The Real Great Escape


ANZAC day celebrates with reverence, our fallen heroes and the spirit of courage they embodied. Stories of heroism maybe rife in hollywood but history preserves a much larger and revealing tome of valiant acts. Take for example The Great Escape, the much revered classic featuring action star Steve McQueen. Whilst the film encourages us to embrace the human capacity for survival, resourcefulness and sheer bravery it is an embellished version. I caught-up with author Jacqueline Cook who’s book ‘The Real Great Escape’, like it’s title, delves beneath the romantic surface of an action classic to reveal the real story behind the First World War’s most daring breakout.

In researching this title, what insights previously unexplored came to surface?
While war always has the same tragic outcome, it was interesting for me to learn that WWI was considered a ‘gentlemen’s war’. For the most part, mutual respect was displayed between not only officers on the same side, but also between enemy officers. Naturally there were exceptions to the rule by recalcitrant individuals—such as the despotic Kommandant Karl Niemeyer who operated Holzminden POW camp for officers—but for the most part, a strict officer code was adhered to. A scant 21 years later when WWII broke out, and beyond, this gentlemen’s code of honour and sense of mutual respect was a distant memory, paving the way for horrific acts committed by both sides.

How has this influenced your historical view and understanding of the human spirit?
As a writer, I have a particular interest in telling stories that reflect the triumphant human spirit. History is littered with incredible factual accounts of ordinary people achieving extraordinary things, and my storytelling radar is always tuned in to identifying these opportunities. None of us really know what lengths we might go to in a pressure cooker or life-threatening situation, and this aspect of human hardwiring is fascinating to read or to view on the big screen. In war, often deeply held beliefs are discarded in favour of survival, while others are prepared to die for their values.

What were the most powerful practices and philosophies that sustained hope and fuelled efforts to escape?
To the prisoners who involved themselves in break out plots, a successful escape meant freedom from humiliating incarceration, the pleasure of cuckolding their captors, and getting back to their comrades to continue the fight against the enemy. The plotting and execution of an escape attempt took the edge off the tedium and gave them a reason to get up every day. It also gave them a sense of hope. When one escape attempt failed, repeated efforts were made—to the great chagrin of their captors.

What are the character qualities vital to survival?
Some servicemen spent the entire war behind barbed wire, many succumbing to extreme depression and mental illness as a result. Humour was used as a survival tool; the prisoners privately lampooned their captors in art and verse, and took every opportunity to openly heckle them. This often earned prisoners long stints in the punishment cells under the barracks but point-scoring against the enemy was a very important psychological device in keeping spirits from plummeting into hopelessness and despair. They also created a micro-society within the camp which reflected life on the outside, such as classes run by experts in their field, church services and competitive sports.

How does creativity and art support survival?
Prisoners engaged in artistic pursuits to help them fritter away the long desolate hours. Many sketched or painted what they could see around them—the camp and surrounding countryside—while others reproduced artwork conjured up from memories of home and happier times. The satirising in sketch of the Germans and verse-writing—whether introspective, poignant or humorous—also helped to take the edge off the reality of their situation. Often the artist gifted a piece of artwork to a fellow prisoner for whom he held great affection. Stage performances were also an important method to stave off the monotony and keep their creative minds stimulated.

What do you hope will be the take-home message of this book?
Time marches on and WWI is no longer part of living memory. So many other wars have taken place since. The book—instigated by mining entrepreneur and executive movie producer, Ross Thomas—was written to honour a group of courageous men whose lives intersected in a terrible place, but whose humour, drive and determination saw them triumph. To this day, many of the descendants still keep in contact with the families of other ex-POWs. The book project prompted family reunions and re-connections that had been lost over the years. In September 2013, around 40 descendants involved with contributing to the book travelled to Holzminden to see the place where their grandfathers and fathers were imprisoned between 1914 and 1918, and were poignantly touched by the experience.

Is this kind of historical retrospect best told through words or could it be conveyed with authenticity on screen?
In raising a film, originality is important. The 1963 movie, The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen, is considered the iconic POW camp tunnel escape movie. Currently I’m working on a film script with my co-writer, Paul Bryan, also set during WWI. It recounts the little-known, real life story of how much of Australia descended into a state of xenophobia and fear at the outbreak of WWI, anticipating an internal uprising from German citizens living peacefully here. The authorities set about arresting a staggering number of Germans and interned them in purpose-built concentration camps all over Australia. The film, titled The Enemy Within, probes the complexities of cultural identity and loyalty in the face of war.

As a screenwriter what is your perspective on the value of a visual story for imparting knowledge of history?
I have a personal interest in telling historical stories, and seek to do so in a way that compels the audience. The art of historical storytelling on the big screen is fraught with challenges as a drama film based on fact will almost certainly contain historical inaccuracies, embellishments and timelines that have been compressed or expanded. Those devoted to historical accuracy find it hard to understand why this is necessary, but where storytelling ‘beats’ are missing in the real narrative, the screenwriter must fill in this gap with something, and sometimes this requires fictionalising in order to join the dots. Drama films are intended as entertainment, as opposed to documentaries which are designed to convey fact. Books like The Real Great Escape, however, seek to tell it like it was.

And which elements of production are most important to this process?
Every team member is critical in the film making process from the producer, writer(s) and director to the crew, financiers and distributors. Naturally a cracking script is vital, as without this, there is no film. But script writing is also a team sport involving not just the writer(s) but script readers and editors to cast a fresh eye over the screenplay and offer seasoned advice through the drafting process. Once the script reaches camera-ready stage, the writer relinquishes their grip on their ‘baby’ so the film can be brought to life on the big screen by the rest of the team.

Jacqueline’s website:

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
Inga Yandell

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