The Great Escape is based on the 1950 novel of the same name, which is based on true events. Of course, every historical movie based on a true story takes its creative liberties for cinematic value. The Great Escape changes names, exaggerates events, and introduces new elements to the story.
Despite its numerous historical inaccuracies, The Great Escape is still an intense, gripping film that chronicles the persistence of the human spirit and its desire to be free.
America F*ck Yeah!
Because The Great Escape was primarily an American film, the involvement of American POWs in the escape was greatly exaggerated. Though they did initially help, the Germans transferred most Americans out of the main camp before the final escape attempt.
However, the Americans that were part of the film escape were based on real people. Captain Hilts (Steve McQueen) was based on several people, including Squadron Leader Eric Foster, who escaped German POW camps seven times. At McQueen’s request, he was also heavily based on the film’s technical director, Flight Lt. Barry Mahon.
James Garner played Flight Lt. Hendley in the film. Garner, a veteran of the Korean War, drew on his experiences in actual combat to create his character. Hendley was not a real person but a character based on several different soldiers involved in the escape.
Aid From the Homeland
Something that The Great Escape did not feature was the help the prisoners received from friends and families at home. This doesn’t necessarily magnify the prisoners’ feats and minimize any outside help. Instead, this detail was hidden so that future POWs would still be able to use help from the homeland in future escapes.
Additionally, the real POWs also received help from sympathetic guards and Nazis. Germans often provided needed items for escape and legal papers. This was not excluded to diminish the aid received from the enemy, but again to allow this aid to be received by future POWs.
Some of the German characters in the film were sympathetic to show that not all of these soldiers were heartless sadists. Oberst Von Luger (Hannes Messemer), the commandant of the POW camp, is slightly more caring toward the prisoners, including allowing for a little more freedom for those whom the High Command had recommended solitary confinement.
Fine Details of the Escape
In the film, the escape takes place in ideal weather conditions. The Great Escape takes place in summer and fall, based on the fact that the American prisoners celebrate Independence Day during their captivity. However, the real escape took place in winter; the escaping prisoners had to slog through heavy snow to achieve their goals.
Flight Lt. Hendley and Flight Lt. Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) escape to an airfield in the film and steal a small plane. Capt. Hilts steals a motorcycle from a German soldier to make his way to Switzerland. In reality, the prisoners never used planes or motorcycles to escape. All escape was done mainly on foot or by other common vehicle means.
The Gestapo discovers and kills Flight Lt. Andy MacDonald (Gordon Jackson) after he answers a German question in English. Historians and British soldiers dispute whether this happened in real life. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume one of the prisoners made this deadly folly, but there is not enough evidence to say that definitively.
Taking Dramatic Liberties
Of course, in any adaptation, there will be certain changes from the original story. At one point, a British officer tells the Commandant that it is the sworn duty of all British prisoners of war to try and escape. No official British military regulations make this statement, though it does make for a great line of dialogue.
In addition to the fact that Americans were not as big a part of the escape, several other nationalities were involved in the escape and residing at the camp. There were Norwegian, Dutch, and Polish soldiers that participated as well.
Despite some of these diversions from reality, The Great Escape did beautifully recreate the POW camp. The layout and construction of the camp were quite accurate to the original. Also, The Great Escape was filmed in Germany to increase the accuracy of the movie.
The Effect of Accuracy
As with any retelling of a story, it won’t be entirely accurate. Filmmakers will embellish certain details while diminishing or omitting others entirely to streamline the story and make it more entertaining. Unless you’re watching a documentary (and even then), there will be dramatization.
This affects how the audience receives said story. When we see The Great Escape, we have great respect for the prisoners of war, especially considering all the obstacles they face in the film. Because the film exists, more people know about these men who risked it all to escape the enemy and serve their countries.
Though some details were omitted in the film that are important for people to know, The Great Escape is still a great patriotic film — no matter what country you’re from. It highlights the bravery and intelligence of these men and emphasizes the struggles that generation went through for freedom.
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