War films: the great escape from the truth
Sunday, 10 August 2008

The reality of Stalag Luft III was far grimmer than the romanticised derring-do that became typical of postwar movies

Ben Macintyre

This is a true story,” proclaims the title card at the opening of The Great Escape, perhaps the most popular Second World War film ever made.

“Although the characters are composites of real men, and time and place have been compressed, every detail of the escape is the way it really happened.” That claim was disputed by, among others, Squadron Leader Eric Dowling, one of the last surviving participants in the escape plan, who died this week at the age of 92. “Digger” Dowling, who helped to construct the only tunnel that was not discovered by the Germans, always insisted that the 1963 film depicting the breakout from Stalag Luft III in 1944 was partly fantasy.

The scene in which the American officer played by Steve McQueen leaps the barbed wire on a stolen motorbike was “rubbish”, said Mr Dowling. No American servicemen took part in the final escape, as all had been moved to another compound before the prisoners broke out. McQueen makes his great leap on a Triumph 650, which was not even built until 1963.

For Mr Dowling, the horrible reality of tunnelling - the fear, claustrophobia and exhaustion - was missing from the film. “He felt it turned into something that was completely untrue,” according to Mr Dowling's son. “For someone who was actually there, that was upsetting.”
The Great Escape is a great film, but unreliable history. It is a cracking story, but the truth of what happened, as so often, is more complex and demanding than the fiction larded over it.

The film offers a plot as straight as McQueen's jawline, and as stiff as Richard Attenborough's upper lip, but for many of the PoWs the escape from Stalag Luft III was a tragedy, culminating in a shocking Nazi war crime. Just three men escaped; 50 were executed by the Gestapo in defiance of the Geneva Convention. Seven of Mr Dowling's friends were murdered. “What to many people was an epic wartime film was to him a serious event.” Many old soldiers from that war suffered from seeing their memories and experiences distilled and simplified through the camera lens, rendered as mere entertainment, distorted by the demands of patriotic propaganda and politics.

The austerity of the 1950s and the cultural clashes of the 1960s encouraged film-makers to look back with one-dimensional nostalgia on the war, as a time of simple moral verities, when Allied Good triumphed over Axis Evil and every man in British uniform was a hero.

But war is never as black and white as the black-and-white films made it seem. Armed conflict is usually a grim and grey area. It exposes ordinary people to extraordinary moral pressure. A few respond with bravery and conviction, a few with cowardice and compromise, but most with something in between. In the PoW camps, so often portrayed as jolly mini-wars where whistling, bristling Tally Ho-types prepared dashing escapes, there were also those who collaborated, or crumbled under the horror.

Postwar film had little room for nuance, particularly Hollywood's movies, which followed an agenda that still skews history today: to the victor, the reels. Churchill was enraged in 1945 when Objective, Burma!, starring Errol Flynn, depicted a raid by British and Commonwealth troops as an American triumph. Fifty-five years later, in U-571, the British coup in capturing the Enigma machine from a German U-boat was baldly depicted as the work of American submariners.

Many veterans chose not to discuss their experiences. Some considered it poor form to boast of wartime derring-do. Today, when the merest hint of courage is rewarded by instant fame, their reticence seems astonishing, and deeply moving.

At the same time there were others who capitalised and exaggerated their battlefield stories, usually with an eye to Hollywood. Many turned to ghost writers, and a slew of books appeared in the 1950s which were at best only partially accurate, and at worst thoroughly misleading and sensational.

Winnowing out the truth from invention was not only difficult, but unwelcome. The wartime generation knew that that the reality of war was cold, hunger, fear, exhaustion and often mind-crushing boredom. The simplified, heroic version was much more palatable, but as a result men like Mr Dowling were forced to stand by as their own pasts were expropriated and idealised into something they could not recognise.

In recent years the release of official documents has enabled historians to reassess and, to some extent, rewrite wartime stories with a more balanced eye. The Imperial War Museum has gathered a rich trove of recordings, in which the participants speak for themselves. The success of the Forgotten Voices series is further proof of a desire to hear history clearly, unfiltered by the demands of entertainment or politics.

Films such as Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall and Paul Verhoeven's Black Book have also sought to offer a more subtle interpretation of war, reflecting the dilemmas of individual choice and experience rather than some Manichaean struggle between Good and Evil.

The Great Escape deserves a remake. The tale on which it is based was a formidable feat of organisation, and a doomed act of collective resistance. But the film is now a period piece, reflecting the way that postwar society wanted to view the past.

“Digger” Dowling played only a small part in the real escape. He was not among the 250 prisoners selected to break out. His role was restricted to preparing forged documents, and digging for days in the cold, damp Polish earth - an experience of such spectacular nastiness that Dowling never forgot it.

That act of remembrance required another sort of bravery, and determined resistance of a different sort. While the film offered a popular version of reality, with jaunty American heroes and a chirpy script, Dowling, like many old soldiers, quietly guarded and preserved his own memories, knowing that the truth is both stranger than fiction, and much more interesting.
Ben Macintyre is Writer at Large for The Times and contributes a regular Friday column.

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