James Garner, Best-Dressed POW. Image: Showpass

We inherited several traits from our paternal grandmother, among them a love of calorie-rich food and an admiration for the actor James Garner.

Our grandmother would Drop Everything if Garner made an appearance on television. Who could blame her? He was handsome, charming and easy-going.

He was also a fine dramatic actor, as evidenced in The Great Escape (1963), a WWII drama based on an actual escape from a German POW camp.

Garner stars as an American aviator imprisoned in a camp built for the most difficult prisoners (i.e. the ones prone to escape). The guards insist Escape Is Futile.

It isn’t. Getting out is relatively easy; it’s staying out that’s difficult.

Look at Steve McQueen‘s character. With 17 escape attempts on his record, he stages #18 on his first day in this camp.

Then there’s Richard Attenborough, a British officer under Gestapo surveillance. They’re nervous about Attenborough, and with good reason. He isn’t in the camp 20 minutes before he’s scouting escape routes.

The men devise an ingenious plan: They’ll build a tunnel, 30 feet underground, to the forest outside the camp. It will have a primitive “railway” to transport over 200 prisoners to freedom.

It sounds impossible, no? But look at this diagram of the real tunnel:

Each prisoner plays a role the escape. As the “Scrounger”, Garner sources materials needed for tunnel construction, as well as documents to be forged for escapees once they surface in German society.

Garner’s character is like a magician. He creates distractions to steal everything from food to engine parts to paperwork. It’s best to keep an eye on your wallet when he’s around.

And yet, in a movie about courage, his character proves to be exceedingly brave, and compassionate.

Garner and Donald Pleasance in the German countryside. Image: TCM

The Great Escape is, basically, two films in one. The first half is a light-hearted look at the building of the tunnel and the prisoners’ concealment of said activity.

The second half ratchets the tension as it focuses on the escape itself. There are no amusing escapades now. German officers are livid and want Payback.

For the escape, Garner partners with a British officer (Donald Pleasance), an expert document forger. Sadly, Pleasance has progressive myopia. He’s almost completely blind.

Attenborough fears poor eyesight will prove disastrous, and he bluntly tells Pleasance to stay behind in the camp. “A blind man is an unnecessary hazard, not only to himself, but to the whole plan, and must therefore be eliminated from the operation,” he says.

The news is crushing, not only to Pleasance, but also to Garner. He argues Attenborough himself poses the greatest hazard, because the Gestapo have him on Their List.

“[He’s] not a blind man as long as he’s with me,” says Garner, “and he’s going with me.”

Garner knows the risks in helping Pleasance; he has a better chance alone. But he won’t desert a man who can almost taste freedom, blind or not.

This is why we admire Garner’s character: He values life and friendship. He looks past the disability and finds a man who’s worked as hard as anybody for this opportunity.

It’s a brave decision – almost as brave as Pleasance agreeing to it.

Testing the camp moonshine. Image: IMDB

As mentioned earlier, The Great Escape is based on a true story. On March 24, 1944, prisoners launched a nighttime escape from Stalag Luft III, a camp for Allied airforce POWs in Nazi-occupied Poland. Many prisoners escaped during a five-hour period until a guard discovered one of the men leaving the tunnel outside the camp. (Read The Telegraph‘s fascinating account HERE.)

Of course, this wasn’t the only daring escape from a POW (or any other) camp during WWII, but the audacity! The scope of it is breathtaking.

The film is based on the book by Paul Brickhill, an officer with the Royal Australian Air Force, who was imprisoned in Stalag Luft III. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, “He assisted in an elaborate but failed attempt at a mass breakout in March 1944, although claustrophobia prevented him from entering the escape tunnel.”

The Great Escape was filmed in Germany and was nominated for Best Film Editing. Although this film runs nearly three hours, it never drags, thanks to a tight script and a terrific cast, including the dashing James Garner.

The Great Escape: starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough. Directed by John Sturges. Written by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett. United Artists, 1963, Colour, 172 mins.

This post is part of the REEL INFATUATION BLOGATHON hosted by Font and Frock and yours truly.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

31 Comment on “Planning a Great, Gutsy Escape

  1. Pingback: #ReelInfatuation 2018 – Day 2 – Silver Screenings

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