It is 1943. Europe is now five years into what will be known as the Second World War. Germany establishes a number of prison camps to house the growing number of war prisoners. At the same time, there is a growing number of escaped prisoners of war. Germany responds by opening its first maximum security prison camp. Built on the promises of no prisoner escaping, officials send the most known escape artists.
One of these prisoners if Captain Hilts (Steve McQueen), who is also known as “The Cooler King,” for all the time he spent in the solidarity confinement (the “cooler”) as punishment for escape attempts. Escape, in fact, is the first thing on Hilts’ mind when he arrives at the camp. He closely investigates the fence line and guard booths, searching for a blind spot.
And Hilts is not the only one with escape on the brain. There is a whole cast of characters who are longing for escape. They see is a part of their vocational duty as military men. Among them is Hendly (James Garner) who can unearth any item you need, Danny (Charles Bronson) who is the digging champ, and Sedgwick (James Coburn) the manufacturer.
The climate on the camp changes when Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) arrives. Roger is a legend of sorts among the prisoners. They all see Roger as their leader, all expect Hilts. At least not at first. Roger empowers the men to use their skills in a huge exodus of the prisoners.
The film, released in 1963 before the country was engulfed by the conflict in Vietnam, is not like most war films. It is not as dark and gritty as most war films, like Apocalypse Now (1979) or Full Metal Jacket (1987), These post-Vietnam films, we could argue, were colored by the events that changed the world and how we viewed it.
The Great Escape has more of a light-hearted, comical tone to it for a war film. You chuckle a little bit when Hilts walks back to the cooler or when his prison-mates hand him his baseball and glove, the only two things that will accompany him. There are other similar moments, along with the kindness of the Nazis, which you do not expect. In fact, I wasn’t sure who the Nazis were when the film first started, because they were portrayed in a more kinder fashion.
World events like war remind us that we are all prisoners of sin. Our own personal sin, but also corporate, communal sin. The sins of establishment, institutions, governments, or cliques. These sins imprison us, with hopes to paralyze us. We long for escape and freedom. We work together to make escape and freedom a reality. It becomes our mission and purpose.
A handfull of the prisoners manage to escape through a tunnel they dug, through a hole they created, into the woods. Most of them were either captured again by the Nazis or killed. At first, it is striking to see this happen. Where is the happy ending to this true story? They worked together for a common goal and we rejoiced. They managed to trick the well-trained Nazi guards and we rejoiced. Some escaped and we rejoiced. But death? Recaptured? That wasn’t on the back of the Blu-ray cover!
And maybe that’s the reality. The return to sin, personal or corporate, is never foretold. We never see it coming, and yet it happens. Does it mean we should not attempt escape? Hilts and the others in The Great Escape would plead that we do not. We should not cease to escape from sin’s prison camps.