Category Archives: Reviews

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.

Book Review: “An Unsung Hero” by Michael Smith

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Tom Crean was an unassuming seaman from Ireland who distinguished himself as one of the hardiest antarctic explorers in history. He served twice under Scott (on the Discovery and the Terra Nova) and once under Shackleton (on the Endurance), both of whom held him in high regard as a supremely dependable crewman.

He proved his bravery time and time again. On the Terra Nova Expedition, while returning to base camp following a depot-laying trip, the ice on which he and his comrades Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Henry Bowers had been camping broke away and started drifting off, taking them with it, away from their sledges. Crean salvaged the situation by jumping across the broken ice floes to fetch help, saving the two men’s lives.

On another occasion, Crean, Edward Evans and William Lashly were trekking back to base when Evans was struck by slow blindness, and had to be aided by the other two. Soon he began to develop scurvy. With provisions running low, and 35 miles still to go to safety, it was decided that Crean would go alone. He set off with just three biscuits and some chocolate, and walked for 18 solid hours. He reached the base just in time to avoid a blizzard, and Evans and Lashly were soon saved.

In his native country, though he has been long admired, there is a perception that his legacy has been underappreciated. Michael Smith set out to restore Crean to his rightful place in history, with his book “An Unsung Hero; Tom Crean – Antarctic Survivor”. The book examines Crean from his early days working on the family farm in Kerry to his death in 1938, but obviously the book is primarily concerned with his polar adventures.

To write about Crean must have been a challenge. He was a modest man who did not seek fame and attention. Because of this, there is no record of him ever giving an interview to the press. He did not write an autobiography. He did not make speaking engagements. He left very little personal correspondence. Many other characters from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration thoroughly documented their exploits; we have a wealth of diaries and memoirs covering every moment of every expedition, but Crean was a more private person.

The author makes a game attempt to provide a full account of a man whose thoughts and feelings largely remain a mystery. Smith knows that it is Crean’s actions which must speak for him, not his words, and wisely avoids unnecessary interpretation. To use an odd turn of phrase, he lets the story tell the story. He paints a strong picture of a loyal, reliable, and unerringly brave man. The book is well-paced and as well-researched as can be considered possible with a such an elusive figure.

There are, however, stretches of the book where the relative lack of information about Crean becomes apparent; there are times when the author must make do with talking about the general work of the expedition with only occasional sentences to remind us of Crean as a specific presence. He was, after all, part of a crew. Such sections are excusable, and do not hinder the book. It is in these moments that the author provides a good overview of the various voyages. In many ways the book would serve as a solid introduction for those who wish to start learning about the Heroic Age (This does not mean that the book would hold no appeal to those who are more well-versed in the era, as there are some new insights to be gleaned).

Crean comes across as a thoroughly likeable person, full of dedication; a good-natured man who kept his spirit up (and the spirits of everyone around him) in the midst of one of the most inhospitable parts of the world. He was more than capable of emotion, but would not let circumstance get him down for too long. As with Shackleton, there is much a Stoic could learn from such a man as Tom Crean.

Smith has written an exciting, inspiring book, one which makes a strong case for recognition of this previously under-appreciated explorer, and one which I heartily recommend.

Book Review: “Marcus Aurelius” by Frank McLynn

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Any work by historian Frank McLynn is destined to be a decidedly mixed bag. On one hand, McLynn clearly undertakes a gargantuan amount of research, and any reader will not want for sources. He is undoubtedly an intelligent writer, with a strong (though occasionally archaic) command of the English language. He is able to describe not just the individual subject of each biography, but also the wider world in which they operated, thus offering us a better understanding of the geo-political context than we would otherwise have.

On the other hand, he can be biased; allowing his prejudices or preconceptions to shape the narrative. This can give some passages an arrogant flavour. Frequently he appears to use evidence to fit his foregone conclusion rather than drawing a conclusion from the evidence. A strong ability to research does not imply a strong ability to interpret. Once he has made up his mind, he will not budge, the result of which is proclaiming opinions as facts. Finally, (in my opinion, for fear of hypocrisy) he has limited aptitude for describing battles, a significant disadvantage when examining great military commanders like Marcus Aurelius and Napoléon I.

McLynn’s biography of Napoléon was my introduction to his work. Although the author made one or two elemental errors (propagating the now-discredited myth that Napoléon was ridiculously short), and delved a little too often into the unconvincing world of Jungian psychoanalysis (with every decision invariably being described as the result of some baseless complex or another), I nonetheless found it very well researched down to the most personal details (he seemed to have pinned down every dalliance the Emperor ever had, for example, no matter how casual), and despite its length, well-paced. He skilfully kept track of a huge cast of generals, relatives, and assorted hangers-on. He gave equal attention to Napoléon the Emperor, the General, and the Man. The book offered a fairly balanced view of the great leader, never overlooking his faults and never denying his achievements. I hoped to find the same qualities in his examination of Marcus Aurelius. Sadly, I did not.

First, we must consider the reasons why a reader would be drawn to a book about Marcus Aurelius. Perhaps they are interested in Ancient Rome in general. Perhaps they are interested in military and political leaders. Let us especially consider those who are interested in Marcus as one of the most noted Stoic philosophers, a man whose Meditations, despite never being intended for publication, offers wisdom and guidance to modern readers, almost two millenia after being written. In my estimation, any advocate of Stoicism will be dismayed at this book (or rather they would be dismayed if they did not reject this emotion as they should). It is clear from the earliest chapters that McLynn detests this great – and proven – philosophy.

While I can accept a difference of opinion, even a difference of philosophy, it seems that the author hates Stoicism for imagined reasons. His dismissive treatment of the entire school of thought appears to stem from a simple lack of understanding, as evidenced by his assertion that Stoicism “denies human nature by recommending what most sane people would regard as chimerical: braving torture, mocking death, conquering sexual passions. It subscribes to the dreadful doctrine that if someone suffers misfortune, he himself is responsible.”

I am unaware of any Stoic tenet which demands the practitioner to mock death, nor does the philosophy blame anyone for having suffered misfortune. Perhaps McLynn has misinterpreted Epictetus’ saying “If any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone” as meaning “If anyone has suffered a misfortune, let him remember he brought it on himself, and we have no sympathy for him”. This of course would be a ridiculous reading of the philosophy.

As for braving torture, stoic philosophy has indeed helped people in such dreadful situations. Let us take an example from the Vietnam War. In 1965 American fighter pilot James Stockdale, having ejected from his plane and parachuted to the ground, was taken as a prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese. He was in captivity for the next seven and a half years, during which time he was denied medical care, and regularly tortured. He specifically credited Stoicism with helping him to survive the ordeal.

The author fares much better when he deals with the culture, politics and history surrounding Marcus. This is not a blinkered biography of the kind obsessed with just one person at the expense of the wider world. It could read as an insightful overview of the history of Rome during Marcus’ reign as much as a history of the man himself. That is not to say Marcus is neglected; we are presented with a lot of information about a person who lived so long ago, for whom limited sources exist.

Unfortunately, these virtues do not excuse the wrong-headed attack on an entire school of thought. It is hard to imagine why someone who holds Stoicism in such low regard would choose to write a book about one of its leading proponents. It is equally hard to imagine why someone who advocates stoicism as a timeless and practical guide to living would choose to read it. I cannot recommend this book.