The Great Escape (1963) Screenplay Analysis

The Great Escape (1963), written by James Clavell and W. R. Burnett is a classic. I consider the film the most watchable movie out there. You can jump in at any point, know imminently who the good guys are, and be entertained.

Script Formatting Notes

  • Draft Read: April 26, 1962
  • Type: Shooting

I read the April 26, 1962 version of the script. I believe it is also the shooting script as it contains scene numbers, although the formatting is a bit… dated?

One thing that struck me about the script is that it does not follow an obvious three-act structure. The actual prison escape does not begin until page ~140. Theoretically, one could say that is the beginning of Act 3, but if we go one step further, what exactly is the climax? Is it the escapees getting shot on page 198 or is it Hilts epic motorcycle chase on the border of Switzerland on page 200. Or is it one of the many other prisoner escape subplots? This analysis notes the train station scene (which comes a few pages earlier) as the climax. Part of the difference between having one protagonist and a ensemble cast, I suppose.

With so much setup on the first 140 pages, you would think the script would be a slog, but it’s actually very readable, mostly because the prisoners are so resourceful and there are a number of red herring escape attempts (bad term, I know), such as Ives and Hilts tunneling together or the first tunnel being found.

Lastly, the script did a really good job showing the great risks and stakes that the prisoners took in escaping. The showing of fear and terror was a little more ehh in my opinion, mostly focusing on the physical manifestations as opposed to the mental ones. I said ‘mostly focusing’ because the Tunnel King does struggle with PTSD, which manifests in a number of ways. Anecdotal, but I feel earlier movies tend to miss on the serious elements a bit more and can sometimes seem more like a stage play (ex. Stalag 17 (1953)).

On formatting

As noted, the formatting is a bit odd. I found it interesting that there were places (excluding new pages) where a character’s name was repeated simply to add more parenthetical. Additionally, some of the action lines were a bit bloated, at least when compared to today’s scripts.


I marked a few quotes and scenes worth looking at:

  • 388 – Hendley saves Werner – It’s tight description but the seriousness of the situation is easy to imagine. Additionally, it’s an example of multiple points in the script where there is at least some human connection between the Germans and POWs.
  • 407 – “When one man escapes, this one man diverts about a hundred goons from their war effort if he’s caught within an hour. A thousand goons if it takes them a day to catch him. Ten thousand…” It takes 124 pages for the external set of stakes to be clearly stated, although they are somewhat obvious from the plot itself (Nazi vs. POW, good vs. evil, captor vs. prisoner). The escape is not just about getting away, but also diverting as much German manpower away from the war effort as possible.
  • 721 – “My father says the past is the present, and a little of the future, but lived today as always.” I can’t recall this line being in the movie, and I can’t figure out what it really means. That makes sense.
  • 740 – “Sir, it was monumental. They must have used a million goons… (later)… “Do you think it was worth the price, sir?…. I’de say that depends on your point of view…” External validation, but noting the internal resolution is obviously not so black-and-white.

The Motorcycle Jump

The motorcycle jump is by far the best scene in the movie. A similar climax/final escape for Hilts is described in the screenplay, but obviously does not account for McQueen and co’s epic jump.