The Big X—Why ‘The Great Escape’ still Captures a Particularly British Christmas

(Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
Credit: By Diliff
Credit: By Diliff

For many a British household, the theme tune to John Sturges’ The Great Escape has long since become an accepted part of the soundtrack to the season of goodwill. Yet despite the fact that the cast is comprised of an equal mix of both American and British actors, one never hears about the movie being spoken of in quite the same way as a Christmas favorite across the Atlantic. Nevertheless, its evergreen popularity with British audiences would suggest there is more to the way it continues to remain part of our own festive celebrations than Dickie Attenborough demanding to know why the air pumps aren’t finished as James Coburn drawls in his best Australian accent, “Aww patience issa virtue Wodger old boy.”

Filmed in the summer of 1962, the color, energy and spirit of The Great Escape captures the post-war optimism of a Britain ready to throw off the austerity of the 1950s—between the initial outbreak of Beatlemania, and the English World Cup victory of 1966. In many ways, the film subsequently embodies a sunny nostalgia that is far more appropriate to the mood of Britain on the eve of a sexual and economic revolution, than the grim reality of Stalag Luft III from which seventy-six men made their escape in March 1944. The scene where Steve McQueen jumps his motorcycle over the German barbed wire fences, while an unlikely source of Christmas spirit, feeds into the energy of its own contemporary moment reflecting the shift towards the youth counter culture of the 1960s.

However, when one thinks of the associative connection between military conflict and Christmas, the appeal of The Great Escape runs much deeper in the British psyche than its regular showing during the holiday season. Here, the popular image of the unofficial truce between English and German troops in December 1914, along the trenches of the Western Front, is inescapable. Men from both sides exchanging gifts and letters in No Man’s Land before being forced to resume hostilities, has become a resonant image embedded in both historical narrative and popular culture. Yet although many accounts of the truce refer to a game of football, questions remain as to whether such fraternization in the form of a formal football match ever took place. Nevertheless, the power of this image and the chivalric code of honor, nobility and decency it invokes remains a key point of reference for how the British continue to imagine and represent themselves in relation to the Great War.

This is immediately evident in the opening titles of The Great Escape, where a low angle close-up hones in on a small cluster of poppies in an anonymous field. It is a brief yet poignant indication as to how, while ostensibly set during the Second World War, the popularity of The Great Escape with British audiences at Christmas owes much to the power of the Great War’s hold on the English imagination. It is with the Great War that the discourse of official commemoration becomes a touchstone of the 20th century experience. Just as the ceasefire of Christmas 1914 embodied the calm before the storm where active combat was temporarily suspended, The Great Escape evokes a similar narrative paradigm based around what is in turns both good humoured and frosty, yet for the most part, mutually respectful dialogue between both the German Luftwaffe and their British counterparts.

Consequently, what The Great Escape does for the British Christmas is encapsulate a world that is half make-believe and half historical fact. A prison camp which has all of the color and Hollywood glamor of Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn and Charles Bronson in their prime, and yet still manages to convey a true story in which three escape tunnels were built under all but impossible circumstances. Richard Attenborough (as Big X), Gordon Jackson (as MacDonald Intelligence), David McCallum (as Dispersal), Donald Pleasance (as The Forger) and James Donald (as Ramsey the SBO), are all perfectly cast to exemplify the embodiment of British flem and ingenuity, be it hiding the dirt from the tunnel in their gardening allotments or taking lessons in bird-spotting to cover Donald Pleasance’s forging operation.

Moreover, the close-knit nature of Richard Attenborough’s X organization ensures that the emphasis is not simply on pathos, but the responsibility the men take on for each other. The best scenes illustrate this bond none more so than Donald Pleasance slowly going blind and trying to hide his condition from James Garner who knows his own odds of escape are terminally shortened by taking him along. It is here that the real secret as to why the film resonates so much for British audiences during the festive season lies in a message of victory rather than defeat. While Steve McQueen going full throttle towards the entire German army is as far from the historical truth as the idea of angels appearing to shepherds in the field, The Great Escape suggests the power of the imagination to defeat the dull, mundane reality of day-to-day existence. It underlines, in the language of ‘sacrifice’ as its own form of goodwill to all men, what a small group of individuals can do when they refuse to accept that they are no longer able to fight an unacceptable and despotic ideology.

