The Great Escape
Adapted from the book by Paul Brickhill and directed by John Sturges, escape artists gathered in a German POW camp plan, prepare, and carry out a daring escape.
During World War II trucks arrive at a German prisoner-of-war camp. German soldiers with rifles line up as the prisoners are let out off trucks and walk through the gates. Some look at the barbed-wire fences and the guard towers. They move into barracks with triple bunk beds. Outside are wash basins. Willie (John Leyton) and Danny (Charles Bronson) estimate how far it is from the fence to the trees. Willie wants to contact Cavendish to make a survey and wonders if he is dead.
German soldiers close the gate, and German officer Stratwitch (Harry Riebauer) tells Rupert Ramsey (James Donald) to go inside with him. Captain Posen (Robert Freitag) introduces himself to group captain Ramsey and tells him that he is to be liaison between the colonel and the prisoners. Ramsey goes in to the office of Col. Von Luger (Hannes Messemer) who asks him to sit down. Luger says German officers have been wasting time hunting down escaped prisoners and that there will be no escapes from this prison camp. Ramsey says that it is the sworn duty of his men to try to escape or at least occupy as many enemy soldiers as possible in guarding them and to harass them. Von Luger knows that Ramsey’s men have been very successful, and he mentions several. They have brought them there to hold these men with security measures. Luger says he was especially selected for this job. He says they will have use of facilities for sports, recreation, and gardening. He says with intelligent cooperation they can all sit out the war in comfort.
A German airman asks Bob Hendley (James Garner) what he is doing by a truck, and he jokes that he is stealing tools. Hilts (Steve McQueen) studies the guard towers and the fence. Danny tells Willie that the Russian prisoners are being taken out to cut down trees. Danny asks Willie for cigarettes and whispers to him. Willie tells others to put on a show for the goons so that he and Danny can try a blitz. Sedgwick (James Coburn) starts a quarrel and a fight that draws a crowd of prisoners and guards holding them back. Danny trades a cigarette for a heavy coat, and a Russian gives him an axe. A German officer stops the fight and orders them back to their hut.
Hilts takes a baseball and a glove out of his bag. He tells a fellow prisoner that there is a blind spot which neither tower can see. To test it he tosses the ball by the fence. Sedgwick in a heavy coat joins the Russians who are marching out of the camp. He talks with Danny who also has a Russian fur-cap. At the gate a German officer stops them and tells Sedgwick and Danny to get out of the group and give up their coats and hats. Then he lets the Russians continue. He takes a pitch-fork from a man and uses it to probe a truck full of green branches. Ives (Angus Lennie) tells him to stop and comes out from under the branches. Four other men come out of the other two trucks. Hilts walks over to the ball and stands by the fence. Guards shoot at him, and he raises his hands and comes back. An officer tells him he should not have gone beyond the low wire, but he asks how he is to get his baseball. The officer says he should ask permission. He does and gets his baseball. Col. Luger comes out and asks Hilts what he was going to do, and he says he was going to cut the wire and gives him the wire-cutter. Luger says he has tried to escape seventeen times and gives him twenty days in the isolation cooler. He also gives Ives twenty days in the cooler. The two are led through a gate to a building where they each are put in an empty cell with only a small window. Hilts throw his baseball against the wall, and Ives talks to him through the wall. Hilts likes motorcycles, and Ives raced horses. Hilts whispers and asks Ives how long it would take him to cut through the clean gravel they have there.
Two cars pull up outside, and MacDonald (Gordon Jackson) notices that Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) has been brought. Inside the commander’s office they discuss how to handle Bartlett who has led many escapes. The officer who brought him tells him that if he tries to escape again and is caught, he will be shot. Bartlett is led through the small gate and shakes hands with Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum) who leads him to Ramsey. The two talk about the situation, and they realize they have most of the X organization. Ramsey tells him that the American Hendley is a good scrounger. Bartlett says that Ramsey appointed him Big X to harass the enemy. He says they will escape more men than ever before. They have the best escape artists there. Ramsey says the high command has left them under the command of the Luftwaffe, not the Gestapo and the S. S., but Bartlett feels they are all the enemies of freedom. Bartlett says he will call a meeting of X tonight.
