Why Men Love the Story of the Great Escape

On March 27, 1945, Allied prisoners of war began the greatest escape in history by digging over a mile-long tunnel out of their Nazi prison camp. After 28 days and nights they emerged from the other side into freedom. A few weeks later there was an air raid on Berlin that killed nearly 2000 allied soldiers or POWs who were working to free them.

Men love the story of the Great Escape because it tells them that they can survive anything. Movies about being a man have become more and more popular in recent years. Read more in detail here: movies about being a man.


The Great Escape was the most popular option among male responders when individuals in the UK were asked what movie they would most want to watch on Christmas Day.

The famous 1963 film recounting the incredible escape of 76 German POWs from a POW camp during WWII has long been considered a must-see for every man’s movie collection. It’s a film that dads like watching with their families, and husbands prefer watching alone when their spouses are away on a weekend getaway.

The allure of The Great Escape to males is obvious: it has a wartime scenario, action, tension, a stellar ensemble led by James Garner, Charles Bronson, and Steve McQueen, and, of course, one of the greatest cinematic motorbike feats ever.

But the appeal extends farther, to the story’s parts, which, although romanticized in some ways, include many aspects that are accurate to the events shown in the film.

Exploring the aspects that are present in both the film and historical versions of the Great Escape demonstrates why the narrative appeals to men so strongly and provides a glimpse into the terrain of the male heart.

Intolerance to Suffering

Thousands of Allied airmen who had fallen into German hands were imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, a prisoner-of-war camp deep in Nazi-occupied Poland. The camp was considered “escape proof” because it was built with barrack blockhouses that were raised on stilts (to allow guards to keep an eye on tunneling attempts), built atop sandy soil (to make it easy to spot the darker soil produced by excavation), and surrounded by seismographic microphones (to pick up on the vibrations created by digging), two barbed-wire-topped fences, and numerous watchtowers equipped with high-beam spotlights and gun-wielding 

There was also a psychological aspect at play, which may have hampered escape efforts even more than the physical obstacles. Rather than being the type of harsh, hardship-filled camp that prisoners would be yearning to escape, the circumstances at Stalag Luft III were really rather pleasant. The inmates were not tortured or abused in any way. Their meal was OK (at least when combined with the foodstuffs which arrived in the Red Cross care packages they were allowed to receive). The barracks were sparse yet comfortable and hygienic. Playing in bands and orchestras, appearing in bimonthly musicals and plays, reading books in the library, and engaging in debating organizations, painting workshops, and basketball, softball, and football games were all available to students. The camp wasn’t the Hilton, and being held in the same area for years might drive a man insane, but it wasn’t the most inconvenient way to pass the time.

This was planned by the Germans. The Luftwaffe, which had a culture that emphasized gentlemanly respect among all fellow air force officers — even those on the opposing side — and a commander in Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner, who detested the Nazi dictatorship and sympathized with his captives, ran Stalag Luft III. Von Lindeiner not only treated his detainees with gallantry, but also with the assumption that making them comfortable would reduce their desire to flee, allowing them to wait out the duration of the war from behind the camp’s gates.


While some of the inmates were appeased, a large number were not. Though the Geneva Conventions protected recaptured POWs from being murdered, the inmates realized that the Nazis may not follow the laws (and fact, 50 of the 76 who made it out in the Great Escape were immediately slaughtered by an irate Hitler’s command). Nonetheless, these pilots considered escape efforts as an extension of the Allied war effort, and took their role as military officers very seriously.

POW camps already diverted a major amount of money and personnel away from the enemy, and escapes, as well as the massive hunts they sparked, drained even more resources from the German military, police, and civilian population. We frequently assume that the convicts’ only purpose in escaping was to return home, which was, of course, their greatest wish. The captives, on the other hand, were well aware that, given the amount of police and Gestapo checkpoints, as well as the difficulties of being on the run in Nazi-occupied territory, a “home run” escape was very improbable. The goal wasn’t to go back; it was to “create mayhem beyond enemy lines,” as prisoner Mike Shand phrased it.

Prisoners were honor-bound to “harass, confuse, and confound the enemy,” according to Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, architect of the Great Escape scheme, and to play no safer with their lives than troops on the battlefront. He and his fellow troublemakers despised being confined, regardless of whether their cages were gilded, and were determined to continue their battle from behind bars. The famed Great Escape plan and the three tunnels built for it (codenamed “Tom,” “Dick,” and “Harry”) were really only one of 262 escape attempts from within the camp, involving 100 additional tunnels.

The escape-plotters were “an irrepressible clan of adventure- and life-loving people who all refused to accept confinement and were willing to do everything to cock a snook at those who would oppress them,” as Tim Carroll describes it in The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III.

We can’t help but root for a prisoner who escapes from jail, even if they’ve been convicted of a crime; we automatically empathize with the individual escaping any form of subjugation, even if it’s merited!). Escape may be physical, but it also has a lot of symbolic meaning; we all want to get away from the past, from the constraints of conformity, and from external and self-imposed boundaries.

The underdog position of the Great Escapers appeals to the macho heart even more; here was the archetypal David and Goliath scenario, in which those in authority, who had all the evident advantages, were outwitted by pure human cunning. Despite being told it couldn’t be done, that escape was impossible, the scrappers managed to pull it off. How our spirits are elevated by the knowledge that there is always a way out, no matter what!


