Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Once the mainstay of Christmas TV schedules, this was the movie that Simon Smith took
us to for one of his birthday treats; movies stayed on the circuit longer in those days,
and it was certainly an improvement on the ABC minors, where the kids screamed all morning
and threw stuff during Flash Gordon. The fantastic score by soundtrack maestro Elmer
Bernstein is guaranteed immortality due to its adoption by England football fans, to annoy
the Germans, and Carlisle United fans, in their annual battle against relegation.
It is the fact that it is a true story, in its essential elements, that propels the narrative along; there is something convincing in the preposterousness of the endeavour, the cottage industry behind the mechanics of tunnel building, and the provision of gents tailoring for escapees. The fact is that Stalag Luft 111 was a POW camp for captured airmen which, if not exactly designed to be escape proof, was located to make tunnelling difficult, with raised barrack blocks built on a bright yellow loose sandy subsoil. In fact this camp was the site of two of the most famous escapes in the history of the war, the first being the inspiration for the book and film The Wooden Horse, and the second being The Great Escape. The preparation and consequences of the latter attempt were documented by Australian airman Paul Brickhill who participated in planning, but was unable to escape himself due to his claustrophobia a detail acknowledged in the film in the character of Danny played by Charles Bronson.
The joy of the film is in the details, the planning, the stiff upper lips, and the interaction between the British and American servicemen; of course there were no American servicemen in the real camp except for those who had joined up as British Commonwealth airmen. There are notable cameo performances by Angus Lennie as the wire-happy Ives, and Donald Pleasance as Blythe the forger, only four years away from playing the evil icon Blofeld in You Only Live Twice. Of course, the character everyone remembers is the testosterone-fuelled Steve McQueen as the hog-hauling barbed-wire-vaulting Hilts, barrelling into history with the aid of his pal and stunt double Bud Ekins.
76 men escaped from the camp, three made it all the way, 23 were returned to captivity, and 50 were murdered by the Gestapo; this film dedicates itself to the memory of those victims, and in its honest boys' adventure approach, and in its perennial popularity, it actually makes a decent tribute.
The 2002 special edition DVD release includes an audio commentary, trivia track, trailers, galleries, and then the nitty gritty of documentaries telling The Untold Story, History Versus Hollywood and an examination of some of the real personalities behind the story.