At the meeting Bartlett tells the men they are going to put the goons to sleep by appearing to cooperate while they dig three tunnels. He tells Willie that they will go down thirty feet before going horizontal. MacDonald asks how many men he hopes to get out, and Bartlett says 250. He tells Griffith (Robert Desmond) they will need clothes and Mac that they must have maps, blankets, rations, and time-tables for trains. Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) comes in late and is told they will tunnel. Bartlett assigns tasks to Willie and Danny as tunnel kings, Mac to intelligence, and Hendley as scrounger. He asks Eric Ashley-Pitts how they will get rid of the dirt. Bartlett says he wants a perfect security system with stooges watching for Germans coming within fifty feet with a signal system to stop the work.
Blythe talks to Hendley about his bird watching and offers him tea. Hendley shows him his pocket knife, and Blythe asks him for a camera and film. Danny comes in and says he would like two big picks. Hendley goes out to get wood.
Outside German soldiers close up the windows. Hendley is told to close a window and does so. Hendley comes to his room and gives Blythe a can of milk for his tea. Blythe says he is the forger.
Outside the prisoners walk in pairs. Bartlett talks to Mac about getting timber to shore up the tunnels. Hendley gives a signal, and another prisoner tampers with a water faucet that a German turns, causing water to spray two guards. During the commotion Hendley gets two metal rods from under a truck and hands them into a window.
In one of the rooms they hear a signal and begin to work. Danny explains that they will keep a fire burning in the stove. They move it, and he draws where they will dig underneath. Bartlett comes in and wishes them luck. Outside a man pounds a metal stake in the ground, and at the same time Danny uses the pick on the cement. Mac says this is the 17th tunnel that Danny started.
Later Sedgwick comes in with a square of cement that Danny places in the tunnel. Danny climbs down in the hole and starts digging. They hear a signal, and the operation stops and covers everything. German soldiers come in and look around. The tunnel was replaced with a drain, and Danny gets in the shower. Germans search their bunks.
Hilts and Ives are let out of the cooler. Ramsey asks if they are planning a blitz out and says all escapes have to be cleared with leader Bartlett. He asks Hilts what they plan to do. Hilts explains how they will burrow out tonight, and Ives says it will work. Bartlett wishes them good luck, and he asks how they will breathe. Hilts they use a steel rod. Bartlett says some attempts will keep the Germans from suspecting they are tunneling. That night muddy Hilts and Ives are put back in the cooler.
They work on the tunnels at night. Mac, Danny, and Willie look at two different colors of dirt. Mac says they have to camouflage it. Ashley-Pitt comes in and shows them how they can fill small bags with dirt and wear them inside their trousers. By pulling a cord, they open and the dirt falls out; then they kick it into dirt on the ground.
While men are gardening, men bring dirt that gets raked and mixed with other dirt. Hendley has men march over the dirt. Luger inspects the garden plots and apologizes to Bartlett that the soil is not suited to gardening. Luger is surprised to see Ramsey working in the garden. Ramsey says he gardens for food they can eat.
Mac visits Bob Hendley and gives him the gift food from the entire organization. He asks Bob to get identity cards and papers.
In a room men hammer on metal pipes as men outside the window sing Christmas carols. Sedgwick shows Bartlett the air-circulation machine he made.
Hendley offers the German guard Werner (Robert Graf) a cigarette and some for his roommates. They talk about rain and the boy scouts. Hendley says soldiers have the right to complain, but Werner says one criticism sends a German to the Russian front. Hendley invites him to his room for some real coffee, and Werner joins him. Hendley unlocks his cupboard and puts jam, chocolate, and other nice things on the table. Hendley gives Werner things. Werner starts to leave and says he must report this. Hendley insists on his taking things, but Werner refuses and goes out. In the struggle Hendley manages to get Werner’s wallet.
Blythe is lecturing on birds to prisoners who sit at tables and take notes. A guard is watching them, and Hendley comes in. The guard is bored and goes out.