The underlying appeal of The Great Escape for British audiences at Christmas continues to ask questions of not just how the Second, but also the First World War figures in the English imagination. It is a film where the American star cast doesn’t so much steal the show as play off the idea of British behavior as a uniform officer class, appealing to a post-war generation looking to build a new world in which an American, rather than British, accent begins to take precedence. It is an act of reinvention, where every Christmas, The Great Escape allows the British to indulge in the historical fantasy as well as the historical fact of how they see themselves. At the same time, the peculiar and yet oddly apt relationship between The Great Escape and a British Christmas is one, as a piece of ‘family entertainment,’ that almost serves to transcend the subject of war and reaffirms for its audience the importance of friends and loved ones.

Thus, it is in the poignant and close juxtaposition of the new and the old that Christmas by its very nature gives synthesis to both past and present. The imaginative capability to reconnect to an irrevocable history, which in The Great Escape blurs the lines between the two global conflicts of the last century, perhaps reminds a particularly English sensibility in silhouette of a distant battlefront. As the world weary Charles Ryder observes at the end of Brideshead Revisited, the idea of the soldier returning is one that implies a deeper subtext:

“Something quite remote from anything the builders intended […] a small red flame—a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem.”

If for the English The Great Escape affirms and adds to the seasonal atmosphere, it may be in this sense of ‘far from home,’ which translates from the trenches of the Western Front to the technicolor of the early 1960s, and carries the strongest appeal to an audience constantly aware of those ‘other soldiers.’ A timely Yuletide reminder that it is in the power of the imagination itself that the Christmas nativity, and the ability to fight and resist, are born.



Jonathan Jones is a freelance writer currently living and working in Rome. His main influences are Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Saki and Yann Martel. He qualified in 1999 with his M.A. in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University College, and in 2004, with an MRes in Humanities from Keele University. He now teaches writing composition at John Cabot University in Rome. 



squeeze_orangeI sat in the Seattle airport facing west, toward the sun making a last go at the day. Light poured unbroken through the glass face of the building, turning the people in front of me to silhouettes and halos. We draped over chairs in a lethargic kind of limbo, and the late sun brought out the details of our waiting. It shone through unexpected avenues and made mirrors of strange surfaces. The woman across from me was a lighthouse – lip gloss exploding, her hair fine blonde and on fire. The icing from a Cinnabon was a sticky glow on a boy’s face. Sugar. Licked over by light. In one corner a young woman and her iPod scrunched away from the glare, but the silver of her earrings shot twitching discs across the carpet. Light and shadow, on strangers in a room. The younger version of me paused. Took in a moment, at a time when I was so good at missing them.


I went back to reading. But a tall man with dark sunglasses and a CD player began to grab at my attention. Another stranger. He sat with the slouch and quietness I found so attractive in my early twenties. A grunge I wanted to snuggle up to, hide in. A loose stocking cap covered his head but wisps of golden brown hair escaped unchecked. Those few strands were the only color I saw on him. Mostly it was just the dark outline of his shoulders against the light, and sometimes, when he turned his head, the edges of still features under a five o’ clock shadow. He was pleasing, wholly dark, and somber. But again, I turned back to my book. Until the orange juice.


In an interstellar burst

I am back to save the universe.


I wasn’t even watching him anymore when he bent to reach into his bag, but the unexpected rupture of gold drew me back. The setting light made the liquid a sister, glowing stunningly through the bottle attached to a tan and now sunlit hand. The rest of him still in shadow, it was like that arm had been dealt some kind of cosmic power, holding light and color in a grip not quite human. The glow moved to his lips, and he tipped back the juice and drank like his life depended on it. Maybe it did. I imagined behind his sunglasses he was closing his eyes. Like he might after hanging up from a difficult phone call. After smelling morning’s first coffee. After loving. His arms were smooth against his white t-shirt, and I couldn’t help thinking how, for just that moment, I’d like to sit next to him. Not alone with the book I was now pretending to read, not alone with the doubt and fear I held hard in my gut, ready to fly back to a home and a life I no longer wanted to wake up to. But it seemed if I could just sit beside him for a bit. Quiet, and slouching, and waiting, next to him. With some orange juice and eyes on the sun. Surely, it would all be better.




