When people in the UK were polled as to what movie they would most like to watch on Christmas Day, the number one choice among male respondents was The Great Escape.
The classic 1963 film depicting the unbelievable breakout of 76 prisoners from a German POW camp during WWII has long held an inviolable place in any library of essential movies for men. It’s a film fathers like to share with their families, and husbands like to enjoy by themselves while their wives are off on a weekend trip.
Part of The Great Escape’s appeal to men is obvious: it’s got a wartime setting, action, suspense, a crackerjack cast that includes James Garner, Charles Bronson, and Steve McQueen, and, of course, one of the greatest cinematic motorcycle stunts of all time.
But the draw runs deeper, to the elements of the story itself, which though fictionalized in some respects, contain many details that are true to the real events on which the film is based.
Digging into these elements common to both the cinematic and historical Great Escape reveals why the story resonates so much with men, and offers a window on the landscape of the masculine heart.
Intolerance for Subjection
Stalag Luft III, a prisoner-of-war camp located deep in Nazi-occupied Poland, housed thousands of Allied airmen who had fallen into German hands. Constructed with barrack blockhouses that were raised on stilts (to enable guards to keep an eye on tunneling attempts); built atop sandy soil (to make it easy to spot the darker soil produced through excavation); and surrounded with seismographic microphones (to pick up on the vibrations created by digging), two barbed-wire-topped fences, and numerous watchtowers equipped with high-beam spotlights and gun-wielding sentries, the camp was considered “escape proof.”
There also existed a psychological factor that perhaps worked against escape attempts to an even greater extent than these physical impediments. Rather than being the kind of cruel, hardship-ridden camp from which men would be desperate to flee, the conditions at Stalag Luft III were in fact fairly hospitable. The prisoners were not tortured or mistreated. Their rations were decent (at least when combined with the foodstuffs which arrived in the Red Cross care packages they were allowed to receive). Barracks were spartan but snug and sanitary. Robust recreational opportunities were offered, from playing in bands and orchestras, to performing in biweekly musicals and plays, to reading books in the library, to participating in debating societies, art classes, and games of basketball, softball, and football. The camp wasn’t the Hilton, and simply being detained in the same spot for several years could drive a man mad, but it wasn’t the most onerous place to bide one’s time.
This was by the Germans’ design. Stalag Luft III was run by the Luftwaffe, which had a culture that elevated gentlemanly respect between all fellow air force officers — even those belonging to the opposing side — and a commandant in Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner who despised the Nazi regime and sympathized with his prisoners. Von Lindeiner not only treated his inmates well out of a sincere sense of chivalry, but in the belief that making them comfortable would sap their desire for escape, contenting them to wait out the rest of the war from behind the walls of the camp.
While some prisoners were indeed placated, a significant contingent was not. They knew that an escape would take incredible effort, and put their lives at risk; though the Geneva Conventions protected recaptured POWs from being killed, the prisoners understood there was a chance the Nazis might not play by the rules (and indeed, 50 of the 76 who made it out in the Great Escape were summarily executed by an enraged Hitler’s direct order). Nevertheless, these airmen took seriously their duty as military officers to break out, and saw escape attempts as an extension of the Allied war effort.
POW camps already diverted significant money and manpower from the enemy, and escapes, and the wide-scale searches they set off, tied up even more resources amongst the German military, police forces, and the civilian population at large. We often think of the sole goal of the prisoners’ escapes as making it all the way home, and of course that was their fondest desire. But in fact, the prisoners knew that with the number of police and Gestapo checkpoints and the difficulty of being on the lam in Nazi-occupied territory, achieving a “home run” escape was extremely unlikely. The point wasn’t to get back; it was, as prisoner Mike Shand put it, to “cause chaos behind enemy lines.”
For Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, mastermind of the Great Escape plot, prisoners were honor-bound to “harass, confuse, and confound the enemy,” and to play no safer with their lives than soldiers did on the battlefront. Regardless of whether their cages were gilded, he and his fellow troublemakers chafed at being confined, and were committed to continuing their fight from behind bars. Very committed, in fact; the famous Great Escape plot and the three tunnels constructed for it (codenamed “Tom”, “Dick,” and “Harry”), was in fact just one of 262 escape attempts, involving 100 other tunnels, which were undertaken from inside the camp.
As Tim Carroll puts it in The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III, the escape-plotters were “an indomitable clan of adventure- and life-loving characters who all refused to accept captivity and were prepared to do anything to cock a snook at those who would oppress them.”
Men cheer the will of such characters to resist authority out of a shared hatred for being put under anyone’s thumb (hence the reason we often can’t help rooting for a prisoner who escapes from jail, despite the fact they’re a convicted criminal; we instinctively side with the guy fleeing any kind of subjection, even if deserved!). Escape can be a literal thing, but it also carries much metaphorical weight; all of us feel a yearning to escape from the past, from the strictures of conformity, from external and self-imposed limits.
What resonates with the manly heart all the more, is the Great Escapers’ underdog status; here was the archetypical David and Goliath story, in which those in power, who had all the obvious advantages, were outwitted through the sheer force of human ingenuity. Told it couldn’t be done, that escape wasn’t possible, the scrappers pulled it off anyway. How our spirits are lifted by the idea that no matter what, there’s always a way out!
