Stoic Films: The Great Escape

Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen

Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) and Hicks (Steve McQueen) in The Great Escape

The Great Escape is a classic war film, inspired by a real-life breakout from the Stalag Luft III POW camp in World War II. Although the film took some typical Hollywood liberties with the story, it remains an excellent portrayal of the quintessential British stiff upper lip.

The story begins in 1943. The Germans, constantly hunting escaped Allied prisoners of war, decide to build a new high security POW camp where they can detain the most frequent escapees. Their plan is to keep all their “rotten eggs in one basket”. The camp has watchtowers covering all angles inside the perimeter, layers of barbed wire fencing, and listening devices planted in the ground to pick up the sounds of digging.

Almost immediately the prisoners start trying to escape, by hiding in trucks leaving the camp, and even marching straight out the gates. The prison guards immediately foil these impulsive attempts. The Kommandant tells the men that they will be in the camp for a long time, and should occupy themselves with the leisurely past-times on offer. Amongst the new arrivals are ingenious Squadron Leader Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) and cocksure American pilot Hilts (Steve McQueen). Hilts is determined to escape as soon as possible, and attempts various quick getaways, only to be recaptured soon after getting out. His behaviour lands him in solitary confinement, “The Cooler”.

Bartlett is more patient, and sets about organising a complicated mass breakout involving three tunnels; Tom, Dick and Harry. The men have to dig deep to avoid the listening devices, and must find a way to deposit the large amounts of soil. Unlike Hilts, Bartlett understands the need to appear to be playing by the rules; if the men seem to be devoting themselves to past-times like gardening, choir practice and bird-watching classes, they can lull the Germans into a false sense of security. On the other hand, he tolerates, and encourages, Hicks to continue with his quick schemes; the guards would be suspicious if there were no breakout attempts.

Plot spoilers follow.

One of the tunnels has been discovered, and the other abandoned. The men put all their energy into the remaining one. Eventually they dig past the perimeter, and escape is possible. The forgers have created all the necessary identification documents, and the tailors have modified the men’s uniforms to look like civilian clothes.

As the men line up in the tunnel on the night of the escape, a terrible discovery is made. The tunnel is shorter than previously thought, and falls far short of the cover of the woods. Anyone who climbs out of the hole could be spotted by a guard. The entire operation looks like it is in jeopardy. Bartlett behaves very stoically in this moment. When someone asks how the length of the tunnel could have been so drastically miscalculated, Bartlett says that it doesn’t matter how; it has already happened and is therefore out of their control. He knows that he cannot change the facts of the matter, and does not let the situation dampen his resolve. He orders the escape to go ahead, as all the documents are dated to that day. This is their only opportunity.

By timing the movements the guards, the men emerge from the tunnel one by one, and make a dash for the woods. All is going well until one man trips, and inadvertently alerts the guards. The escape is quickly stopped. 76 men got away. Travelling in pairs or alone, the escapees must make their way to the neutral countries. Some hitch a ride, some take the train, some steal a fighter plane, and Hilts famously drives across the fields in a German motorbike, leading to the film’s iconic chase sequence.

In the end, all but three of the men are recaptured. As Bartlett and 49 others sit in the back of a German truck, expecting to be delivered back to the camp, he reflects on the mission. Although the have been caught, he believes that the escape was a success. They proved that the camp was not as secure as the Luftwaffe thought, they distrusted the German army, and most importantly, they led many soldiers on a chase which caused a large-scale distraction when those troops could have been fighting the Allies.

In the film’s bleakest moment, the 50 men are let out to stretch their legs, and are promptly gunned down by the Germans. Back at the camp, the remaining POWs are informed that Bartlett and the others were “shot while trying to escape”. They see through this lie immediately, but are powerless to do anything.

As a result of the escape, the camp Kommandant is relieved of his position in disgrace. As he is about to be escorted from the camp, Hilts is brought back, unhurt, and promptly sent to the cooler. The bittersweet ending is capped by a dedication to the real life 50.

The Allied officers in The Great Escape are prime examples of stoicism in action. They do not let imprisonment sink their spirits, and they remain resolute throughout the ordeal. That is not to say they all behave stoically; one man, Ives, cannot stand the oppressive conditions in the cooler. He lets the situation drag him down, and as a result of his desperation, his part ends in tragedy. Danny the tunnel digger (Charles Bronson playing against type) also faces great anxiety (he appears to suffer from claustrophobia), but tries his best to keep it under control. Eventually he has a breakdown, and almost jeopardises the operation, but with help and understanding from the other men, he is able to pull through.

The most impressive character in the film is Bartlett. As the leader of the escape, it falls to him to make the difficult decisions. He carries a huge weight on his shoulders, but always stays calm and collected in front of the men. His final moments on-screen cement him as a great stoic character. The Great Escape is a perennial feature on British television, where its “Keep Calm and Carry On” ethos is greatly admired, but one does not need to be British to appreciate the stoic undercurrent of this deserving classic.

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