The Great Escape – The Reckoning, on Channel 4: Investigation of the Executed Stalag Luft III POWs

There’s barely a British person alive who hasn’t seen or heard of the hit war film The Great Escape, actually the chances are it will turn up on daytime BBC Two in the Christmas period. Of course everyone too is aware that it’s a highly dramatised version of events, especially seeing how the 1963 film crow barred in Steve McQueen along with other American actors to sell it to a US audience.

The Great Escape: The Reckoning retells the story of how 50 Allied prisoners of war were recaptured by the Nazis after tunnelling out of their camp on March 24, 1944 only to be executed despite treaties set up in the Geneva Convention which said that 30 days of solitary confinement was sufficient punishment for POWs. This documentary centres on the RAF enquiry, lead by Frank McKenna, to track down those responsible for the deaths and bring them to justice.

The Great Escape: The Reckoning Reconstructions

The Great Escape: The Reckoning used extensive reconstructions alongside interviews with historians and some of the escapees who were fortunate enough to survive. It’s a story many people are familiar with and in particular know how it concludes but few would know what happened after the failed escape plan or that in reality the airmen met lonely deaths, with the order to kill coming from Hitler himself.

Only three out of the 76 men who broke out of Stalag Luft III managed to avoid being captured following a hunt by Gestapo officers and a handful of those who were involved in the plan were spared. As a result RAF police tracked down the killers one-by-one under orders from Prime Minister Anthony Eden.

 

The scenes slid effortlessly between the individual escapees’ journeys and McKenna’s research, juxtaposing the two investigations although the jumps in months or in some cases years, coupled with the limited running time, left occasional holes in the narrative.

Frank McKenna Investigates the Execution of Stalag Luft III Escapees

During the interrogations by McKenna’s team it was shown that unsurprisingly most of the perpetrators were apologetic for their actions as they were simply obeying orders, a statement echoed by one escapee Alan Bryett who understands their claims. The most moving point was the account of the from the officer who killed The Great Escape mastermind Roger Bushell, where his daughter reveals she still does not know if her father was guilty or not for his actions.

The heavy use of re-enactment footage damaged the presentation and brings forth the idea that maybe a one-off TV film might have been more resourceful in revealing the outcome, or something along the lines of 1066: The Battle for Middle Earth which brilliantly blurred the lines of drama and documentary without compromising on either. But then this approach would lose the informative and frequently touching interviews from the former POWs.

Perhaps the most difficult problem with The Great Escape: The Reckoning was that it suffered a schedule clash, being shown at exactly the same as a BBC Churchill dramatisation Into The Storm that is bound to be the War-based programme likely to gain the most attention on the day. Regardless this show was at times fascinating but the reliance on reconstructions left this a somewhat flawed documentary.

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