Excellence in Improvisation
With a value that makes itself known not only in battle, but music-making, storytelling, and all the general uncertainties of life, it’s no surprise that across time and culture, improvisation has represented one of the most celebrated and compelling traits of masculinity. The ability to be resourceful, to make the most of things, to stay flexible and effective regardless of circumstances, has always been essential to men — especially underdog, outlaw types — in fighting back against the vicissitudes of fate and regaining some power. The ability to take unpromising materials out of their ordinary context and see new possibilities within them, to create something out of seemingly nothing, feels almost like a form of magic. And this enchanting ability is one that the prisoners of Stalag Luft III possessed in spades.
While the guards of the camp attempted to keep any materials that might be useful in escape away from their charges, the prisoners proved ingeniously adept at turning the most mundane objects into whatever it was they needed.
4,000 boards were taken from the men’s bunks and utilized in shoring up the tunnels’ walls. 635 mattresses were employed as noise-dampening insulation. Over 2,000 forks, knives, and spoons were turned into digging tools. 1,400 cans of powdered milk were transformed into ventilation ducts, as well as candles filled with a wax made from fat skimmed off bowls of soup and wicks torn from pieces of clothing. The bindings of books sent by the Red Cross were dyed with coffee and tea and repurposed into the covers for travel passes. Hundreds of compasses were manufactured by magnetizing slivers of razor blades, making cases from melted phonograph records, and crafting dial faces with pieces of cardboard painted with a brush composed of human hair.
Given how much of the escape operation was jerry-rigged, the level of professionalism with which the tunnels were constructed is astonishing. Harry, the hand-dug tunnel out of which the prisoners ultimately escaped, had to initially be chiseled downward through two feet of brick and concrete; from there it descended vertically for 30 more feet (to evade the seismographs), before running 335 horizontal feet under the camp’s perimeter fence and terminating close to the nearby woods (though due to a miscalculation, it didn’t extend as far into that vital cover as the prisoners had hoped!). The narrow tunnel was lit by electric lights, navigated via a rope-powered railway trolley, and ventilated through pumps and pipes. No amateur job, it was an effort that would have made even a bona fide miner proud.
In traditional, honor-based cultures, a man’s ability to improvise was a key part of what made up his reputation among other men, and spawned stories which would be told and re-told years after. The impression the prisoners’ tunneling efforts created certainly had that kind of effect. When the Tom tunnel, which extended 285 feet beyond the wire, was prematurely discovered by the Germans, even Kommandant von Lindeiner, who was naturally chagrined to uncover this act of subversion, couldn’t help being simultaneously astonished at its workmanship. So impressed was he, in fact, that he set up a small museum for the tunnel in the camp, where guards could understand what the prisoners were capable of, and visitors could admire artifacts and photographs. It became a little monument to the alchemy of improvisation.
Commitment to Camaraderie
If there’s one aspect of the story of the Great Escape that appeals most to the masculine heart, it’s the way it exemplifies the qualities of manly camaraderie.
Men bond through an us vs. them dynamic — competitions of strength and/or wit that pit one force against another. Solidarity is created in striving after a shared purpose — especially if said purpose involves a shared secret. To come out on top, each man in a gang/platoon/team needs to pull his own weight and inspire trust by living up to the group’s code, while also watching the backs of his comrades who do likewise.
Such comradeship was central to the success of the Great Escape. Though only 200 prisoners would be greenlighted to break out (based first on who had the best chance of making it and did the most work on the tunnels, and then on a lottery), over 400 other Allied officers contributed to the effort. For an operation which was unparalleled in size and unprecedented in complexity to succeed, the contingent had to work as a well-oiled machine. Each member committed to never breathing a word that could be overheard by the “goons” who guarded them, clandestinely communicating through a system of codes and signals, and vigilantly striving to never let down each other, nor their ultimate aim.
The men varied in their talents and temperaments; in civilian life, they had been bankers and lawyers, high school dropouts and tradesmen. But each had a role to play, each had something to offer. Men who were tough and adept at manual labor excelled at the physical work of digging, while those with the minds of engineers oversaw the structuring of the tunnels and innovated systems for ventilation and lighting. An officer with a background in graphic design headed up the forgery department, painstakingly replicating travel passes and identification cards, while those skilled in sewing and sartorial matters toiled in the “tailoring department,” turning the officers’ personal uniforms into what would become the escapees’ disguises – replicas of German uniforms and ordinary civilian suits. Men were needed to work in the sectors of intelligence (gathering information on what to expect outside the camp, from train timetables to checkpoints), mapmaking (4000 were created), and security (keeping watch for the Germans’ dedicated teams of escape-detecting “ferrets,” who liked to spring surprise inspections). Then there were fellows like Marcel Zillessen, who inspired the film’s Robert Hendley character, played by James Garner; just like the fictional Hendley, Zillessen was nicknamed “the scrounger,” as his knack for building rapport with (and utilizing blackmail on) the German guards enabled him to get his hands on just about any tool or material that couldn’t be improvised. Each man’s unique skillset became an asset.
And as long as a man kept the code and did his part for the team, his comrades included and looked after him. The character of Colin Blythe in The Great Escape, a mild-mannered birdwatcher who excels at the art of forgery and tragically loses his eyesight right before the breakout, was fictionalized. But the sentiment of Hendley, who protests against the decision to leave his unlikely friend behind, is quite true to the whole spirit of the real-life, camaraderie-driven operation: “Blythe’s not blind when he’s with me, and he’s going with me.”