The Ten Percent: The Great Escape (1963)

Original poster for The Great Escape, 1963.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Welcome back to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. So many films premiere each year, but only a very few are remembered and revered years later. That’s not a matter of genre – the Ten Percent is a big tent, with plenty of room for comedy, drama, horror, animation, musical, science fiction and many more. But admission into the tent is not easy to come by. Films in this category last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

Before I talk about why 1963’s The Great Escape belongs in the Ten Percent, it’s worth taking the time to point out the film’s flaws. First, neither bicycles nor motorcycles were used in the 1943 escape from Stalag Luft III. Second, the “Great Escape” of 76 Allied POWs took place in unseasonably cold weather during one of the worst winters seen in Eastern Poland in 30 years. Third, there were no Americans among the escapees who were mostly British and Canadian. Finally, there was never any regulation which stated that Allied prisoners were duty-bound to attempt to escape. In fact, many, perhaps most, American and British POWs were generally leery of escape attempts.

Yet despite the heaping helping of historical inaccuracies, The Great Escape is a fantastic film, and a prime example of the star-studded, blockbuster World War II movies that were produced in the 1960s. Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, David McCallum, and Donald Pleasence to name a few, The Great Escape is a Who’s Who of male action heroes. Above all, the movie is cool (difficult not to be when both McQueen and Garner are involved).

The film’s pace is always fast, even manic at times, and is off and running from the get-go as truckloads of POWs arrive at a newly constructed high-security camp and immediately begin attempting to escape. In a great, and pleasantly brief, bit of exposition, the viewer learns that the new inmates are the worst of the worst, each having attempted to escape several times before and many having had to be recaptured once they broke out of other camps. So the Luftwaffe (all of the POWs are fliers) has decided to put them all in one basket, and to watch that basket carefully (seriously, that’s pretty close to a direct quote form the camp commandant, played by Hannes Messemer).

Of course, that doesn’t stop anything, particularly McQueen who’s lanky, sly-smiled, aw-shucks-who-me? attitude carries him through about five different escape attempts in the course of the movie while the British, led by Attenborough as the master strategist, concentrate on digging a 300+ yard tunnel for a mass break-out. The tunnel excavation and inevitable last-minute problems provide an increasing tension for most of the film, and the means by which Garner, McQueen and Coburn escape are the stuff from which action-movie dreams are made (and just about as realistic). The film is a romp, and keeps the viewer hooked from the beginning, and there really is not much in American film that is as cool as Steve McQueen jumping a stolen Nazi motorcycle over a barbed wire fence in an attempt to get to Switzerland. All in glorious Technicolor.

The movie is also notable in that the escape is unsuccessful for all but a handful of men – not the expected ending to this kind of film. Indeed, in this The Great Escape actually lines up with history, including the 50 unarmed, recaptured POWs who were executed by the Gestapo under direct orders from Adolf Hitler, a war crime for which 18 men were convicted at the Nuremberg Trials, and for which 13 of them were hanged in 1948. Even so, the ending is oddly triumphant, and the viewer is left with the clear impression that Steve McQueen, James Garner, and the other prisoners who were returned alive to the camp are far from done trying to escape, and the feeling that, eventually, they will succeed.

All in all The Great Escape is lifted to the Ten Percent by great pacing, an ensemble that is so implausibly cool, collected, and competent that you are completely sucked in, and just enough of an amazing true story at its core to provide a bit of verisimilitude. Plus, Steve McQueen doing his own motorcycle stunts as he attempts to jump a barbed wire fence into Switzerland. It really just doesn’t get much better.

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the (finally!) forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe. You can find Dale online at her blog and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

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