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Remembering their courage: The Great Escape

Steve McQueen on the Triumph TR6 Trophy motorbike in The Great Escape. The dramatic fence jump was made by McQueen’s stunt double, Bud Ekins.

Celebrated Remembrance Day early last night by watching The Great Escape.

Loosely based on a mass breakout by Allied prisoners in a Nazi detention camp during the Second World War, John Sturges’ 1963 film is my favourite war movie, and one of my favourite movies period. Even though there isn’t a single woman in it. It’s a Boys’ Own adventure story about teamwork and loyalty, with an all-star cast including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Charles Bronson, David McCallum and James Coburn.

Backed by Elmer Bernstein’s jaunty score, The Great Escape is great entertainment from its opening sequence right through to McQueen’s daring motorcycle bid for freedom, and its denouement following up the escapees outside the camp: hitchhiking, and on bicycle, bus, train, plane and rowboat.

McQueen’s iconic freedom jump and the movie’s other stunts are pure Hollywood, but The Great Escape is more than escapism. The determination of human beings to escape captivity is instinctual and makes a moving story. As senior British officer Ramsey (James Donald) tells the Nazi commander, “It is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they can’t, it is their duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them.” The prisoners in Stalag Luft III organize themselves into teams, displaying amazing ingenuity in getting out of the camp and outfitting themselves to continue their flight outside. Attenborough’s Squadron Leader Bartlett says, “All this kept me alive.”

There is no sermonizing on the horrors or the futility of war. Just the single-minded focus of these men. And, above all, their courage.

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