Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Great Escape (1963)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Great Escape (1963)

In this WWII prison-camp escape action-film and box-office champ from John Sturges - it was a critically-acclaimed, epic film about the building of a tunnel in 1943 for a 'great escape' (based on a true story) from the Stalag Luft North German POW camp. It was based on Paul Brickhill's 1950 factual account of the true story of 76 Allied servicemen POWs during World War II who escaped from Stalag Luft Nord III in Germany. This "great escape' was the largest mass escape during the war. The war film was enhanced by a stirring musical score by Elmer Bernstein.

The escapist adventure film told about an all-star group of Allied prisoners (American, Scottish, Canadian, Australian, and British), starring Steve McQueen as Allied POW loner Captain Virgil "Cooler King" Hilts, and others including James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence and James Garner. There were no female characters, and director Sturges had worried that it would be a difficult film to market.

  • the film opened in late 1942 at a new Allied POW 'escape-proof' camp, Stalag Luft III, where the Third Reich was in the process of moving all of its prisoners who had attempted to escape captivity, to keep them contained in one new, high-security facility (as was later described: "We have in effect put all our rotten eggs in one basket, and we intend to watch this basket carefully")
  • during an initial meeting between the German camp's Luftwaffe Commandant von Luger (Hannes Messemer) and high-ranking group Senior British officer Capt. Ramsey (James Donald), the Third Reich officer reminded Ramsey: "There will be no escapes from this camp," but Ramsey asserted: "It is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they can't, it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them, and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability."
  • the film's central character was "hot-shot pilot" USAAF Captain Virgil "Cooler King" Hilts (Steve McQueen) - an irreverent Allied POW loner, who was shot down, imprisoned, and had developed a troublesome reputation for 18 numerous attempts to escape from prison camps
  • during a test of the German prison camp's defenses and blind spots, Hilts casually tossed his baseball through the barbed-wire perimeter fence, and stepped over the warning wire - and as a result, he received a barrage of machine-gun fire to stay clear; he complained and explained to prison-camp officer Strachwitz (Harry Riebauer) that his baseball had rolled under a barbed-wire perimeter fence: ("But my baseball rolled over there. How am I gonna get my baseball?"), although the officer had warned: "You fool! To cross the wire is death!...The warning wire! It's absolutely forbidden to cross it. You know that"
  • then, Hilts admitted the real truth to superior Luftwaffe Commandant von Luger: "I was trying to cut my way through your wire, because I wanna get out" - he turned over his wire cutters, and then insolently noted: "I haven't seen Berlin yet, from the ground, or from the air. And I plan on doing both before the war's over"; Hilts was punished with twenty days in "the cooler" (an isolation block) for rule-breaking and for being irreverent and "ill-mannered"
  • during Hilts' "cooler" punishment in an isolation cell, he wiled away the time by tossing a baseball against the concrete wall and catching it with his mitt, and befriended another fellow POW in the 'cooler' - Scottish Flying Officer Archibald "Archie" Ives ('The Mole') (Angus Lennie) for attempting to escape in the back of a truck filled with tree branches
  • while they were imprisoned together for 20 days, British RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (known as the "Big X") (Richard Attenborough) arrived at the maximum-security camp with a reputation for leading numerous criminal escape attempts; Bartlett was warned that if he attempted to escape again and was caught, he would be executed

Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough)

Danny Welinski (Charles Bronson)

Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen)

Griffith (Robert Desmond)

MacDonald (Gordon Jackson)

Sedgwick (James Coburn)

Bob Hendley (James Garner)

Eric Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum)

Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence)

Archibald "Archie" Ives (Angus Lennie)

Dennis Cavendish (Nigel Stock)

Willie Dickes (John Leyton)
  • the first night, the defiant Bartlett began an effort to create meticulous plans for a mass escape from the high-security POW camp; he recognized that fortunately, he had been imprisoned with "every escape artist in Germany" - a team of experts who were familiar with ways to evade the enemy; Bartlett had created an escape committee known as the "X Organisation" that would again plan to provide a way out for about 250 of the prisoners; he stated his goal: "I'm gonna cause such a terrible stink in this Third Reich of theirs that thousands of troops that could well be deployed to the front will be tied up here looking after us"
  • Bartlett led an effort to construct three different tunnels (nicknamed "Tom," "Dick," and "Harry") just in case; he placed the Allied POWs into different groups depending on their specialties - each one was recognized with descriptive nicknames for their special skills, and were assigned various tasks for "the great escape":

