The Great Eh-scape

I know, I know. I’ll show myself out after starting off a blog post with a title like that.

But #MakeAFilmMoreCanadian was trending not too long ago on Twitter. A lot of the tweets were along the lines of The Eh Team, The Great Gretzky, and Pacific Roll Up the Rim. My personal favorite came from the twitter for This Hour Has 22 Minutes. When they posted this tweet…

…I remembered another Hollywood action film that cut out the significant role that Canadians played in the historical event.

A poster of the The Great Escape (1963). Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough

I love this movie and won’t be bashing it in this post. However I will be separating fact from fiction and therefore there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen The Great Escape, stop reading this article and go watch it right now. I will also be discussing the debate over whether historical accuracy in films is even that big of a deal.

Based off of Paul Brickhill’s 1950 novel with the same name, The Great Escape (1963) is a fictionalized account of a real escape from a Nazi prisoner of war camp during World War II. The story is set in Germany in 1943. Sick of spending time and money on recapturing Allied POWs, the Nazis move the most troublesome to a new camp, Stalag Luft III. It is designed specifically to prevent escape attempts. Of course this does nothing to sour the determination of the captured men. “Big X” aka RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) is introduced. Having escaped twice before, he takes the lead and immediately begins working with other imprisoned British and American pilots, (made up of an all-star cast including James Garner, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and more), to construct three tunnels that will help 250 men escape.

Eventually USAAF Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) gets involved as well, despite his seeming indifference and habit of getting locked up in the cooler. After some setbacks, they successfully build a tunnel that ends up being 20 feet short of the woods they want to escape into. Bartlett pushes ahead and 76 POWs escape. Unfortunately, almost all the POWs are either killed by the Nazis or are recaptured. Only three make it to safety. The “Cooler King” is recaptured too and the film ends with Hilts enjoying his favorite pastime in the cooler…

Now a lot of the film is true. Stalag Luft III (full name was Stammlager Luft III) was a real POW camp. However it was located in Poland, not Germany. It no longer exists today; a museum dedicated to Allied POWs was built on the grounds where it once stood. The escape did take place and the numbers (76 escaped, 50 were killed, 23 were recaptured, 3 escaped) are true. The only difference is the real escape took place in March of 1944.  How the three men who successfully escaped was true as well, two did sail away to freedom and the other did make his way through France to get to Spain. Details regarding the tunnels were correct as well. The tunnels really were called “Tom, Dick, and Harry.” They were dug using cutlery and men sometimes moved dirt around by hiding it in their pants. “Tom” was discovered by the Nazis and a miscalculation led to “Harry” being 20 feet too short.

A diagram of the proposed route of one of the escape tunnels. By Ley Kenyon (1943), a wartime artist and a POW in Stalag Luft III at the time of the Great Escape in March 1944. [Source]

Some of the characters are based off of real figures. For example Barlett was inspired by Roger Bushell. He escaped (and was recaptured) two times prior to the Great Escape. Sadly like Barlett, Bushell was killed by the Gestapo. Barlett is one of the few characters relatively true to real life. One of the biggest changes the film made are the true nationalities of the characters. Although there were American POWs at Stalag Luft III, none of them were involved with the escape. Those behind the escape were British and Canadian.

Robert Hendley (James Garner, left) was based off of Barry Davidson, a pilot from Calgary. Although Hendley goes through the tunnel and tries to escape via plane with Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence, right), Davidson did not participate in the actual escape. Why? His claustrophobia prevented him from going through the tunnel. Blythe is in charge of forgery in the film and ends up nearly blind due to his complex work by candlelight. In real life, the master forger was Tony Pengelly from Nova Scotia. Fortunately he did not lose his vision or die in a plane crash. For reasons unknown, Pengelly was also not part of the actual escape. Like Davidson, he survived the war.

Barry Davidson and Tony Pengelly, respectively.

Lieutenant Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson), a Polish-Ukranian in the RAF, becomes the leader of the tunnel construction and successfully escapes at the end of the movie. In real life, Wally Floody, a former northern Ontario miner was the “Tunnel King.” He never got a chance to escape. The German guards had grown suspicious and he, along with 19 others, were moved to another camp 10 days before the escape. If you would like to hear Floody discuss the Great Escape, CBC Archives has a video interview from 1980 available online.

Wally Floody, the real “Tunnel King.”