Outside men give a signal, and Blythe and the men work on forging papers. Hendley gives them some documents from Werner’s wallet. When asked where he got these things, Hendley says they are on loan.
Griffith shows Bartlett the civilian clothes he has made.
Hilts and Ives are brought back from the cooler. Hilts reports to Bartlett and Mac that he is going out in seventeen days during the dark of the moon. They say Ives is close to cracking, and they recommend going out in the tunnel. Hilts asks what is coming at him. Bartlett says they have maps of Germany, but what they need to know is what is nearby, especially from here to the railway station. Hilts refuses to make maps and come back. Hilts learns they are taking out 250. Hilts says they will send out so many goons that they will scoop them up right away.
Hendley and Blythe are playing chess when Werner comes in and says he lost his wallet. Hendley says he is his friend, and he will find them but not now. Werner thanks him, and Hendley says he wants a certain camera. Werner goes out.
Men dig in the tunnels and put dirt in wooden boxes on a wheeled cart which runs on a track. Bartlett asks Danny how it is going, and he says they have been having several cave-ins. He hears another one and checks on the digger who is brought out coughing. Danny says they must have more wood, and Bartlett says they will get it.
Outside men sing Christmas carols while Hendley has men take wood from the inside of the building. Hilts takes the slats from the bunks. Cavendish (Nigel Stock) comes in, jumps on his bed, and falls to the floor.
Hendley gives a camera to Blythe. They hear the roof creaking because men are putting dirt in the attic.
In a tunnel Danny rides a cart with a string to measure the tunnel.
Outside Ramsey, Bartlett, and Mac learn they have fifty feet to go and talk about the next dark of the moon. Bartlett orders two of the tunnels shut down while they work on getting the other one to the trees.
Hilts and Hendley have built a still and are using potatoes to make gin. They try it and like it.
Outside Hilts sets off an explosion as Hendley raises an American flag. On a table they use their large jugs and cups. Hendley drums and Hilts plays the flute as they celebrate the 4th of July and lead a procession. They offer drinks to the British and say, “Down the British; up the rebels.” Many prisoners follow them and gather around. They pour drinks, and Bartlett says they have only fourteen feet to go. They decide to celebrate. Hilts tells them not to smoke right after drinking it. Ramsey and Bartlett see Hilts and drink to the colonies.
An officer with Werner is searching in the room with the stove. Outside Danny tells Bartlett that the goons are there. Luger notices that boards under the mattress have been shaped.
Outside Mac tells Ives they are nearly at the trees, and they sing.
Werner is left alone and pours coffee from the stove. He drops it and notices it disappears down a crack. He calls in the officer, and he opens the floor and discovers the tunnel.
Mac realizes they found the tunnel. German soldiers run to the building with rifles. Ives walks to the wire and tries to climb the fence. Hilts runs to help him, but a guard shoots Ives dead. Hilts picks up his hat and goes to Bartlett and asks him to tell him the information he needs because he is going out tonight.
That night Hilts uses a wire cutter to get through the fence.
Danny is digging in the tunnel, and other men pass the bags of dirt.
A car arrives, and Hilts returns to the prison. He is searched and taken to the cooler. Bartlett says he wasn’t caught. An American hands him his baseball and glove.
Danny suffers a cave-in and tries to crawl out. He asks them to bring shovels.
Blythe notices a forgery mistake and gets angry that a document was ruined. He looks at the photo and realizes he cannot see very well.
Mac test prisoners dressed as Germans, and he questions them in German. He speaks in English, and the man responds in English. He warns him about that.
Hendley comes in, and Blythe calls him Roger. Hendley realizes that he can’t see anything.
At night Danny tells Willie that he is going out through the wire. Willie says the tunnel is almost finished and slugs him, saying if he goes through the wire he will be killed. Danny says he hates small spaces. He is afraid he will lose his head with other men in the tunnel. He says he will go now. Willie promises to help him in the tunnel.
