To mark the 70th anniversary of the mass escape from Stalag Luft III, Glen Poole examines the enduring masculine appeal of the Great Escape
It’s the 70th anniversary of the Great Escape this week, the name given to the mass escape of Allied service men from a Nazi prisoner of war camp during World War II.
Many men have learnt the legend of the Great Escape by watching the 1963 movie, a classic Hollywood outing that remains so popular with British men that we have voted it the film we’d most like to watch with our families on Christmas Day!
It’s not the only movie ever made about an escape from the Stalag Luft III POW camp. The 1950 British flim, The Wooden Horse, tells the tale of three ingenious men who escaped their captors by digging a tunnel beneath a vaulting horse as their fellow soldiers practised gymnastics up above. One of the real-life, vaulting soldiers was the comedy actor, Peter Butterworth, who tried to get a part in the film only to be told that he didn’t look sufficiently heroic or athletic enough!
Despite its grander ambition, the same number of men tunnelled to ultimate freedom during the Great Escape as they did via the Wooden Horse, so why has the Great Escape in particular become such a firm favourite with generations of men and boys?
My theory is that men love this movie because of the wide range of masculine experience that’s on display in the Great Escape.
Firstly there’s the tribal masculinity that responds to our ancient desire to connect as one with a group of fellow men. It doesn’t matter what nationality you are, most men watching the Great Escape will side with the Allies, as surely as we side with the Rebel Resistance against Darth Vader in Star Wars. In a simple world of goodies and baddies, watching the Great Escape offers us a chance to identify with a tribe of allied good men, fighting against the evil of Hitler’s axis.
Then there’s the rebellious masculinity of Steve McQueen, the Cooler King, who never loses his swagger, no matter how many times he is thrown into solitary confinement for his repeated escape attempts. There’s a part of every man that wants to kick back against authority; to take on the world and win; and it is this aspect of our masculinity that is willing McQueen’s character to leap over the Swiss border on his stolen motorbike and escape the chasing Nazis.
There’s also the conformist part of our masculinity that responds to the reassuring order of a familiar hierarchical structure, where every man has his part to play. We can’t all be cool, handsome, anti-authoritarians like Steve McQueen, but we can imagine finding a role in a disciplined team that helps individuals like McQueen to triumph. When we watch an entire camp of Allied POWs working together in service of the greater good, it appeals to the part of our masculinity that craves clear direction and purpose.
From the effeminate tailor crafting disguises out of blankets to a carol-singing choir, noisily masking the sound of the tunnel’s engineering works, any man can watch the Great Escape and see himself making a contribution to the greater good.
Then there’s the inventive side of masculinity that’s so readily on display throughout the film in characters like James Garner’s “Scrounger”; James Coburn’s “Manufacturer” and Donald Pleasence’s “Forger”. More than 200 men were made ready for escape and each one was ingeniously provided with a disguise, a false identity and travel papers by their and entrepreneurial colleagues.
Finally there’s the unexpectedly sensitive and tender side of masculinity that the film reveals. When the Forger goes blind, Garner’s “Scrounger” stands by his friend and helps him to escape. Similarly, when Charles Bronson’s “Tunnel King” is struck by claustrophobia, his fellow tunneler, played by actor and singer, John Leyton, is there to help him overcome his fears. By virtue of sticking together, the two men make it to freedom.
Tragically, 50 of the 76 men who escaped were rounded up and shot on Hitler’s orders and while the film stays away from the blood and gore of war, it doesn’t glorify or sentimentalize the tragedy. Yes it’s a Hollywood version of events that takes some liberties with reality, but on the key facts of how many men escaped, how many were killed and how many returned to captivity, there is no hiding from the truth.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, we can look back in horror to a century where Europe’s instability dragged the world into the global conflict not once, but twice. The legend of the Great Escape remains deeply popular with men and boys not because it celebrates a bloody struggle that wrought havoc on the world, but because it celebrates the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity. In particular, it celebrates masculinity in its many different forms: tribal; rebellious; disciplined; loyal; self-sacrificing; entrepreneurial; individualistic; sensitive and caring.
The Great Escape reminds us that there are many different ways to be a man and express our masculinity. Of course there are times when we can’t escape the circumstances of life, but what we can do is decide what type of man we want to be as we respond to life’s challenges. And thanks to the freedoms that millions of men fought for in the first half of the 20th Century, most of us will never face the challenge of fighting for survival in a global war.