The Reason The Great Escape Is My All-Time Favorite Movie

My all-time favorite movie is the classic World War II film The Great Escape (1963), with Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough. How come?

When you think about it, it’s really a strange war movie: hardly any violence, little action to speak of, and few references to the war itself. Yet every time I watch it, I’m hit by its stark reality. Not so much physical reality perhaps (why do I have a hard time believing James Garner’s hair would have stayed that perfect in a real POW camp?), but emotional honesty. It struck me the last time I watched it how much this movie is able to convey with so little histrionics. And I think that’s the key to its timelessness: the writers, the director, and the actors never overplay their emotional hand.

James Garner Great Escape

James Garner in The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges, produced by The Mirisch Company

Realism as the Foundation for Honesty

This is a movie teeming with characters and subplots. As the movie progresses, the viewer comes to care deeply for all of these characters and their various goals and obstacles. We care that these men escape the German prison camp, we care that Big X’s plot to foul up the German works behind the lines succeeds, we care that these pilots not only live to fly another day but that they contribute as much as they can to winning the war.

The war is barely mentioned in this movie. The Nazis, for the most part, are shown, not as devils incarnate, but as relatable human beings. The viewer is never subjected to a litany of Germany’s war crimes or a recitation of the Allies’ virtues. Not once does a character stand to deliver a melodramatic “Oscar speech” about patriotism or the lofty reasons these men are fighting and dying and suffering in a prison far from home. And that, right there, is one of the greatest secrets to this movie’s success.

Did The Great Escape Have an “Agenda”?

The Great Escape, unlike so many war movies (or maybe I should just say unlike so many stories period), never tries to force an agenda into its narrative. The characters are never asked to act or speak in ways that are unrealistic or less than honest. When they toast the tunnel on the Fourth of July, they make no elaborate speeches about the rightness of their cause and how they deserve to escape because they’re the good guys and the Germans are the bad guys. No, they toast, quite simply, “To getting home.” How’s that for stark, staring, bleeding honesty?

The Great Escape James Garner Steve McQueen Fourth of July

Steve McQueen, Jud Taylor, and James Garner in The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges, produced by The Mirisch Company

But the really wonderful thing about this honesty is that, in the end, the agenda is gotten across even more powerfully than it would have been had screenwriters James Clavell and W.R. Burnett spelled it out for us.

“Emotion” Is the Key in Emotional Honesty

Emotional honesty travels in the other direction as well. It involves not only not dragging in melodramatic theatrical reactions, but also digging deep and highlighting the emotions the characters are feeling.

I’ve read too many books and seen too many movies that featured solid plots, engaging characters, and excellent technique, but which missed out on greatness for the simple reason that they fell flat emotionally. They blocked me from seeing past the characters’ façades into the realness of their beings—into the why behind their actions—unlike The Great Escape, which perfectly balanced its demonstration of the characters’ emotions, needs, and goals against the temptation to force emotions upon the characters for the sole reason of (hopefully) wringing a sympathetic reaction from the viewer.

Go watch The Great Escape. You’ll learn lots about how to craft an emotionally resonant story, and if you read between the lines, you may also get good glimpse of what not to do.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What is your favorite movie or book? What has it taught you about storytelling? Tell me in the comments!

The Reason the Great Escape Is My All-Time Favorite Movie

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I remember that movie–and you’re right. The only melodramatic thing in it was James Garner’s hair.

  2. “The Great Escape” is one of those movies I can say I grew up on. Even as I young child I can recall feeling so many emotions as I watched the movie. It’s the kind of story that doesn’t have to say much, to say it all! I think that’s something all writers need to see and try to put into their own writing.

  3. “Doesn’t have to say much to say it all” – that should be a bumper sticker for authors. I’d buy it, anyway!

  4. Marie W. says

    I agree with you that saying less is most effective. I remember that Steve McQueen was a character of few words but I think his character was very memorable.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. As always a very insightful post!

    If you ever get tired of this writing thing, you might want to consider a career in human psychology…

    … or do you already have your Masters in that?

  7. Thanks very much. I love psychology – trying to figure out why folks tick the way they do, trying to figure out why *I* tick the way I do – but I don’t have any background in it. And definitely not a Masters!

  8. I am from the breed who stays away from the movies for most part. (Not because of laziness, but because they eat so much of the hard disk which can be used for my sweet books).
    But I guess I will have to change this habit for the researchs sake.

    • I miswritten laziness. Actually I meant common fanism, or more precisely; hatred.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Movies are a wonderful media in which to study fiction, both because of their comparative brevity compared to novels (allowing you to ingest more of them faster), but also because they’re usually perfect examples of story structure.

  9. Way before my time, but that is exactly what I like about movies. Realistic characters. Real psychology. That’s probably one the only parts of fiction that has to be as in life. I am sometimes more inspired by films and video games as apposed to novels, but that is mainly because I like movies and games. Probably because of the flow of information. It also sounds like it has good dialogue. Guess I’ll make time for it.
    Thanks for the post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s way before my time too, come to that, but it was one of the movies I grew up with. Seems like those stories always end up with a special glow of nostalgia around them.

  10. thomas h cullen says

    The more capable the storyteller, the then more chance of a thought-out premise in no need of excessiveness or “stagey” speak or behaviour.

    Get it right in the beginning, thinking of the kind of situation which can then just take all-round authentic character behaviours and an organic scene-by-scene narrative arc.

    The recent Robert Redford film, All is Lost; Ridley Scott’s Alien (the perhaps greatest film of all time); The Empire Strikes Back:

    All examples of what I’m talking about.

  11. I have loved this movie since I was little! Danny the Tunnel King and Willy were my favorite characters. Thanks for doing this post about it! I feel a movie night is in order after this. 🙂

  12. Haven’t seen that film in ages but I loved it as a kid. What stood out for me was the great film score by Elmer Bernstein. I couldn’t imagine the film being as successful without it. As for my favorite movie, I’d go with “The Tree of Life.” It taught me how to break all the rules.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, it’s a fabulous score. Bernstein is the beginning of the great age of film scores, IMHO.

  13. Dave Gregg says

    No need to be humble about Elmer Bernstein. He’s one of the great ones — along with Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams. My all-time favorite score is Bernstein’s music for “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And another one of my favorite films.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Alrighty then, I’ll be bold! :p Bernstein was the really the one who kickstarted my love affair with movie scores. He’s still one of the best.

  14. I don’t know about movies — I tend to be absurdly picky when it comes to them. But one of my favorite books is Irlanda by Espido Freire. It’s an excellent example of the unreliable narrator. So many books nowadays take the POV character’s view of the world as infallible (as far as what actually occurs). The narrator in Irlanda actively lies, so that things may have happened exactly the way she tells them, but then again they may not. In this case, all mystery of what happened and why comes straight from the narrator, rather than from some outside force. Applying what I learned from that is tricky, though.

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