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Beach vet consulted on The Great Escape

Nov. 11 is a day of Remembrance…lest we forget. Each year there are fewer veterans around to keep their stories alive. How will their courage be remembered? It sure won't be in Hollywood movies which have ignored or distorted Canadian history since the early days of cinema.

I grew up with a bomb in my basement. In the 1950s keeping an RCAF training bomb was not that bizarre. Fathers came home from the Second World War with souvenirs. Kids of the ‘Baby Boom’ years watched cowboy shows and war movies, yet there never seemed to be any Canadians depicted on the beaches of France or liberating Amsterdam. Epics like The Longest Day (1962) had John Wayne, but weren't quite long enough to show any of our boys. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division advanced further inland than any other Allied forces on D-Day. A new generation might be forgiven for thinking Normandy was about Saving Private Ryan (1998), although in reality, British and Canadian soldiers outnumbered Americans.

Among the 21,400 Canadian troops landing at Juno Beach was badly injured James Doohan (Scotty on Star Trek). A joke of the day had Canucks at the front, Brits guarding their back and Americans in the rear making a movie.

My favourite war movie was The Great Escape (1963), based on the 1950 book by Paul Brickhill, himself a prisoner of war at Stalag Luft 111, the isolated camp built specially for Allied airmen. When Hollywood came calling, Brickhill suggested the studio hire Beach resident Wally Floody as their technical advisor, saying Floody knew more about the tunnels than anyone because he built them. RCAF Spitfire pilot Floody was the real-life ‘tunnel king’ who designed the tunnels for the mass breakout in the cold, early hours of March 25, 1944.

Floody spent most of 1962 in Munich, Germany making sure the studio-built POW camp and tunnels looked authentic. What everyone remembers about The Great Escape are the thrilling heroics of Steve McQueen on a motorcycle and James Garner in a stolen airplane. This made for a terrific adventure and sold lots of popcorn, but it was highly fictionalized.

Great care was taken for the details of camp life. Floody felt that the film was magnificent and true to the spirit of the story, saying, “I knew you were getting it right because I'm having nightmares.”
Hollywood used the usual ‘this is a true story’ prologue, but to find out what really happened read The Tunnel King (2004) by Barbara Hehner or A Gallant Company (2000) by Jonathan Vance. The airmen showed great ingenuity, bravery and determination, but there were no motorcycle or air escapes. The American flyers had already been moved to another camp. About 150 Canadians were active in the escape plans. Of the nine Canadians who made it out the tunnel, six were among the 50 murdered by the Gestapo on Hitler’s orders.

No other escape had such an impact on the war and Canadians were key figures. If you watch The Great Escape with your kids, explain that these ‘flyboys’ weren't much older than kids themselves, not like in the movie. (Actor Donald Pleasance really had been a POW). Tell them about Wally Floody, in charge of the tunnels, who was buried alive twice, but kept on digging. At www.canadaatwar.ca you can read about George McGill of Toronto (Executed 1944), whose family was in the coal business. He had a little boy, Peter. Alfred ‘Tommy’ Thompson went from selling insurance in Toronto to bailing out over Germany and discussing ice hockey with Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe. He became the first Canadian POW and spent almost six years in German camps. Thompson escaped Stalag Luft 111, was recaptured, survived to tell about it and became a judge.

The last man of the 76 through the tunnel was Keith Ogilvie of Ottawa, a Spitfire pilot who once shot down a German bomber which was attacking Buckingham Palace. Who says Canadian history is dull? It was another Spitfire fighter pilot, Charlie Fox of Guelph, who wounded Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (the ‘Desert Fox’) in France.

Films do breathe new life into old stories, but whose stories do they tell? The worst case of ‘this film is based on a true story’ misappropriation is Oscar-winning U-571 (2001), which showed Americans capturing a German U-boat along with its Enigma machine and codes. The real British Navy capture of U-110 happened in May of 1941 before the U.S. entered the war.

Watch movies with a critical eye. Why is Brad Pitt ingloriously wearing the insignia and shoulder patch of the ‘Black Devils’, the joint U.S.-Canada commando unit of the Second World War?

People will say it's just a movie, escapist entertainment. Maybe, but popular culture does have an effect on our collective mindset. Those who harbour a myopic world view or an ‘us versus them’ mentality often perceive ‘the other’ as evil. Demonizing others makes the world a more dangerous place. When we see other peoples as less human, it is a lot easier to bomb them. George Santayana said that “only the dead have seen the end of war.”

May we find peace in our time.

“Be heroes in an army of construction.”
- Helen Keller

1 Responses »

  1. Well stated Bernie. We all are influenced by what is on the big screen and sorry to say, many of us make decisions and form opinions based on these apparent real life depictions. Thank you for putting these stories into perspective. jj

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