In March 1944, the German High Command has selected a group of their most escape-prone British, American and Canadian prisoners of war and placed them in a camp called Stalag Luft III (located in the province of Upper Silesia) which has been specifically designed to foil any attempts at escape.
The commandant, Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger (Hannes Messemer), tells the Senior British Ofﬁcer, Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald), “There will be no escapes from this camp”.
But as soon as they arrive, the prisoners begin work on a series of tunnels under the direction of Squadron Leader Roger “Big X” Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), a master escape organiser.
The plan is to break out 250 to 300 prisoners and have them scatter all over Germany so that massive numbers of German soldiers will be relegated to searching for escapees rather than being deployed at the front.
Bartlett assigns the POWs to jobs according to their specialities, and for more than a year 600 prisoners – most of whom won’t be leaving – work toward the escape.
Flight Lieutenant Robert Hendley (James Garner) is “the scrounger” who obtains needed materials. Australian Flying Ofﬁcer Louis Sedgwick (James Coburn), “the manufacturer”, makes tools for digging and bellows for pumping air into the tunnels. Flight Lieutenants Danny Valinski (Charles Bronson) and William ‘Willie’ Dickes (John Leyton) are “the tunnel kings” in charge of the actual digging. Flight Lieutenant Andrew MacDonald (Gordon Jackson) acts as intelligence ofﬁcer and Bartlett’s second-in-command.
Royal Navy Lt. Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum) is in charge of dispersal (spreading the soil from the tunnels over the camp grounds undetected), Flight Lieutenant Grifﬁth (Robert Desmond) acts as tailor, creating civilian outﬁts out of military uniforms and Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence), in charge of forging German identity documents, almost goes blind from the strain on his eyes from all of his detailed work by candlelight (Hendley becomes Blythe’s guide).
To ensure a reasonable chance of success, the prisoners work on a trio of tunnels all at once, naming them Tom, Dick and Harry.
Meanwhile, USAAF Captain Virgil Hilts (SteveMcQueen) – the “Cooler King” – persists in badgering the guards by trying to escape again and again while displaying an uncooperative attitude. Hilts and RAF Flying Ofﬁcer Archibald Ives (Angus Lennie) devise a plan to ﬂee through a shorter tunnel near the edge of the camp, one that Bartlett agrees to, realising that he can’t prohibit all individual escape attempts if he hopes for his grand scheme to succeed.
Hilts and Ives are promptly caught and punished and when Hilts is released from the ‘cooler’, Bartlett asks him to use his next escape attempt to reconnoitre the area around the camp. Hilts turns Bartlett down but helps the collective escape effort by becoming another ‘scrounger’.
Meanwhile, Hendley becomes friendly with a German soldier named Werner (Robert Graf) and steals his ID documents in order to blackmail the hapless guard into securing materials necessary to the escape.
As ‘Tom’ nears completion, Bartlett shuts down ‘Dick’ and ‘Harry’, but while the POWs celebrate the July Fourth holiday, the guards ﬁnd ‘Tom’. It’s a major, morale-crushing setback.
Ives, driven mad by isolation in the cooler, attempts to climb the camp’s barbed-wire fence in full view of the guards. He is killed as a result.
Not to be deterred, the pows set back to work on ‘Harry’. Hilts finally agrees to do some reconnaissance outside the camp grounds, be recaptured, and report on his ﬁndings so that the group can make maps to guide escapees.
The ﬁnal section of the tunnel is ﬁnished on time but is 20 feet short of the woods, which were meant to provide cover. Bartlett proceeds with the escape, and Hilts devises a system for signalling the prisoners so that they can leave the tunnel and sprint to the woods in between patrol sweeps.
76 men manage to get away before the escape attempt is discovered, and the film then follows their attempts to get out of Germany.
Hendley and Blythe steal a plane to ﬂy over the Swiss border, but the engine fails and they crash. Hendley surrenders, but Blythe, now blind, doesn’t put his hands up and is shot dead. Bartlett is discovered at a busy railway station, but Ashely-Pitt overpowers the Gestapo agent and shoots him, only to be killed while attempting his own escape.
In the commotion, Bartlett and MacDonald manage to escape but are captured getting on a bus when MacDonald mistakenly replies to a Gestapo agent in English. MacDonald is quickly arrested but Bartlett manages to escape, though he is soon recognised and arrested by SS Lieutenant Steinach (Karl-Otto Alberty).
Hilts steals a German army motorcycle and is subsequently chased by a large contingent of German soldiers on an unforgettable fence-jumping ride.
He passes over the German-Swiss border and makes it into the Neutral Zone, but gets entangled in barbed wire and is captured.
Trucks containing captured POWs split in different directions with the ﬁrst vehicle – carrying MacDonald, Cavendish, Haynes and others – stopping in a ﬁeld where the drivers ask the captives to exit the truck to “stretch their legs”. They are then machine-gunned to death en masse.
In total, 50 prisoners are killed and only Hendley and nine fellow captives are returned to the camp, where Kommandant Von Luger has been discharged.
Only three POWs make it out of Nazi Germany: Danny and Willie row a boat to the Baltic coast and then stowaway on a Swedish vessel; Sedgwick pilfers a bicycle and hides on a freight train that takes him to France, where he is taken to Spain by the French Resistance.
Hilts is brought back to the camp alone in handcuffs and ends up back in the cooler. USAAF Lt. Goff (Jud Taylor) grabs Hilts’ baseball and glove, tossing them his way when he walks by with the German guards. The guard locks Hilts in, and we hear him throwing his ball against the cell wall. The end.
The Great Escape was the longest (173 minutes), most expensive, and biggest money-making POW film of all time.
The movie combines superb casting, a great story and a top musical score with a memorable stunt-filled climax. Though the plot was similar to many other barbed-wire-tunnel-digging pictures, this was directed with greater gusto and offered some ingenious variations on the familiar theme.
Sadly, the film is based on actual events during World War II and the majority of escaped Allied prisoners were actually executed by the Germans after their re-capture.
Virgil Hilts, “The Cooler King”
Flight Lieutenant Robert Hendley, “The Scrounger”
Squadron Leader Roger “Big X” Bartlett
Flight Lieutenant Danny Valinski, “Tunnel King”
Flight Lieutenant William ‘Willie’ Dickes, “Tunneler”
Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe, “The Forger”
Group Captain Ramsey, “The SBO”
Flying Ofﬁcer Louis Sedgwick, “Manufacturer”
Flight Lieutenant Andrew MacDonald, “Intelligence”
Lt Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt, “Dispersal”
Flight Lieutenant Grifﬁth, “Tailor”
Kommandant Von Luger
Flying Ofﬁcer Archibald Ives, “The Mole”