But I went back to the goddamn book. In earnest I read it. I knew not to get enamored with ideas of men and glowing moments, it only leads to glaring awareness of being alone. At least when reading I could stay in that nice middle ground of other peoples’ feelings. And it kept me from drinking. Sometimes. So I read while the sun set. I read through the annoying conversation happening behind me. I read until they told me it was time to stand and walk to the plane. Out on the tarmac, the sharpness of the evening had gone, leaving a last flush of color and long, misshapen shadows. I said good night to Seattle and boarded, ready to read my way home at last.


But as I shuffled to 17A, I saw there was a man already seated in 17B. A man with sunglasses, a CD player and an orange juice.


Before sitting I smiled to myself. Just for a moment, then it was all stowing bags and putting on the seatbelt, getting out the book. I wondered if I got to count this seating arrangement as a sign of some kind. A nudge to pay attention, to take notice. Maybe. Maybe not. I hesitated over where to place my elbow. On the arm rest, off the arm rest, on the arm rest…what if mine touched his? Do I say hi? Nod a bit? No, I decided, no. He tucked his orange juice in with the in-flight magazine and closed his eyes. Pretty sure he wasn’t wondering where to put his elbow, or if it affected his fate. Still, when I opened my ever-loving book I had to smile again, because I could hear the music through his headphones. One of my favorite Radiohead songs slithered out, yet another piece of his presence that pulled at me.


I am back to save the universe


And then I did something completely normal, more perfect than I knew I needed. I sat next to him. Reading. Calm. I liked sitting next to someone that I found strangely interesting and comforting. A man I would probably never speak to, but I knew I’d like to. A man who listened to nice music and tapped his fingers slowly. I thought about what it would be like to have a shoulder like his to touch my cheek to. I sat and read and imagined it was possible to look him in the eye, that we maybe thought about the same things sometimes. It was a comfort, a slow easing into hopefulness. Then the orange juice, again.


In a jackknifed juggernaut

I am born again


As we reached speeds for take-off, he grabbed his half-empty juice bottle from the seat pocket and took two life changing gulps. With his sunglasses off, I glimpsed that he did indeed close his eyes for lipsthis. But it was the sigh afterward that really struck me. He sunk into his seat, as I already had, and the plane lifted. His eyes stayed closed and he pulled the hat tighter down over his headphones. As the air vents poured coolness over us, he breathed out in one rush and I could smell oranges. As we rose higher I saw golden dusk and I smelled oranges. The mixture of sweet breath, subtle men’s cologne and the sight of him pressing into his seat made me close my eyes. I wanted to kiss him and lick the juice off his lips. I wanted to kiss him and taste the coolness it had left on his tongue. I wanted to breathe out oranges, sink into a seat, and sleep. Next to a man who liked Radiohead.


In an interstellar burst


I thought of that for a while. No more than that. The plane leveled in the sky, the murmur of passengers settled and soon a flight attendant rolled toward us offering drinks. I ordered wine to still my imagination. Close it up again. He sat forward, eyes open, and politely asked for an orange juice.


I am back to save the universe


Hannah Heimbuch is a freelance journalist and commercial fisherman from Homer, Alaska. She is currently working toward her MFA in creative nonfiction through Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop. She seek a life based upon the simple staples of words and fish.


Mise En Place*

*Putting in place, as in setting up, in a French kitchen

01-woman-chopping-vegetables-cutting-board-kitchen-lgnShe speaks very loudly. My voice is soft, some even say soothing. If I should ask her why she is yelling, she shouts louder, boisterously insisting the volume of her voice is at an appropriate level. She gets easily frustrated with me if I tell her to hush, or comment about her tone whatsoever.

