The Holocaust and Hogan's Heroes: one note about The Great Escape

Having rewatched and enjoyed The Great Escape (1963), in part to honor Jason Bellamy's skillfully designed The Cooler, I had one question about the film. A skillfully made blend of The Magnificent Seven (also by Sturges, and with several of the same actors) with Grand Illusion, The Great Escape is satisfying in every way except for the scene in which fifty of the recaptured prisoners get abruptly massacred out in a field late in the movie. The scene has Squadron Leader "Big X" (Richard Attenborough) just beginning to acknowledge how the escape effort kept him alive, and then he looks up, surprised, as the scene cuts to a machine gun firing, and then a long shot of the truck in the distance, so the massacre is more suggested than shown. Later, everyone learns that all fifty were killed.

I was just wondering, how is the viewer supposed to respond to that? With shock? A sense of tragic injustice? For me, the scene fell flat just because it was the one time in the film in which the Nazis behaved in a recognizably remorseless way. For much of the rest of the movie, even as I enjoyed the Hogan's Heroes-esque defiance and ingenuity in setting up the escape from the officer POW camp, the Nazis seem weirdly lax and surprisingly easygoing. They even discover a tunnel under a stove and no one seems to be punished.

I understand that the film is fairly accurate to its source material, so I wonder how much my perspective of the war has been influenced not only by Hogan's Heroes (which strikes me as a sinister, propagandistic lie), but also by more recent films such as Schindler's List or The Pianist. Once one knows enough about the Nazi treatment of enemies, I wonder if one can appreciate a film like The Great Escape (or Inglorious Bastards, for that matter) as it was originally meant to be taken. These films have a kind of innocence with conveniently gullible Nazi villains, and yet knowledge of the Holocaust and other atrocities make this kind of gung-ho film more problematic.

This post was written as more of a question. What do you think? I write all of this heading out the door to see Valkyrie.


Jason Bellamy said…
Cool! Discussion of "The Great Escape"! I can't believe I'm closing in on a year of blogging and haven't taken the chance to write about "TGE" yet. Anyway...

This is right on: "These films have a kind of innocence with conveniently gullible Nazi villains, and yet knowledge of the Holocaust and other atrocities make this kind of gung-ho film more problematic."

I, of course, have no problems revisiting "The Great Escape," because I see it as a terrific adventure yarn with a war setting, not so much a WW-II film.

As for the execution scene: I love that one, though it's always bothered me how the sun seems to set just in time, when there was no pink in the sky when the guys stepped off of the trucks.

The emotion we should feel? Just sadness, I think, that these vital men are murdered. It's against the code of war to execute prisoners, sue, but as you mention, I don't think we're surprised by their deaths, and therefore I don't think we're outraged. "TGE" really lets us bond with the characters. To see them die by any means, for any reason, is tragic. I think that's as deep as the scene gets, and that's plenty deep.

As for the emotions of the men: Another reason I love the scene is the expression of Attenborough's X. Right: a moment before he talks about how the escape operation kept him alive, and he's already plotting their next break. And then he sees the guns and reality washes over his face. It's yet another sign of how X has lost himself to the game and sees all these maneuvers not as a way to save men with families but as a way to 'win' -- to win the game.

His stunned expression is that of a man who never truly believed that his opponent would violate the 'rules' of the game with their execution -- even though he more or less predicts as much at the start of the film. Brilliant!
Thanks for your thoughtful and extensive comment, Jason. I agree with everything you say, but I still wonder if we were supposed to feel more outrage at the slaughter of the fifty men at the end. Either because we are more jaded, or we have become accustomed to much worse WWII atrocities in movies, the scene still does not quite work for me as much of the rest of the film does. It also strikes me as odd how the beautiful German countryside in the later scenes holds within it the concentration camps. In Valkyrie, Cruise takes care of this problem by bringing up Nazi atrocities in the very first scene, so the film can get going with that out of the way. It's almost as if the Holocaust keeps breaking the frame of any narrative that comes near it--since it remains such a difficult subject to come to terms with, and even as I greatly admire The Great Escape, the film still seems to lightly sidestep the topic.

By the way, I like the way you incorporate the image of McQueen throwing the ball against the wall of the cooler into your blog design. Maintaining a blog does sometimes feel exactly like that; the image encapsulates the defiance, the independence, and the slight absurdity of film blogging.
Richard Bellamy said…
I loved your post and - as yet another big fan of "The Great Escape" - it was thrilling to see the image of McQueen astide his bike.

Here's the didactic response to your question about the massacre:

The massacre (historically accurate) is done by the Gestapo and S.S. - the Nazis. They are the sinister ones -like the Gestapo guy who flaps his leather briefcase when he takes out Big X's papers - a wonderful stereotype of the Nazi that Spielberg might have patterned some of his leather-clad Nazi villains after.

As for the relaxed atmosphere in the camp - they are Wehrmacht - the army - and they were not necessarily Nazis. In fact, there was a constant friction between traditional army guys (like Rommel) and the Nazis - which is what "Valkyrie" is all about. They want to do away with Hitler partly because of the shame he has brought upon the Wehrmacht because of stupid moves like Stalingrad which was Hitler's big blunder.

Note - in the beginning of TGE the Kommandant gives the Gestapo asshole a real limp "Heil, Hitler," because he's traditional Wehrmacht and he doesn't like the Nazis.

So - the massacre - that's all in the hands of the Nazis. I find it a memorable scene - the contrast of the richly green grass, the mist, and that beautiful, echoing final shot. Then, if you don't feel an impact at that point, it's certainly heart-wrenching when James Donald reads the roster of the dead - Ashely Pitt, etc. - and you remember all the dramatic moments that have gone before.
Much thanks, hokahey, for your historically detailed explanation. I did know that there were big differences in the way officers were treated, but I wasn't as clear about the differences between the Wehrmacht and the Nazis. I still just wonder about the feasibility of grafting the manly gung ho club-like atmosphere of The Magnificent Seven on to that time and place. The feel of TGE reminds me much of defying the man back in high school. One enjoyed the energy, the prankishness, and ingenuity of breaking the rules in that context. In this one it may be just as necessary, but it also seems too weirdly cheerful. To put it in another way: I greatly admire both The Pianist and The Great Escape, but they don't seem to be set in the same planet, let alone the same country during the same war.
Jason Bellamy said…
"To put it in another way: I greatly admire both The Pianist and The Great Escape, but they don't seem to be set in the same planet, let alone the same country during the same war."

No argument there. And I think that today it would be difficult to make a movie like "TGE" without making mention of the larger landscape of Nazi attrocities. But I'm not so sure that's a good thing. (Not that you disagree.)

Kind of reminds me of Stephen King's best-albums-of-2008 column in EW recently, in which he mentions that a friend complained that AC/DC's latest CD sounds like all of the other ones. To which King replied: "And your point is ...?"