Other Canadian figures in the “Great Escape” included:

  • Gorden Kidder, who had been fluent in five languages and taught other escapees to speak in foreign dialects in preparation of the escape. He was one of the six Canadians who were murdered by the Gestapo.
  • Albert Wallace was one of the “penguins.” (He dispersed dirt from the tunnels by carrying it inside his pants legs). “They would put like a pyjama cord around your neck with bags hanging from it,” Wallace said. “You would put those bags inside your pants and they would hang down below to your knees. When you walked out of the hut with two bags of sand, you walked funny, so they called you penguins.” [Source]
  • Arthur Crighton led a music band at the camp. His performances served as a distraction German Luftwaffe officers and the majority of the dirt from “Harry” wound up under the floor of the theatre Crighton performed on.
  • George Harsh was part of Great Escape’s “executive committee” and was basically the security officer for the tunnels.

My least favorite fact to share—aside from the fact that Hilts never existed—is that arguably the most memorable sequence in the film, the motorcycle chase, never really happened. It was the product of Steve McQueen being a total badass a skilled motorcyclist. He convinced the director, John Sturges, to add a motorcycle chase to the film and did all of the stunts except for the big jump at the very end (film execs wouldn’t let him).

Historical Accuracy in Films: Does It Even Matter?

Okay, so, Hollywood did what it always does and sacrificed historical accuracy in favor of appealing to an American audience. Big deal. The Great Escape is still an awesome film. Right?

On the one hand, yes, the fact that they changed the nationalities and took some creativity liberties doesn’t detract from the film. (One could argue the nationality changes are kind of pointless. But then again the humorous 4th of July celebration probably would not have taken place in the film had the escape operation not been run by a good number of Americans). Personally, historical inaccuracies usually only bother me when they are glaringly obvious and the film is trying to present itself as serious and accurate.

On the other hand, there is the argument that historical inaccuracies are disrespectful. The Great Escape ends with “This picture is dedicated to the fifty” but is it really? Historical films use the lives and memories of real people to tell a story, make a point, turn a profit, etc. Do they have a responsibility those people they use to tell the real story? Or perhaps a responsibility to the audience, considering historical films (whether accurate or not) often factor into the general public’s sense of historical knowledge?

I turn this question over to you! Are creativity liberties necessary to make a historical film more enjoyable or to make it work better? Does it matter when historical films aren’t accurate? Does it only matter sometimes? Did the classic theme music from the film get stuck in your head at any point while reading this? Sound off in the comments below!

A memorial to “The Fifty” Allied airmen executed after the Great Escape. [Source]


Sources

This post would not exist without historian Ted Barris. His book, The Great Escape: A Canadian Story (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2013) and his website http://tedbarris.com/ were both tremendously helpful in writing this post. He is the authority on this subject.

Chiriac, Roxana, “The Great Escape – A Canadian story.” Centennial College Journalism. Dec 20, 2013. Accessed from: http://centennialjournalism.ca/2013/12/20/the-great-escape-a-canadian-story-2/

O’Connor, John, “Seventy years later, a former POW remembers the very Canadian reality of The Great Escape,” National Post. Mar 21, 2014. Accessed from: http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/seventy-years-later-a-former-pow-remembers-the-very-canadian-reality-of-the-great-escape

“Wally Floody and the Great Escape,” CBC Digital Archives. Accessed from: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/wally-floody-and-the-great-escape

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9 thoughts on “The Great Eh-scape

  1. Matthew says:

    I honestly had no idea Canadians were involved in The Great Escape so thank you for writing this article and for pointing me in the direction of Barris.

    I do wish more Hollywood films tried to be historically accurate, I find the ones that really try are my favorites.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JF Dowsett says:

    Great post about a great movie. As far as film-making goes, it’s first class. But you should never need to stray from the facts.

    I think that the more accurate the movie is, the more exciting and intriguing it will be anyway. Truth is far stranger than fiction.

    Like

    • cadeauca says:

      Thank you very much for your comment. Your point about truth being far stranger than fiction is very true. That’s why I question why filmmakers decide to skew or completely change the facts about how a historical event actually unfolded. I wish more would strive for accuracy.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. milliethom says:

    I saw this film many years ago and wouldn’t say no to a ‘rewatch’ now. I didn’t know the motorbike scene never happened in reality. Pity – it’s a very memorable part of the film. As for historical accuracy, I think it’s important that historically set films and novels should keep as close as possible to actual events and characters. I write historical fiction and believe accuracy is very important. I agree that in films sometimes events are exaggerated for impact – and enjoyment by the audience – which is no doubt why the film makers do it. But, even though I know now that the motorbike scene was pure fiction, I still love that film! Very interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • cadeauca says:

      I remember reading somewhere that motorcycles lacked the power to do a jump like that back in WW2. But like you, knowing it never happened doesn’t really diminish my love of the film. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts about historical accuracy!

      Like

      • milliethom says:

        My husband used to ride a lot of bikes in his late teens/early twenties, in the 1960s, and he thinks what you read is correct. A 1940’s motorbike would not have been powerful enough to jump a fence of that height. Still, it made an exciting scene.

        Liked by 1 person

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