Bartlett visits Blythe who asks how he likes his suit. Bartlett thanks him for his work; but he says he can’t go because he can’t see. Blythe claims he can see and does what he practiced. Bartlett tests him, and Blythe trips. Hendley argues to let Blythe go. Bartlett says Blythe would be a hazard. Hendley says Bartlett is the biggest hazard they have. Bartlett says a blind man must be eliminated from the operation. Hendley says he will go with him, and Blythe agrees. Bartlett gives in and says they will be put together. Bartlett goes out, and Blythe says he should not go. He can see close, but everything else is a blur. Hendley asks for some tea.
Hilts is released from the cooler. Mac tells him that Bartlett is waiting for him. They are going tonight.
On a tower a guard shines a search light.
Bartlett and others are dressed in civilian clothes. They sneak into the building in small groups. Blythe comes with Hendley. Danny is nervous, and Willie tries to calm him down. Mac tells Bartlett that it is time. In the dark they cross into the building. By the hole Sedgwick wishes them good luck. In the tunnel Bartlett lies on the cart. Willie tells Danny that they are coming in the tunnel. Danny says he cannot wait until it is over. Bartlett transfers to another cart, and Danny is coming back the other way. Bartlett orders Willie to take Danny out. Bartlett continues down the tunnel. Danny climbs out, and Willie says they are going later. Sedgwick sends Blythe and Hendley down, and others follow. Bartlett arrives at the end of the tunnel and tells Hilts that Danny went back. Hilts uses a shovel to dig through the sod. He makes a hole and shows them some grass. He makes the hole large and sticks his head up. He looks around and realizes they are not in the woods. He tells Bartlett that they are twenty feet short. Mac says they can postpone it and dig to the trees; but Bartlett says all the documents are dated today. Hilts comes down and says he can move to the woods and set up a signal when it is clear for them to go out. They pass the message to send them thirty feet of rope.
Hilts climbs out of the hole, and Bartlett hands him the rope. He runs to the woods and ties it to a tree. Bartlett has the other end of the rope and tells Ashley-Pitt to go first. He makes it and wishes Hilts good luck as he goes into the woods. Other men take the carts through the tunnel. Willie tells Danny they are moving through the tunnel now, and he persuades him they can go out now and return to England. Danny and Willie go down the hole. Blythe arrives at the end. Sedgwick goes down with a suitcase. Hendley comes to the end, and Bartlett explains they have to sneak across the twenty feet they are short. They hear a siren for an air raid. Mac says they will lose their lights in the tunnel. Danny is in the tunnel when the lights go out. Hilts says the search lights are out, and they can come out. Mac lights a lamp, and Willie has lit one for Danny who tells Willie to go. Willie goes out, and Danny comes to the end. Hilts helps others out of the hole. The air raid ends, and Hilts says they are on the rope. He goes back to the woods. Sedgwick climbs out and goes into the woods. Bartlett and Mac agree they can pass instructions from man to man and climb out themselves. A man with a package stumbles, and a guard hears something. He walks over there and shines his flashlight. At the end of the tunnel a man gets tired of waiting and climbs out. The guard sees him, and the man shouts, “Don’t shoot.” The guards are alerted, and men go back and are caught as they re-enter the building.
At dawn the prisoners are lined up and learn that 76 men are missing.
Bartlett and Mac arrive at a train station and see Ashley-Pitt reading a newspaper. Hendley is guiding Blythe. Hendley says half the men missed the train and are waiting there. A train approaches and stops. They board the train. Three German authorities arrive and board the train too.
On the train Bartlett and Mac see a seat opposite two German soldiers and sit down there.
In the town Sedgwick steals a bicycle by cutting the chain on the lock. On a country road Hilts ties a wire to a post on each side of the road, causing a German soldier on a motorcycle to have an accident.
Danny and Willie walk by a river. Cavendish is given a ride by a truck-driver. Danny and Willie take a rowboat and row down the river.
Hilts is dressed in the uniform of the German soldier and rides his motorcycle.
On the train Hendley gets up and goes to another car. He sees the authorities coming and goes back. The authorities question Bartlett and Mac. Hendley warns Ashley-Pitt and goes out with Blythe. Bartlett and Mac speak French. Ashley-Pitt answers questions in German.
Hendley tells Blythe that they are going to jump, and they do so and hide behind a haystack. Blythe says he is all right.