She is always eating leftovers. I will never eat such things. One or six days old, I consider the microwave a devil of neural disfigurement, packed with unnecessary calories. The smell of cold chicken cowers my skin into repulsed shivers, the tart staleness from an overnight’s rest stains the meat on my plate. I refuse to reheat my food. She has tried to force me, for years, every other night with last week’s rotisserie or pasta. “It’s still good!” she yells.  I tell her to stop shouting. I am fine with a banana. She screams from the other room that she is not yelling, that I am ridiculous, that her food is delicious. 

Indeed, she is a very good cook. Ingredients fly from the pantry into one large pot as she stirs and peppers, blends and pours. Her dishes seem a cacophony of mixed spices forced to combine; in the kitchen she is a conductor void of a baton. The countertop is her stage, each component of the recipe a vital part in her performance. She has her rituals, as all do, salt over the shoulder, a dishtowel folded close by. Always, she starts by allowing her sight to span the kitchen, inspecting to be sure she has all she needs, assuring herself it is okay to continue. In the kitchen my mother realizes that everything has its place. The blender sits near the sink, poultry on a steal cutting board far away from her vegetables, usually carrots or corn doctored with garlic or lime. She follows the steps, sticks to her traditions. She likes rich meals — velvety soups with dark red meat — yet somehow she is quite petite. I am taller, heavier. I can hold her tiny frame within one wrap of my arm. She is fragile. I am not.

I am also a decent cook, but quite different. I compare recipes, alternate ingredients. I enjoy lemon zest or rosemary, red wine or white. I enjoy cooking for people as a gift (or offering), the planning and executing of it. I stick to themes (Taco Tuesday, Friday Night Fajitas, May Day, or Sunday Morning), include the recipe in perfect penmanship with nutritional facts below. I believe it is important to know what we we eat. My mother mixes ketchup with eggs and braises beef in the broiler. She believes in her way.

I drink a cocktail when I am cooking. She gets drunk off the smell of vodka. Mostly, because I am cooking in her kitchen, I switch to water after one drink in order to not worry her. She is the type of woman who frets over habits like that. It is always nice when we invite company over for dinner, for then I can enjoy a few cocktails without her disapproving stare. Close friends and neighbors marvel at our relationship; she and I enjoy acting such parts.  She has a book of all of her recipes, of my grandmother’s recipes, of her old friend’s sister’s way to make the best strudel. I never remember the meals I throw together, rice is easily substituted for spaghetti, duck reigns high over chops. In my pot it could have been red pepper or jalapeños. I can hardly keep track of the day. Sometimes I wake up in the half morning, eyes still shut with slumber, trying to remember the date, my duties, where exactly I was when I fell asleep. Within me there must exist a subconscious fear of the day fading for I am always checking the time, always scared it is too late. She is happy wheresoever she may be.

And yet, she often appears quite bored. There is a certain slouch about her, some discontent for life. She craves grandchildren, new furniture. Her life has been active — in order, a first generation Holocaust survivor, a widow, a newly-wed — these things she sometimes forgets. Once she was just another sixties girl in love with Davy Jones, placing freshly picked dandelions behind her ear, hair down to her knees. For her, the present that is lachrymose, almost impossible to conceive. In the keepsake she calls her mind, countries fade into cities, free spirits drift away. Her nose wrinkles when she tries to remember, the pain embedded on her face. I, on the other hand, have the memory of an elephant.

I savor my memories in the palate of my mind, remembering life in images, some exaggerated, some permanently embedded in my memory as if they were tattooed on my skull. The relief of a fire hydrant’s splash in the dog days of August, the pinching pleasure of sidewalk pebbles from the pavement beneath my bare feet. I picture my mother’s soft shadow against the window frame in the twilight that surrounds my childhood, and I think it must be love, because it is warm and orange and involves my mother. I see my father in a blue collared shirt stained with oil, his fingers musky with sweat. It is the scent of oil which brings the image of my father into my everyday, the sight of soft light, my mother. She has a complicated memory, her brain is troubled and tired. In a past life, I swear, she was a stoic.