    • Flight Lieutenant Alexander "Intelligence" MacDonald (Gordon Jackson), 2nd in command behind Bartlett
    • Flight Lt. "Tunnel King" Danny Welinski (Charles Bronson) - a Polish RAF officer, a digger, known for the construction of 17 other tunnels, although claustrophobic
    • Flight Lieutenant Willie Dickes "Tunnel King" (John Leyton) - RAF officer, the co-leader of the diggers with his friend Danny
    • Flight Lt. Bob "Scrounger" Hendley (James Garner) - an American RAF flyer, a scavenger of materials on the black market
    • Flight Lieutenant Colin "The Forger" Blythe (Donald Pleasence) - a British expert forger who created fake IDs, travel documents and papers
    • Flying Officer Sedgwick "The Manufacturer" (James Coburn) - an Australian flyer, a tool creator who used scavenged scrap metal and other materials to create picks, air bellows, etc.
    • Flight Lieutenant Dennis Cavendish ('The Surveyor') (Nigel Stock) - an Australian flyer, assigned to map out the tunnel routes
    • Lieutenant-Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt ("Dispersal") (David McCallum) - UK Fleet Air Arm Officer assigned to dispose and hide the excavated, dug-out tunnel dirt, by hiding dirt in bags inside their pants to be scattered outside
    • Griffith ("Tailor") (Robert Desmond) - a British officer, tasked with acquiring military uniforms and civilian clothes as needed for disguises
  • once Captain Virgil "Cooler King" Hilts was released after 20 days, he announced to Bartlett and MacDonald that he and Ives were planning their own breakout that evening - their attempt immediately failed and they received more punishment in the "cooler"; Bartlett considered their efforts to escape as a positive distraction that would keep the suspicious Germans ignorant of their other major tunneling plans: "If we stop all the breakouts, it may only convince the goons that we must be tunnelling"
  • during tunnel digging, other prisoners participated by creating diversions, making noise (for instance, with a choir singing Christmas songs) to drown out the sounds of digging, spreading dirt, scavenging for tools or food and other contraband items to serve as bribes for guards, or an intricate system of lookouts and alerts; there were many challenges and setbacks, such as the scare of unannounced inspections, cave-ins, various physical issues (i.e., the Forger's poor eyesight over time), and the task of building an air pump and gathering wood to shore up the sides of the tunnel; Hendley was able to steal various official documents in the wallet of naive guard Werner (Robert Graf), nicknamed 'The Ferret', to be duplicated by "The Forger", and then bribed him to get them a 35mm camera
  • after Hilts' release, Bartlett and MacDonald proposed that he make a 3rd escape through the weakened part of the camp perimeter to scout the surrounding geography on a local reconnaissance mission, and then allow himself to be captured and brought back with crucial information, such as the location of the train station, train schedules and a mapping of the area - Hilts initially refused due to his 'lone wolf' status as an outsider
  • Bartlett made a crucial decision - to close down "Harry" and "Dick" and concentrate on the shortest escape tunnel ("Tom"): "Put the entire effort into Tom and press on into the trees"
  • in the scene of the demise of Officer Archibald "Archie" Ives, he had become so desperate when the shortest escape tunnel ("Tom") was discovered during a July 4th celebration as the prisoners were drinking potato-mash "moonshine" that they had manufactured; the distraught Ives walked in a daze to the barbed wire surrounding the camp, climbed up in full view of guards, and was shot dead (Hilts was too late in saving him)

Discovery of a Tunnel by Germans

Ives in a Daze Walking Towards the Fence Perimeter

Ives Shot Climbing the Barbed Wire Fence
  • Hilts was now motivated to help the escape committee and informed Bartlett that he would engage in a reconaissance mission: "Sir, let me know the exact information you need. I'm going out tonight"; he escaped at the blind spot by cutting through the wire, completed the mission, and then turned himself in the next day - and was again faced with the "cooler" punishment for the third time
  • Bartlett now turned everyone's attention to the second tunnel "Harry" to be finished by working "around the clock" - but when it partially collapsed and Welinski suffered a nervous breakdown due to his long-time claustrophobia, he almost foolishly revealed himself by making an escape attempt through the barb wire, but was prevented by his friend Willie from being shot
  • a breakout in the spring of 1944 through the completed "Harry" was partially successful; but they suddenly realized that the tunnel hadn't been dug long enough - there was a miscalculated gap of about 20 feet from the tunnel to the forested woods; however, 76 escapees made it out during an air raid blackout with Hilts' rope-signal from the woods to help escapees know when the coast was clear; the escape plan worked until Griffith became impatient and surfaced prematurely - and a guard was alerted

