American actor Steve McQueen (1930 - 1980) stars as Captain Virgil 'The Cooler King' Hilts in World War II drama 'The Great Escape', 1963. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Movies - TV
The True Story Behind The Great Escape
Described by critic Samuel Wrigley as the “epitome of war-is-fun” action films, “The Great Escape” brings together an international cast in an upbeat adventure based on actual events. Although the film stays true to many of the critical details of the escape, the screenwriters took several liberties in the narrative, including the main protagonists’ nationalities.
“The Great Escape” is based on the book by Paul Brickhill, an Australian fighter pilot who was a prisoner at the proclaimed escape-proof Stalag Luft III POW camp. The plan was to take over 200 men through one completed tunnel; ultimately, only 76 men escaped the prison, but the Nazis recaptured all but three — the film changed the three successful escapees’ nationality.
Several characters directly correspond with their real-life counterparts, such as one of the main protagonists, Roger Bartlett, a stand-in for British Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. Steve McQueen’s character, Virgil Hilts, was based on the charismatic American fighter pilot William Ash, though his motorcycle-escape attempt was wholly fabricated and added at McQueen’s request.
Other characters also experienced some changes, but the most frequent criticism regarding accuracy is the involvement of American officers, who were shipped out to another camp several months before the escape. The film also fails to mention the 150 Canadian officers who were instrumental in the attempt, like the real-life Tunnel King, Wally Floody.