As Hart's War, starring Bruce Willis, brings a new spin on the World War II Prisoner-Of-War genre, Brian Pendreigh asks some of the original POWs whether their wartime experience resembled anything like we find in the movies.
My father-in-law is an ex-headmaster, he will be 82 in June, lives in Aberdeenshire and does not have much in common with Steve McQueen. Fast cars and fast women seemed to pass Ewen McDonald by. There is however one significant experience they share - Stalag Luft III, the German POW camp for airmen captured during the Second World War.
McQueen was there in the film The Great Escape, as Hilts, Cooler King, with his baseball and motorbike. Ewen was there in real life, no baseball, no motorbike, but he did jump over the wooden horse, the inspiration for another film classic, while others dug a tunnel beneath it. Or rather, he would have jumped over it had he not still been suffering the effects of wounds sustained when he was shot down. He joined the subterfuge by running up to the horse.
Back to camp
More than half a century after the war, Hollywood is showing renewed interest in the genre. Hart’s War is the latest examination of life, and death, in enemy hands, with Bruce Willis joining a long line of stars who have done time in POW camp. And it is not the only new POW film on the horizon.
After the mathematical genius and schizophrenia of A Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe and director Ron Howard are planning an unlikely reunion with a big-screen revival of the camp (in both senses of the word) 1960s television series Hogan’s Heroes, in which the redoubtable Hogan outsmarted pompous Colonel Clink and dim-witted Sergeant Schultz ("I see nothing!"), week in, week out.
Hogan had his own sauna and a private entrance to the camp, allowing him to leave whenever he wanted, except he never wanted. But life in a POW camp was no laughing matter. Fifty prisoners were shot by the Gestapo after The Great Escape. And of the 523 British PoWs the Japanese forced to work as miners at Kinkaseki, in Taiwan, in 1942, only 90 survived.
So what do the survivors think of The Great Escape, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Escape to Victory, in which Michael Caine plays football with the Germans before escaping? What do they think of the renewed fascination with POW camps as a source of entertainment? What do these films get right? And what do they get wrong?
Escape to Victory, in which the POWs simply melt into the crowd after the game, is charitably dismissed as Hollywood hokum. The Bridge on the River Kwai won a best-picture Oscar, but Arthur Titherington, a former Kinkaseki miner and chairman of the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors Association, said the idea that a British officer would take pride in making sure his men build the best possible railway for their Japanese captors was "an anathema to anybody who worked on the railway".
The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape are both based on true stories however, turned into books by men who were there. But do they or Hart’s War fare any better with the people who really know what it was like?
That "Steve McQueen business"
Ewen McDonald was a 22-year-old flight lieutenant when his Wellington bomber was shot down attacking German ships off Crete in 1943. He praises The Wooden Horse, made just a few years after the war, for its almost documentary feel and emphasis on the boredom of imprisonment and the methodology of the escape. And, yes, there really was an escape committee that debated escape proposals just like any local authority planning committee might discuss your designs for a patio.
But Ewen has mixed feelings about that popular post-Christmas dinner diversion The Great Escape. "The Steve McQueen business is just nonsense," he says. The "Steve McQueen business" was the result of the star’s insistence on more action, specifically action in which he could ride a motorbike. This was tricky, not only because The Great Escape was a true story notable for the absence of motorbikes, but even in terms of dramatic licence options were limited. Although POWs were better treated in German camps than Japanese ones, they were still not permitted to have motorbikes.
Director John Sturges had been trying for years to get the film made, but was thwarted by historical fact - the escape originally involved 250 men, but only 76 made it through the wire. Of those, 73 were recaptured, and 50 shot. "What the hell kind of a great escape is this?" asked Louis B Mayer. "Only three people get away." It might more accurately have been called The Great Escape Attempt.
Interest intensified after Sturges had a big hit with The Magnificent Seven. He managed to persuade three of the seven - McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson - to join his escape committee... on condition McQueen got a motorbike and did his own stunts, with the result his character steals a bike (a British Triumph no less) and rides off with the Germans in hot pursuit.
McQueen’s character, an insubordinate loner, was an amalgam of several real-life characters, most of them British. The script was rewritten to add Americans to what had been a largely British enterprise, though the only men to reach safety were two Norwegians and a Dutchman.
