Just last week, Jack Lyon, among the few remaining veterans of the escape from Stalag Luft III in 1944, died at his home in Bexhill-on-Sea. A former RAF navigator, Lyon has been a lookout on one of the tunnels, but he was captured before he had a chance to make for the woods.
He doesn’t seem to have had much time for the version of the breakout in John Sturges’s immortal The Great Escape (1963). It was, he said, “absolute rubbish”.
Lyon was among the few to snort at Steve McQueen’s famous motorbike stunt at the end of the picture. “Not one American took part in it, and as for the motorbike, it never existed,” he said.
As we prepare to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the escape, we could take Lyon’s response as the final word and banish The Great Escape to the dust. The RAF man was there. Fifty of the 73 comrades who escaped were subsequently executed. He knew what he was talking about.
That would be unfortunate. I doubt that, even when kids, we thought any cool baseball-playing Americans ended their adventure by performing motorcycle stunts on the Swiss border. That seemed about as likely as anyone speaking with James Coburn’s version of an Australian accent (one of the worst crimes ever waged against ethnic inflection).
For all its infelicities, The Great Escape remains among the most entertaining films ever made.
We don't get ensemble casts like this anymore. The supernova-packed film sprang up in the mid-1950s as a response to the rise of television and lasted healthily until Steven Spielberg and George Lucas opened other routes 20 years later.
Michael Todd's production of Around the World in 80 Days – David Niven, Shirley MacLaine, Ronald Colman, Marlene Dietrich and a dozen others – began the process in 1956. That was something TV couldn't offer. The semi-genre was still going when McQueen starred opposite Paul Newman and a dozen other superstars in The Towering Inferno.
The Great Escape features a starry face in almost every role. Richard Attenborough was the arrogant "Big X". Donald Pleasence was the Forger. James Garner was The Scrounger. Gordon Jackson, David McCallum and Charles Bronson were also along for the ride.
There must surely have been suggestions that some awkward romance be inserted into the latter stages (remember William Holden’s pointless love scenes in Bridge on the River Kwai), but, if so, the pressures were resisted and the film progressed with an entirely male cast.
The Great Escape, thus, fits snugly with other contemporaneous Gang of Blokes films such as The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch and Sturges’s own The Magnificent Seven.
McQueen bossed both that last film and The Great Escape. It is often glibly suggested that, during this period, men wanted to be McQueen more than any other actor. He was here easier to identify with than Attenborough (authority), Bronson (diligent) or Pleasence (nerdy), not least because – in apparent contradiction of instructions – he played the role in his everyday clothing.
It never occurred to us that, while Garner and McCallum sweated beneath regulation uniforms, McQueen wondered about in a T-shirt and chinos. How else would you expect Steve McQueen to dress?
A cinema ticket may have cost money. You may have had to leave the sofa to catch the movie. But you got a great deal of well-paid testosterone for your shillings and pence.
Notwithstanding Jack Lyon’s objections, The Great Escape was about as faithful as any intelligent viewer might have guessed. If the film were released today, the internet would be alive with geniuses pointing out that the escape actually happened in heavy snow.
Many would be the Twitter academics clarifying that the Forger did not actually go blind. The most conspicuous tweaking of reality – indicative of a dramatic cultural and economic shift towards the USA in the intervening years – was the inevitable insertion of key American characters. You weren't going to flog the film in Iowa on the back of Hudson out of Upstairs Downstairs (as Gordon Jackson yet wasn't). All this was understood by viewers.
The film may have been largely fictional, but it did more to immortalise the escapees than any documentary could have managed. Next weekend The Irish Film Institute and The Light House cinema will be among the domestic venues broadcasting a live relay of commemorations, hosted by historian Dan Snow, followed by a screening of the film.
The reality will, presumably, be laid against the engrossing fantasy.
We are now well over twice as distant from the release of The Great Escape as Sturges’s film was from the event itself. It has become customary to date the beginning of the real 1960s – thanks, in no small measure, to Philip Larkin’s Annus Mirabilis – to some point in 1963. After then, the cultural deluge.
This was the point at which participants in the war were shifted into character roles and their children’s generation took over the leads. Pleasence was a wireless operator with the RAF. Attenborough also served in the RAF.
The cosy war films of the 1950s – offering nostalgia to those who remembered the conflict – were about to be replaced by a more explicitly violent, more cynical conflict movie.
The Great Escape sits at the crux of these changes. Thanks, in no small part to McQueen’s contribution, it feels hip and connected, but it also has respectful, old-school contributions from the middle-aged actors. All contribute to a drama that weaves wry comedy in with brilliantly orchestrated action.
Few scenes in mainstream cinemas are sadder than Garner and Pleasence’s last few moments. Elmer Bernstein’s theme is among the most infectious in cinema. The escape is so tensely staged that, even after a dozen viewings, one winces when McQueen discovers the tunnel exit is short of the woods.
Scarcely a decade after its release, it had already become an institution. In a Christmas special of Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, a great 1970s sitcom, Bob is upset about not getting to see The Great Escape on telly. Rodney Bewes says: "Christmas night, all I want to do is sit in an armchair in front of the box and watch it. Is it on? It usually is."