Improvisational mastery

With a value that manifests itself not just in war but also in music, storytelling, and all of life’s uncertainties, it’s no wonder that improvisation has been one of the most cherished and intriguing aspects of masculinity across history and culture. Men — particularly underdog, outlaw types — have long relied on their capacity to be inventive, to make the most of situations, and to be adaptable and successful regardless of circumstances to fight back against the vicissitudes of destiny and reclaim some authority. It almost seems like magic to be able to take unpromising materials and find new possibilities inside them, to make something out of virtually nothing. And the detainees of Stalag Luft III have this fascinating capacity in spades.

While the camp’s guards tried to keep any things that may be used in an escape from the inmates, the inmates proved to be clever in their ability to transform even the most ordinary stuff into anything they need.

The men’s bunks were stripped of 4,000 boards, which were used to reinforce the tunnel walls. As noise-dampening insulation, 635 mattresses were used. Over 2,000 forks, knives, and spoons were repurposed into digging instruments. 1,400 powdered milk cans, as well as candles filled with wax produced from fat scraped off soup plates and wicks cut from garments, were used to create ventilation ducts. The covers for travel permits were made from the bindings of books supplied by the Red Cross, which were coloured with coffee and tea. Hundreds of compasses were made by magnetizing razor blade slivers, constructing cases out of melted phonograph records, and painting dial faces on pieces of cardboard with a human hair brush.

The amount of skill with which the tunnels were built is astounding, given how much of the escape effort was jerry-rigged. Harry, the hand-dug tunnel through which the inmates eventually escaped, had to be chiseled downward through two feet of brick and concrete; from there, it descended vertically for 30 feet (to avoid the seismographs), before running 335 horizontal feet under the camp’s perimeter fence and terminating close to the nearby woods (though, due to a miscalculation, it didn’t extend as far into that vital cover as the prisoners had hoped!). Electric lights illuminated the tiny tunnel, which was traversed by a rope-powered railway trolley and ventilated by pumps and pipes. It wasn’t a sloppy job; it was an effort that would have made any true miner proud.

A man’s capacity to improvise was a crucial part of what made up his reputation among other men in traditional, honor-based civilizations, and it created tales that would be repeated and retold for years. The impression made by the inmates’ tunneling activities was unmistakably of this kind. Even Kommandant von Lindeiner, who was understandably displeased to find this act of subversion, couldn’t help but be impressed by its craftsmanship when the Germans found the Tom tunnel, which stretched 285 feet beyond the fence. He was so taken aback that he established a tiny museum for the camp’s tunnel, where guards could learn about the inmates’ capabilities and visitors could enjoy items and pictures. It became a mini-monument to improvisation’s alchemy.


Camaraderie is important to us.

The way the narrative of the Great Escape epitomizes the ideals of male solidarity is one component of the story that resonates most to the masculine heart.

Men unite by contests of strength and/or intellect that put one force against another, creating a us vs. them dynamic. Striking for a common goal — particularly if that goal entails a shared secret — fosters solidarity. To win, each member in a gang/platoon/team must carry his own weight and inspire faith by upholding the group’s code, while keeping an eye on his colleagues who do the same.

The Great Escape’s success hinged on this kind of camaraderie. Despite the fact that only 200 convicts were given permission to escape (based on who had the highest chance of making it and who had done the most work on the tunnels, followed by a lottery), nearly 400 additional Allied officials assisted in the operation. The contingent had to function like a well-oiled machine in order for an operation of unprecedented magnitude and complexity to succeed. Each member vowed to never say anything that may be overheard by the “goons” who guarded them, to communicate secretly using a system of codes and signals, and to never let each other down, nor their ultimate goal.

The soldiers possessed a wide range of skills and personalities; in civilian life, they had worked as bankers, attorneys, high school dropouts, and artisans. But everyone had a part to play, and everyone had something to give. Men who were hardy and skilled at manual labor excelled at the actual labor of digging, while engineers monitored the tunnels’ structure and devised new ventilation and lighting systems. The forgery department was led by an officer with a graphic design background, who painstakingly replicated travel passes and identification cards, while the “tailoring department” worked to transform the officers’ personal uniforms into what would become the escapees’ disguises – replicas of German uniforms and ordinary civilian suits. Men were needed in the intelligence (gathering information on what to expect outside the camp, from train timetables to checkpoints), mapmaking (4,000 maps were created), and security (keeping an eye out for the Germans’ dedicated teams of escape-detecting “ferrets,” who liked to spring surprise inspections) sectors. Then there were people like Marcel Zillessen, who inspired James Garner’s Robert Hendley character in the film; like the fictional Hendley, Zillessen was known as “the scrounger,” because his knack for building rapport with (and blackmailing) German guards allowed him to get his hands on almost any tool or material that couldn’t be improvised. Each man’s own set of abilities became a valuable asset.

And as long as a guy followed the code and performed his thing for the team, he was accepted and cared after by his comrades. Colin Blythe, a mild-mannered birdwatcher who excels in the art of forgeries and sadly loses his vision just before the escape in The Great Escape, was fabricated. “Blythe’s not blind when he’s with me, and he’s going with me,” Hendley says, protesting the choice to leave his odd companion behind. “Blythe’s not blind when he’s with me, and he’s going with me.”




The “best tough guy movies” is a list of action films that are considered to be the best in the genre. The list includes the movie, “The Great Escape.”

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the moral of The Great Escape?

A: The moral of the Great Escape is that sometimes in life, we all have to fight for what we believe in.

Did any men survive The Great Escape?

A: Of course. The Great Escape is one of the most famous moments in World War II history and was a major turning point for Allied forces, which helped them win the war.

Is the story of The Great Escape true?

A: Yes.

Related Tags

  • art of manliness war movies
  • movies about masculinity
  • movies every man should see
  • art of manliness movies
  • man on man movies