Sedgwick rides the bicycle on a country road. Danny and Willie row in the river. Hilts drives the motorcycle in the country and heads for Switzerland. Sedgwick sees a train stopped in a town. Hilts comes into a town, and a German soldier calls to him. Hilts kicks him and takes off. He goes on trails and is followed by German soldiers on motorcycles. Sedgwick climbs on to a boxcar, and the train pulls out. Hilts rides in grass fields and knocks on a shack. Cars drive past, and he watches those on motorcycles take a road.
The train stops in a town, and German authorities are watching as people get off. Bartlett and Mac get off and come to a check point. Ashley-Pitt stops and watches. He hears an authority say, “Bartlett,” and he attacks him and causes the man to shoot himself. He runs away and is shot in the back, falling on the tracks.
Cavendish in the truck is taken to Germans and is questioned. He speaks in English and admits he escaped from a prison camp. They are treating him as a spy and are threatening to shoot him. He is locked up with others who have been captured.
Hendley and Blythe come to an airport, and Hendley says he can fly a trainer plane. Hendley attacks a German guard and kicks him, knocking him out. He tells Blythe how to crank a small plane, and he starts it. Hendley helps him into the plane, and they take off. Hendley says they are going to Switzerland.
Hilts has taken off the uniform and drives the motorcycle across fields. He is seen and followed by two Germans on motorcycles. Hendley says they are coming to the Alps and will make it soon. The plane is losing power, and he crash lands on a hill. They get out of the plane. Blythe does not see German soldiers and is shot. Hendley limps over to him and tells them not to shoot. He apologizes for fouling things up. Blythe thanks him for getting him out and dies. Soldiers have captured Hendley.
Hilts crosses rolling hills and comes to a fence with barbed-wire. He sees people coming and gets up speed and flies over the first barricade, but there is another. German soldiers arrive and shoot at him. He is injured and caught in the barbed wire. He surrenders.
At a café Sedgwick is reading a newspaper, and three German officers sit nearby. Sedgwick speaks French and is called to the telephone. No one is there, and he hides with the two Frenchmen behind the bar. A car comes by and shoots the three Germans with a machine gun. Sedgwick explains he is Australian; they are in the resistance and say they will help him.
Two German civilians question Bartlett and Mac as they are boarding a bus. They speak in French. When a German says, “Good luck,” Mac answers, “Thank you.” They both run away. A car with German soldiers arrives and is directed to pursue them. Bartlett sees that Mac is trapped and goes the other way. Mac is captured by soldiers. Bartlett runs on roofs and comes out on a street. German soldiers stop and question him; but he answers in German, and they leave. Bartlett has a newspaper, but a German officer knows he is Bartlett and captures him.
Bartlett is brought into an office in handcuffs. Mac is there. On a truck Bartlett and Mac with others talk about their attempt. The truck stops in a field, and the sixteen prisoners are told to get out. The Germans set up a machine gun and shoot them all.
Ramsey limps as he reports to Luger who says eleven men are being returned today. Luger says that fifty of his officers were shot while escaping. Ramsey asks how many were wounded, and Luger says none. In the camp Ramsey reads to the assembled prisoners the names of the men who were killed.
Danny and Willie row their boat and climb a ladder to a freighter.
Two Frenchmen with rifles have guided Sedgwick to the border and say goodbye. A Spanish man with a rifle says he is his guide in Spain.
Hendley with the eleven men return to the camp, and Ramsey tells them that fifty were murdered by the Gestapo. Ramsey says Bartlett wanted to get back at the Germans, and he believes he did that. Hendley asks if it was worth the price. A car arrives, and in a second car Hilts is brought back in handcuffs. He hears the Germans says that Luger is no longer to be saluted because he is no longer in command. Luger tells Hilts that he will see Berlin before he does. Luger leaves in the first car. Hilts is taken back to the cooler once again with his baseball and glove.
This true story dramatizes the courage and skill of the British and American prisoners who attempted this escape and the brutality of the Germans who killed fifty men. Twenty-three were captured, and only three men managed to escape to England.