So the danger with movies based on historic events is that people will often confuse the film’s events with “real life” – and as I mentioned back with Lawrence Of Arabia, the film will often have to take several liberties with the story. I’ve found a second danger – people who don’t even see the movie in the first place, but hear all about one part of it and assume that’s the whole of the story. I admit that that is exactly what happened with me and this story of the escape attempt from German POW camp Stalag Luft III during World War II.
The film does admit up front that they took some liberties with specific characters – combining several peoples’ stories into one, mainly – but that the details of the escape plot were intact. And from what I’ve turned up during a post-film browse, that’s sort of true. A total of 76 men really did escape from this POW camp, most of them British Commonwealth soldiers; and they really did escape by secretly digging three tunnels under the fence to the surrounding woods, dressing themselves in civilian clothes fashioned from bedsheets and old coats dyed with shoe polish and carrying forged travel papers. In the film, the whole operation is conceived and organized by an RAF officer named Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), who recruits entire teams of people into the cause – organizing a whole team of forgers lead by Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasance), setting an American schmoozer named Bob Hendley (James Garner) to round up their tools and supplies (as well as chocolate and coffee to bribe Germans with), and pleading with a serial escape artist, American Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen), to give them some idea of the surrounding countryside next time he breaks out – since Hilts usually gets captured and brought back.
This was McQueen’s breakout role, thanks to Hilt’s irreverent attitude and spunk; numerous other films have paid homage to Hilts’ habit of bouncing a baseball against the wall of his cell to keep himself busy. McQueen also has a cracker of a stunt scene, in which Hilts tries fleeing on a motorcycle and jumps over a barbed-wire fence. That’s the bit that my father remembered best when I mentioned I’d seen the film; and those are the bits I’d heard of before.
So I was surprised to learn that in the film, as in real life, McQueen was not the main character. He didn’t even have a lead role in planning the escape. I was also surprised to learn that the escape was a failure in many respects – less than half of the planned 200 men made it out, and most of them were recaptured. Only three men make it to safety – Officer Louis Sedgewick (James Coburn), an Australian construction expert, has the French resistance smuggle him to Spain, and two Flight Lieutenants (Charles Bronson and John Leyton) stow away on a boat to Sweden.
Ironically, I liked the film better than I thought I would as a result. I’d thought this would be the tale of a heroic victory – McQueen’s motorcycle jump being some sort of desperate-yet-brave act that finally broke down the camp wall to let the prisoners all go running out or something. But instead, this was more of a story of smarts and planning, with smaller and more human stories carrying the day – Hendley and Blythe becoming “escape buddies” and sticking together after they make it out, Bartlett’s meticulous problem-solving, and John Leyton talking Charles Bronson out of a case of claustrophobia. There’s even a scene that felt more suited to an episode of the TV show M*A*S*H, as the Americans in the camp spend a week making hooch out of potatoes and then dress up in makeshift Spirit of ’76 costumes for a grass-roots July 4th party.
So this film not only circumvented my impression of the history, but also my impression of itself – and came out a winner.