Hilts In the Woods With a Rope-Signal System

Discovery of Tunnel Exit Outside Compound

Tunnel Entry Inside Building
  • the fate of Hilts once he escaped became the film's most memorable and well-known scene; Hilts (actually stuntman Bud Ekins) stole a German soldier's motorcycle (a Triumph TR-6 Trophy 650CC, actually a British model and not a German made BMW) by stringing a wire across a rural road; on his way toward neutral Switzerland, he came upon a German roadblock or checkpoint; he kicked a German officer and then made an exciting, daring cross-country escape across some farmland when cornered; he attempted to vault over the first of two six-foot barbed-wire/wooden fences at the German-Swiss border, but before he was able to jump the higher second-line fence, his motorcycle was shot from under him, and he become entangled and ensnared - and was captured
Hilts' Famed Stolen Motorcycle Jumps Over Barbed-Wire Checkpoint Fences
  • the escaped POWs attempted to spread out using every means possible - via bicycle, train, rowboat, bus, motorcycle, plane, walking or hitchhiking, etc.; much of the remainder of the film followed their fates; only three of the escapees (Welinski, Dickes, and Sedgwick) were able to ultimately reach freedom
  • after many of them were recaptured, rounded up and trucked back to the POW camps, 50 of the men were diverted - and under Hitler's direct orders were shot dead in a field (including Bartlett, MacDonald and Cavendish); the remaining eleven surviving prisoners were returned (including Hendley), and soon after, the POWs conducted a memorial service to honor those who had been murdered by reading the names
  • in the closing scene, the bruised and bloodied Hilts was dramatically brought back to prison in handcuffs, where he was told by the recently-relieved Commandant, Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger (due to having failed to prevent the breakout), that he was "lucky" because "fifty" other POW friends of his who had been recaptured were murdered (under the pretense that they were trying to escape); the Commandant added: "It looks, after all, as if you will see Berlin before I do"
  • Hilts was returned to the "cooler," where he was again heard by the guard, who paused to listen to him endlessly bounce a baseball against his cell wall into his mitt, presumably planning his next escape
  • the film's epilogue was a final dedication to the "Fifty" who had lost their lives: "This picture is dedicated to the fifty," followed by THE END

Camp's Commandant von Luger (Hannes Messemer)

Allied Liaison: Capt. Ramsey (James Donald)

Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) - Surveying for Blind Spots

The Prison Camp - Surrounded by Barbed Wire

Hilts Reprimanded by Prison Camp Officer Strachwitz (Harry Riebauer) For Crossing Barbed Wire Perimeter

Punishment Issued by Luftwaffe Commandant von Luger (Hannes Messemer)

Hilts Punished In the Cooler, With His Baseball Mitt

Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) - New Arrival - "The Big X" (Ringleader of Escape Plan)

"Tom" Tunnel to Be Dug Under Stove Pipe Heater

Eric's Plan to Distribute Tunnel Dirt Through Pant-Leg Bags

Dickes Secretly Digging One of the Tunnels

Danny Measuring Length of Tunnel

Hilts Rejecting Request to Go on Reconaissance Mission and Then Get Recaptured

Gullible and Naive German Guard Werner (Robert Graf)

Wood Taken From Bed Slats to Shore Up Sides of Tunnel

Sampling Potato-"Moonshine" (Reaction: "Wow!")

Celebrating the American Revolution on July 4th

After a Reconaissance Mission, Hilts Back in the Cooler For the 3rd Time

Hand-Cuffed Hilts Back at the Prison, and The Commandant's Words to Him: "It looks, after all, as if you will see Berlin before I do"

Hilts Returned to the "Cooler"

Film's Dedication


Greatest Scenes: Intro | What Makes a Great Scene? | Scenes: Quiz
Scenes: Film Titles A - H | Scenes: Film Titles I - R | Scenes: Film Titles S - Z