The Great Escape is a featherweight escapist entertainment (pardon the pun) disguised as a true story. While the basic facts of the story are faithful to real events, great liberties are also taken, mostly to make the film more appealing to American audiences.
Even though the real event involved only British prisoners, the producers added James Garner and Steve McQueen to the cast. Garner plays Hendley, “The Scrounger”, an American who, based on his uniform, appears to fly for the Brits. It happened so that’s not too far fetched. McQueen is Hilts, “The Cooler King”, a character who spends most of his time locked in solitary confinement for his repeated escape attempts. His isolation from the rest of the characters, both before and after the titular escape, means that McQueen is almost in a completely different movie, all by himself.
The basic premise of The Great Escape is that the German Luftwaffe has built a new prison camp, Luft Stalag III, to hold their most troublesome prisoners, the real escape artists. Of course, by putting all of these uniquely talented men in one camp, the Germans have inadvertently created a virtual “University of Escape”. The chief organizer, “Big X” (Richard Attenborough) has a bold plan to take more than 250 prisoners out in one night, forcing to Germans to expend vast resources hunting them and thereby disrupting their operations elsewhere.
The characters are pretty much paper thin. Every person is defined by his role in the escape: “The Forger,” “Dispersal,” “The Surveyor,” and “Intelligence.” No one is really allowed to exist beyond the job they do. Only Donald Pleasance, as the mousey “Forger,” and Charles Bronson as “The Tunnel King” are allowed any measure of humanity.
The real joy you get from The Great Escape comes from watching the ingenuity that the prisoners show in preparing for the escape: digging the tunnel, acquiring clothing and travel papers. This is where it helps to understand that this is based on a true story. Otherwise, some of things the prisoners manage to accomplish would scarcely seem believable.
Another flaw in the storytelling is that the Germans who run the camp barely register as presence, popping in and out of the narrative as required to inconvenience our heroes. Only the sympathetic guard, Werner “The Ferret” (played by Robert Graf and a likely prototype for Sgt. Schultz in “Hogan’s Heroes”) emerges as a character among the enemy.
Even after the escape is under way, the Germans are mostly a faceless mass rather than a specific and direct threat. Only the Gestapo officers near the end bring any real feel of menace to the other side.
For all its shortcomings as drama, The Great Escape still entertains as a rousing adventure tale, staged on an epic scale. The images of Steve McQueen bounding across Bavaria on a motorcycle are iconic, even if, like most of his role, it has nothing to do with the rest of the picture.