In honor of the Blu-Ray release of this classic film, it is the Pick of the Week – and I am delighted that I have one Blu-Ray to give away. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with Escape in the subject line. I will pick a winner at random on May 15. Don’t forget your address! (US addresses only.)
Towards the end of WWII, the Germans built a special high-security prison camp for Allied prisoners with a record of escape attempts. This is the true story of the extraordinary courage and ingenuity of the men imprisoned there, and of their plans for the greatest escape ever. As the British ranking officer explains, when the camp commandant urges him to relax and “sit out the war as comfortably as possible,” his duty is to escape, or, if escape is impossible, to force the enemy to use as many resources as possible to contain them.
Each man contributes his expertise. There are “tunnel kings” to dig the three tunnels, a “forger king” (Donald Pleasence) to forge the papers the soldiers will need when they escape, a “scrounger” (James Garner) to beg, borrow, steal, or obtain through blackmail the materials they need, and others who work as tailors and manufacturers. An American who is something of a loner, Hilts (Steve McQueen) becomes the “cooler king” for his long stints in solitary confinement, as a result of his independent escape attempts. When “Big X” (Richard Attenborough), the British officer who supervises the escape, asks Hilts to go through the tunnel to get information about the area surrounding the camp, and then allow himself to be recaptured, so he can let them know what he has found, he refuses. But when his friend is killed trying to escape, his spirit broken by the camp, Hilts changes his mind.
Seventy-five of the prisoners are able to escape before the tunnel is discovered. The Germans track almost all of them down, and fifty are killed, including Big X. It is to “the fifty” that the film is dedicated.
As in “Stalag 17” and many other films about prison camp, the prisoners in this story must adapt to the direst of circumstances, and they choose differing approaches. Hilts adapts by working on his own, or with one partner, while others work on a massive group escape. Ives and Danny begin to unravel under the stress, not so much a “choice” as an involuntary response.
Unlike other prison camp movies, this one does not dwell on disputes between prisoners or on the deprivations of the prison camp, which seems almost comfortable. It is about the professionalism, courage, resourcefulness, teamwork, and loyalty of every one of the prisoners.
As in a traditional “heist” film, the story focuses on defining a problem and then solving it. They examine the restrictions imposed by their conditions, change the ones they can, and adapt to the ones they cannot. They must also adapt quickly and calmly when the plan does not go as they expected.
The story gives us an exceptional example of teamwork and loyalty. Note the way that the prisoners protect each other. When Danny (Charles Bronson) cannot take it any more and wants to escape on his own, his friend talks him out of it. When the Forger goes blind, Big X wants to leave him behind, for his own protection. But the Scrounger promises to take care of him.
Point out to kids what factors do — and do not — go into the prisoners’ calculations and strategy. Big X is cautioned not to allow his personal wish for revenge determine their strategy. But pride (in the sense of morale) is permitted to be considered. When asked “Have you thought of what it might cost?” he answers, “I’ve thought of the humiliation if we just tamely submit — knuckle under and crawl.” They also consider the risk of failure, to the extent they can. At the end, when the Scrounger asks whether the escape was worth the price, the best the British Commander can do is answer truthfully, “It depends on your point of view.”
Note: The screenplay was co-written by blockbuster novelist James Clavell (Tai-Pei, Shogun). His own experiences as a prisoner of war in a Japanese prison camp are the subject of “King Rat.” The outstanding musical score is by Elmer Bernstein (“The Magnificent Seven” and “To Kill a Mockingbird”). Richard Attenborough, who played Big X, became a director in the late 1960s of films such as “Gandhi” and “Shadowlands.” He continues to appear as a performer, and played Dr. Hammond in “Jurassic Park” and Kris Kringle in the 1994 version of “Miracle on 34th Street.”
Family discussion: Why are the experts called “kings”? What makes Hilts change his mind about getting the information they want? Who was right about taking the Forger out through the tunnel, Big X or the Scrounger? Given the results of their action in this story, should officers who have been taken prisoner feel duty-bound to try to escape?
If you like this, try: “Stalag 17” and “King Rat”