We both often think about eating; when, what, where.  She has passed down to me an insatiable thirst for food, a true appreciation for flavor. I managed a restaurant for six years; an Italian restaurant in particular, family-owned in the heart of a small neighborhood in Brooklyn. The Ecuadorians in the back were all brothers, I introduced them to Neruda. My boss shook hands with my lovers. My mother has told me that my father used to work at a White Castle on Linden Boulevard where he and his friends would smoke joints, and drink out of bottles, and ash their cigarettes between buns. Still (somehow), my mother loves those burgers. There are many restaurants we dined in together, though I have traveled more. In the same sense, there are many places she has been that I will never see.

If we are sitting together at the kitchen table, our afternoon coffee nestled warmly between our palms, and I ask her, “Do you remember that restaurant in Paris?” she will go on to mention a memory about the Louvre or the Tower instead. Her voice will grow excited, loud, controlled by memory’s hold, “those steel frames” she will say, “just bare, beautiful.” Maybe she will even smile before she drifts back into a soft recall. Depending on the day, I remind her that on those metal frames she forgot her fear of heights.

Again, I will ask her about the food.  “Don’t you remember that restaurant, with the funny wall paper, on rue d‘Artois? Where the waiter was kind and the merlot was ripe and…” but she will stare back at me blankly as I entertain myself in a one-sided conversation regarding aubergine and pate, of being a mother and daughter on holiday, in France.

She returned to New York, then; I, to London. That is something I do so easily: leave her. Sometimes now, after I tell her my wish-lists of destinations (Egypt, Greece, a place hushed with forgiveness), she sighs under her breath. She does not like for me to be gone.

When I was a child she used to sit with me for hours, playing dolls, or coloring, teaching me how to tie the perfect knot. I remember her steadfast and shoulders straight returning home from meetings, or dinners, or writing workshops. Once or twice her poems were published, now she never reads. My nose is always burrowed between beige colored pages. She has forgotten what it means to write, it seems.

Sometimes I feel it is up to me to ensure her that she has led a life with purpose, that she still has some zest. Her parents came to New York shortly after the war, survivors of Auschwitz and Dachau respectively. They snuck out on a train and in on a boat, leaving reveries of blood and ash on the German road. My grandfather was a tailor, my grandmother a cook; he was deaf, she struggled with English. My mother pieced together her history in broken Yiddish; a dying language intertwining with their cruel past. Perhaps because of this she refuses to throw anything away. She hoards papers and costume clothing, birthday cards from my first year. She enjoys stews that use leftover vegetables and marrow. She cooks, as her mother would, brisket with glazed carrots and fresh prunes.

She hated the food in France. I adored it. One morning, she had me walk two miles off our course just so she could buy her morning coffee from some American chain restaurant. “It won’t be the same,” I argued.  I had learned quickly that nothing was the same in Europe, that even if you were in the middle of a tourist hot spot in Paris, the coffee would either be too strong or too weak, the milk would be too creamy, the sugar not so sweet. But she never listens, her mind flooded with to-do lists and grief.

Every now and then I try to mention the comedy that escalated from her coffee/café adventure. I reenact how she struggled with the vendor, hand motioning and pointing, trying her hardest to obtain her simple request: a hot cup of coffee. Ten minutes and two mistakes later (and this is where we would laugh), she’d be handed a small, unsatisfactory dixie cup, less than a shot, not quite an espresso. She goes along well with my interpretation but assures me that I am mistaken. She says that from that morning she only remembers how she pushed between two robust women, who smelt of warm butter, was overcharged by some rude teenager, and how after a long walk through labyrinthine roads and curious bouts with unfamiliar food, she finally breathed a sigh of relief, when savoring her cup of coffee, and sat in the deceptive ease of an early morning lull with her youngest daughter, talking about nothing but what they may eat for lunch, deciding her day with the rest of the city, as the sun gleamed brightly in the corner, in a small café in Paris.




Abriana Jetté is a poet, essayist, and educator from Brooklyn, New York. She is the editor of the forthcoming anthology “Best Emerging Poets of 2013”, and teaches for St. John’s University and the City University of New York.