Ewen McDonald confirms escapes, or at least escape plans, were a major feature of life in the camps. He was party to one scheme, which ended when a roof collapsed under the weight of earth that had been dug out of a tunnel over six months - an episode shown in The Wooden Horse. After that his enthusiasm waned.
Stalag Luft III held 10,000 men. "An awful lot of them would say to themselves, as I think I would, ‘What the hell, it’s not worth it.’ Your chances are so little, but all the same you helped, you did your spell of duty pilot - the duty pilot sat near the gate and took a note of all the Germans who came in and went out."
Real, up to a point...
Ewen maintains most POW films are accurate in their depiction of conditions. "But when they get outside the wire, they are into the realms of fiction... And the Germans are nearly always portrayed as a Gestapo-ish, unmannerly group, whereas until the Great Escape our German officers in Stalag Luft III were gentlemanly to the core."
This was in stark contrast to the Japanese. Arthur Titherington has been unable to watch The Bridge on the River Kwai and Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence in their entirety, not because he finds them too painful, but because of their refusal to show the full horror of the camps. "There’s no way you can portray the real people and the real suffering," he says. "A beating for instance, from a guard, if that were done on film, there would be an absolute outcry and the film would be covered in blood."
Hart’s War was criticised in the US for reinforcing stereotypes. "Among the especially familiar elements are thuggish German guards rushing into barracks and shouting ‘Raus, raus,’ at all hours of the day and night," wrote Kenneth Turan in the LA Times, "and the sneering Nazi officers holding cigarettes in an affected way and saying clipped things like ‘Once again I am forced to remind you that escape is not a sport’. And of course those ever-glib American soldiers always ready with a quip."
Hart’s War does give the genre a new spin, for its POWs seem more concerned with settling scores with each other than with the Germans. It culminates in the Americans staging a court martial of a black officer accused of killing a racist fellow prisoner. Bruce Willis plays the senior American officer and Colin Farrell is Hart, the idealistic young officer presenting the case for the defence.
John Katzenbach, who wrote the novel on which it is based, drew on the recollections of his father Nicholas, another inmate of Stalag Luft III, who became US Attorney General. "POWs were more or less in charge of their lives, under the guard of the Germans," he says. "What I did, as a novelist, was take the realities of the situations and impose a slightly more potent event on top - that is, the murder."
Dennis Parker, a former US airman and Stalag Luft III POW, enthuses about The Great Escape and The Wooden Horse, but finds the whole scenario of Hart’s War far-fetched. "We all had a meagre woodpile outside our window and one time we caught this guy stealing wood. But our camp commander says, ‘There’s nothing you can do about it. You should have beaten him up a little bit.’ As for holding any kind of court, you couldn’t do it. Also it would be giving comfort to the Germans, who would love that sort of thing."
Attitudes to black airmen
Ewen McDonald however heard rumours of unofficial courts-martial and of executions by suffocation. Parker takes exception to the common notion that POWs could leave their huts fairly readily at night and wander around, though he supports the equally common depiction of POW insolence. Neither he nor Ewen encountered black POWs, though African-Americans served, with distinction, in the US air force, training at their own base at Tuskegee, Alabama.
"In conversations with my father," says Katzenbach, "I asked him the most obvious question - what happened in real life when the first Tuskegee Airman arrived at his camp? His answer was intriguing, for it said much about the attitudes prevalent at that time. When the first black flier arrived, to the immense surprise of all the POWs, the senior American officer immediately assigned this flier to a bunkroom primarily populated by officers who hailed from the Deep South states, and let it be known that he would tolerate not even the tiniest whiff of racism or prejudice.
"Of the 32 Tuskegee fliers who became prisoners of war, I have been unable to find any instances of the sorts of racism that Lincoln Scott experiences in Hart’s War. But that isn’t to say that it didn’t exist."
More "Steve McQueen business" to come?
Previously Hollywood made some attempt to get it right. Now the central facts no longer seem to matter, as long as the period detail looks right. It used to be that the stories were written by men who were there. Now they are written by the sons of men who were there and the war has simply become a setting against which to tell adventure stories and explore contemporary moral issues.
Maybe if they remake The Great Escape in a few years all 250 POWs will get back to England and a computer-generated Steve McQueen will ride his motorbike all the way to Switzerland.