It was announced yesterday that former RAF pilot Jack Harrison—thought to be the last survivor of the “Great Escape” from the World War II POW camp Stalag Luft III near what is now Zagan, Poland on March 24, 1944—had died at 97 (in Scotland, God bless him). I mention this because several of my friends and I believe that John Sturges’s 1963 account of the breakout, The Great Escape, is one of the greatest movies ever made. Although I’m not aware that he had a specific analog in the film, Harrison helped dispose of the dirt excavated from the three tunnels while working as a gardener, conjuring up the scenes in which clever devices concealed in their pants pockets enabled the men to disperse the dirt in the garden.
Especially coming so soon after Memorial Day (which I celebrated by watching two of my favorite WW II films, Where Eagles Dare and Kelly’s Heroes, on what also happened to be star Clint Eastwood’s birthday) and the 66th anniversary of D-Day (which I should have celebrated by watching The Longest Day, but didn’t, for fear my long-suffering wife would divorce me), this news makes me reflect on what a victory, albeit a qualified one, the escape was. With the Germans having famously put all of their rotten-egg escape artists in one basket, the POWs knew that their plan to break 200 out of the “inescapable” camp that was the pride and joy of the Luftwaffe—their Titanic, if you will—would not only represent a propaganda triumph for the Allies but also tie up countless German resources in an effort to recapture them.
The POWs (of whom Harrison was #98) were chosen by lot and equipped with civilian clothing, papers, and whatever else they would need once they escaped via the only one of the tunnels undiscovered by the guards. Seventy-six got out before the alarm was raised; all but three were recaptured, fifty of whom were executed on Hitler’s orders, hence the film’s sobering dedication, “For the fifty.” This supreme sacrifice was made by men who, it should be noted, had already faced death in combat and could understandably have waited out the remainder of the war in relative safety, but whose sworn duty it was to harass and confuse the enemy the best way they knew how.
I’ve yet to read the nonfiction book by Paul Brickhill that was the basis for the film, so I’m no expert on the subject, but I believe Sturges et al. took great pains to be historically accurate. What’s incontrovertible is that he, screenwriters James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, composer Elmer Bernstein, and an unparalleled cast (James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, and Magnificent Seven members Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn) brilliantly dramatized a tale that truly represents the overused phrase “a triumph of the human spirit.” And as Johnny Depp and I celebrate our 47th birthday today, I also celebrate the self-sacrifice of those courageous men who helped ensure that I was born into a free world.