One of my favorite movies of all times is The Great Escape with Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, and many others. I have probably watched that movie two dozen times.
I picked up the book, The Great Escape, with great trepidation worrying that by reading this book, I would become disenchanted with one of my favorite movies. I am glad to say, I am amazed at how true Hollywood stated to the story in the book, which was written by Paul Brickhill, a prisoner of Stalag Luft III.
Yes, there are some minor things that Hollywood switched around. One example is in the movie, we see James Garner trying to steal an airplane and fly to safety. This antidote was in the book, but it was a story of one of the escape artists being caught on a prior escape attempt prior to The Great Escape.
Another minor revision is about the Americans in Stalag Luft III. In the movie, there are three Americans who take a major role in the escape. In reality, there was a period of time where there was a large group of Americans in the prison camp. These Americans did turn potatoes into an adult beverage to celebrate the 4th of July.
It was shortly after this celebration that the Nazi removed all the Americans from the camp and put them in another camp just a few hundred feet away from Stalag Luft III. As such, there were no Americans who were a part of The Great Escape. One of the reasons why the Americans were separated was because the Germans did not like how well the American and British officers got along with each other.
Another minor deviation between the book and the movie deals with which tunnel was discovered. In the movie, we saw the tunnel under the hot stove being discovered. However, in the book, the tunnel under the hot stove was the one that was actually used for The Great Escape.
What the movie does not depict that I found most interesting was that the escape actually took place in the winter when snow was on the ground. As such, the final major push to dig the tunnel that they escaped out of occurred when the escapees could not disperse the dirt all over the compound. You will have to read the book in order to hear the amazing story of how they hide the sand from the Germans during the winter months.
As a lawyer, it was fascinating to hear how after the war, the Royal Airfare retained a former Scotland Yard detective to investigate and prosecute the German officers who violated the Geneva convention. Germany was one of the first signers of the Geneva convention which prohibited the shooting of escaped prisoners. For three years after the war, this detective and his team marched all over Europe finding and prosecuting the officers who killed 50 of the 76 escaped prisoners.
I highly recommend anyone who loves the movie The Great Escape to grab a copy of the book and read it. You will not be disappointed. If you were like me, you will probably find it hard to put down, even though you think you know what is going to happen next. The book goes into a lot deeper details of the planning and executing of the X organization.
In reading this book, I have two questions I must ask.
First, these British prisoners really thought outside the box in coming up with ways to solve their problems as prisoners. Would today’s generation who plays inside on game consoles be able to plan and execute such an elaborate escape plan? While we may have more knowledge as a result of the internet, do we have enough practical experience and creative thinking that this type of escape would be possible in today’s world?
Second, if I were a prisoner today, how would I handle several years as a prisoner? Would I just sit there and try not to cause trouble, or would I be willing to risk my life in order to escape? I would hope my love of liberty would be strong enough that I would participate, but one never really knows how they would respond until they are put in a similar situation.