twenty-five miles) south, where you can enter a model of tunnel "Harry" yourself. In the movie, they confused the actual names of the tunnels.

  • Some aspects of the escape remained classified during production, and were not revealed until well afterward. The inclusion of chocolate, coffee, and cigarettes in Red Cross packages is well documented, as is their use to bribe Nazi guards. Other materials useful for escaping had to be kept secret, and were not included in the book or screenplay. Also not revealed until many years later, was the fact that the prisoners actually built a fourth tunnel called "George".

  • Charles Bronson, who portrays the chief tunneler, brought his own expertise and experiences to the set. He had been a coal miner before turning to acting, and gave director John Sturges advice on how to move the dirt. As a result of his work in the coal mines, Bronson suffered from claustrophobia, just as his character had.

  • Sir Richard Attenborough said many years later working with Steve McQueen on this movie was one of the toughest challenges he had ever faced, and their on-set relationship was not peaceful. McQueen was not combative, but he wouldn't hesitate to let anyone know if things were not as he would wish them to be, or believed that they ought to be.

  • The real-life escape preparations involved six hundred men working for well over a year. The escape did have the desired effect of diverting German resources, including a doubling of the number of guards after the Gestapo took over the camp from the Luftwaffe.

  • James Garner developed his "Scrounger" character from his own personal experiences in the military as a self-described scrounger for his company in the Korean War.

  • Several cast members were actual POWs during World War II. Donald Pleasence was held in the German camp Stalag Luft I, Hannes Messemer in a Russian camp, and Til Kiwe and Hans Reiser were prisoners of the Americans. Pleasence said the set was a very accurate representation of a POW camp.

  • Donald Pleasence was an aircrewman in the Royal Air Force during World War II, whose plane was shot down. Upon which, he became a prisoner of war, and was tortured by the Germans. When he kindly offered advice to director John Sturges, he was politely asked to keep his "opinions" to himself. Later, when another actor on set informed Sturges that Pleasence was imprisoned in a World War II German POW camp, Sturges requested his technical advice and input on historical accuracy from that point forward.

  • During idle periods while this movie was in production, all cast and crew members, from Steve McQueen and James Garner to production assistants, and obscure food service workers, were asked to take thin, five-inch strings of black rubber and knot them around other thin strings of black rubber of enormous length. The finished results of all of this knotting were the coils and fences of barbed wire seen throughout the movie.

  • During production, Charles Bronson met and fell in love with David McCallum's wife, Jill Ireland, and he jokingly told McCallum he was going to steal her away from him. In 1967, Ireland and McCallum divorced, and she married Bronson.

Best Performance: Steve McQueen (Hilts)/Richard Attenborough (Roger)/Elmer Bernstein (Music)

Best Secondary Performance: Ferris Webster (Editor)/James Garner (Hendley)

Most Charismatic Award: Steve McQueen (Hilts)

Best Scene:

  • Day One Escape Attempts

  • Hilts Tests the Security Measures

  • Hendley Scams Werner

  • Hilts and Ives Try to Burrow

  • Independence Day

  • Progressive Myopia

  • Night of the Escape

  • Catching Roger and Mac

  • Hilts' Motorcycle Getaway

  • French Resistance

  • 50 Men Gunned Down

Favorite Scene: Hilts Tests the Security Measures

Most Indelible Moment: Post-Escape Events/Hilts in the Cooler

In Memorium:

  • Julie Powell, 49, American author, subject of the movie Julie & Julia taken from her popular Julie/Julia Project blog at Salon in 2001, part of the rising tide of social media and internet home-cooking trend that we have now.

  • Stephen C. Grossman, 76, American television producer (Newhart). In addition to various directing and producing credits for several notable 70s and 80s TV shows, Grossman was co-president of the American Association of Producers in 2001 when the group merged with the Producers Guild of America. At the PGA, he helped launch its diversity and inclusion committee.

  • Andrew Duncan, 95, American actor (Slap Shot, Love Story, The Hospital, Used Cars), played the announcer, Jim Carr, in Slap Shot, and was part of the First Second City Revue in Chicago in 1959.

  • Jerry Lee Lewis, 87, American Hall of Fame singer ("Great Balls of Fire", "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On", "High School Confidential") and pianist. (*please click on the hyperlink story to the Rolling Stone piece for this one)

Best Lines/Funniest Lines:

Ramsey: Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.

Colin: Afraid this tea's pathetic. Must have used these wretched leaves about twenty times. It's not that I mind so much. Tea without milk is so uncivilized.

Hilts: How many you taking out?

Bartlett: Two hundred and fifty.

Hilts: Two hundred and fifty?

Bartlett: Yeh.

Hilts: You're crazy. You oughta be locked up. You, too. Two hundred and fifty guys just walkin' down the road, just like that?

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.

Ramsey: Roger's idea was to get back at the enemy the hardest way he could, mess up the works. From what we've heard here, I think he did exactly that.

Hendley: Do you think it was worth the price?

Ramsey: Depends on your point of view, Hendley.

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: CAPTAIN Hilts.

Von Luger: Twenty days.

Hilts: Right. Oh, uh, you'll still be here when I get out?

Von Luger: [visibly annoyed] Cooler!

The Stanley Rubric:

Legacy: 8.5

Impact/Significance: 6.5

Novelty: 6.75

Classic-ness: 7

Rewatchability: 8.25

Audience Score: 9.15 (88% Google, 95% RT)

Total: 46.15

Remaining Questions:

  • Why wouldn't you have scoped out the end of the tunnel before dating the travel papers?

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