Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Great Escape | Fact vs Fiction

Steve McQueen with Wally Floody, a former POW who was actually part of the real Great Escape plan and acted as technical advisor on the film.

The Great Escape is a 1963 film which features an all-star cast seeking to break out of a German POW camp during World War Two. Although largely fictional, elements of the film were based on fact with events and characters condensed.

While the filmmakers made every effort to remain faithful to Paul Brickhill's account of the escape, given the scope and the length of time over which the book unfolds it was inevitable that some adjustments would have to be made to allow the story to be presented on screen. The result is that much of the action has been condensed in time and many of the men appear as composites of the real-life individuals who appear in the book.

Composite Characters Explained »

One important liberty taken by the film makers was that, in actual fact, no serving member of the American armed forces was involved in the final escape. Although not originally intended, the director John Sturges was told to write American heroes into the script or abandon the project. While fictional American characters dominated the film, it does concede that it was a mainly British led operation.

General Narrative

One important fact omitted from the film was the help the POWs received from outside the camp, some of it from their home countries; they received much material that proved invaluable for this and other escapes. Acting through secret agencies such as MI9, families from Allied nations would send maps, papers, tools as disguised material hidden in gifts, books, food, and other objects. Ex-POWs asked the film-makers to exclude such details lest it jeopardize future POW escapes.

The theft of a German airplane (in the film, a Bücker Bü 181) by Hendley and Blythe is also fictitious, although there was a failed attempt by Lorne Welch and Walter Morison to steal a plane following the delousing party escape a year earlier. Likewise the movie shows the plane going over Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle on the way to Switzerland; the 181 range is only about 497 miles — in real life their flight from Stalag Luft III would have gone down at least 50 miles from the Swiss border — instead of going down near the Swiss Alps.

A scene shows a choir singing to cover the noise of work done for the escape, but, in reality, it was a group of prisoners who formed a musical band and called themselves the "Sagan Serenaders". Future television meteorologist Wally Kinnan, then a First Lieutenant in the US Army Air Corps, and Pilot Officer Leonard Whiteley of the British Royal Air Force had organized the group. The Serenaders received musical instruments from aid organizations and whatever the German captors could scrounge. Musicians Tiger Ward, Nick Nagorka and pianist John Bunch were also members of this group.

Number of escapees

Only 76 of the projected 200 men escaped while an air raid occurred; only three POWs escaped Germany into neutral territory: the Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Müller who escaped to Sweden, and the Dutchman Bram van der Stok who reached Spain. Though Roger Bartlett in the film speaks of freeing 250 men, there is no account of a target other than 200, and in the movie itself only about 15 POWS go through the tunnel to the forest.

The tunnels

The film depicts Tom's entrance as being under a stove and Harry's as in a drain sump in a washroom. In reality, Dick's entrance was the drain sump, Harry's was under the stove, and Tom's was in a darkened corner.

British veterans mark Great Escape anniversary »

British veterans of the Second World War prison camp that featured in the film The Great Escape made an emotional return to the site of the getaway tunnel on the 65th anniversary of the breakout immortalised in the Hollywood film.
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