The Great Escape
Colonel Von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they cannot escape, then it is
their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them,
and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.
Upset by the soldiers and resources wasted in recapturing escaped Allied POW's, the German High Command concentrates the most-determined and successful of these prisoners to a new, high-security POW camp that the commandant, Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger, proclaims escape-proof.
On the day of arrival, some of the prisoners make on-the-spur escape attempts which are all foiled by the sharp-eyed German "ferrets" or guards. As the POWs settle into their new camp, the Gestapo and the SS deliver the one they consider to be the most dangerous POW of all: "Big X", Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, who is the prime organizer of most of the escape attempts made by Allied prisoners in Germany. Gestapo agent Kuhn (Hans Reiser) warns the Englishman that he will be shot should he ever escape again. Locked up with "every escape artist in Germany", Bartlett immediately plans the greatest escape attempted — a tunnel system for exfiltrating 250 prisoners of war, the idea being to "confuse and harass the enemy" to the point that more troops and resources will be wasted on finding and detaining POWs rather than being used on the front line.
Teams of men are organized to survey, dig, hide soil, manufacture civilian clothing, forge documents, provide security and distractions, and procure contraband materials. The prisoners work on three escape tunnels ("Tom", "Dick", and "Harry") simultaneously. The worst of the work noise is covered by the (men's) choir singing, while dirt from the tunnels is concealed in the men's trousers and emptied in the gardens. Flight Leutenant Hendley, an American of the RAF Eagle Squadron is "the scrounger" who finds ingeniously devious ways to get whatever the others need, from a camera to identity cards. Australian Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick, "the manufacturer", makes many of the tools they need, such as picks for digging and bellows for pumping breathable air into the tunnels. Flight Lieutenant Danny Velinski, a former Polish Air Force officer who fled to the RAF, is "the tunnel king", in charge of digging, despite being claustrophobic. Forgery is handled by Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe, who becomes nearly blind from the highly intricate work by candlelight; Hendley takes it upon himself to be Blythe's guide in the escape.
Meanwhile, USAAF Captain Virgil Hilts, "The Cooler King", irritates the guards with frequent escapes and irreverent behaviour. His first escape attempt, conceived whilst in the cooler, is a short tunnel with RAF Flying Officer Archibald Ives; they are caught and returned to the cooler. While the three Americans in camp (Hendley, Hilts, and Goff) are celebrating American Independance day with the other (mainly British) POWs, the guards discover tunnel "Tom". The depressed Ives snaps, and in a futile attempt to escape, climbs the barbed wire fence in full view of the tower guards. Hilts notices and runs to stop him, but is too late as Ives is machine-gunned dead on the wire. The prisoners abandon the second tunnel and put all their efforts into completing the third.
Bartlett persuades Hilts to reconnoiter the immediate vicinity of the POW camp during one of his escapes, then allow his recapture, allowing the cartographers to create guide maps of the local area, including the nearest town and railway station. The last part of the tunnel is completed on the night of the escape, but is found to be twenty feet short of the woods that would provide cover. Nevertheless, 76 men escape before one is finally spotted coming out of the tunnel.
After various attempts to reach neutral Switzerland, Sweden, and Spain, almost all of the escaped POWs are recaptured or killed: Hendley and Blythe steal a Luftwaffe trainer aeroplane, intending to fly over the Swiss border; the engine fails and they are forced to crash-land en route. Soldiers arrive at the crash site, shooting Blythe dead while Hendley surrenders. Flight Lieutenant Cavendish, having hitched a lift in a truck, is captured at a checkpoint, discovering another fellow POW, Haynes, captured in his German soldier disguise.
Bartlett and MacDonald, are recognised at a railroad station by Gestapo agent Kuhn, but manage to slip away after fellow POW, Lietenant Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt, sacrifices himself by killing Kuhn and letting himself be chased and killed by soldiers, while running away from Bartlett and MacDonald. Bartlett and MacDonald attempt to board a bus in the town, but MacDonald is tricked into revealing his nationality with the same trick he had warned Haynes about before the escape—a German speaks to him in English and he responds in his native tongue. They both flee, but MacDonald is caught shortly afterwards; Bartlett escapes over rooftops. However, after Bartlett fools some pursuing Gestapo, he is recognised by his previous captors. Lastly, Hilts attempts to jump the barbed wire Swiss-German border fence with a stolen Wehrmacht motorcycle, but his petrol tank is hit and he becomes entangled in the wire.
Only three POWs evade capture and make it to safety. Valinski and Flight Lieutenant Willy Dickes (the tunnel kings) steal a rowboat and proceed downriver to the Baltic coast, where they successfully board a Swedish merchant ship. Sedgewick hides in a boxcar and makes it all the way to France, and while resting in a cafe the local Resistance stages a drive-by shooting of some German officers. After realising he is an Allied POW, the Resistance enlist the help of a guide to get Sedgewick into Spain.
As for the others, 48 of the re-captured POWs, including Bartlett, MacDonald, Cavendish, and Haynes, are executed by the Gestapo and SS after they are told to get out of the truck transporting them and "stretch their legs" in a field - this brings the total of those shot dead to 50 (including Ashley-Pitt and Blythe). Meanwhile, Hendley and Sorren and a small group of others are returned to the oflag. The Senior British Officer, Group Captain Ramsey hears of the massacre of the 50 dead from von Luger, who has been relieved of command and is swiftly driven away by the SS to face the consequences of failing to stop the breakout.
Hilts is brought back alone to the camp, and subsequently to the cooler. His fellow American officer, USAAF 1st Lt Goff, throws him his baseball and glove as he walks into solitary confinement. As the Luftwaffe guard locks him in his cell and walks away, he hears the familiar sound of Hilts bouncing his baseball against the cell walls. The film ends with this scene under the caption "This picture is dedicated to the 50."
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