70 Years After: The Great Escape

There was a great ceremony in Zagan, Poland this week, to mark the 70th anniversary of the escape at Stalag Luft III, the German prisoner of war camp popularized in the 1963 film The Great Escape, which starred Steve McQueen, James Garner, Sir Richard Attenborough and James Coburn, as well as the great Scottish actor Angus Lennie as Sir Archibald Ives, who keeps McQueen company in “The Cooler.” At the ceremony on Monday, members of the Royal Air Force carried pictures of the original prisoners. One speaker properly said, “They were not prisoners of war. They were prisoners at war.”

50 soldiers set out from the site of Stalag Luft III to a war cemetery to honor the 70th anniversary of The Great Escape.

50 soldiers set out from the site of Stalag Luft III to a war cemetery to honor the 70th anniversary of The Great Escape.

Strangely enough, I have some personal experience with these men. In May of 2004, I was living on the South Bank in London. That morning, we heard on the radio that six former prisoners at the camp were going to reunite for a private event at the Imperial War Museum that afternoon. Using nothing more than a business card that identified me as a writer, I talked my way into the event, which was incredible. I got to meet two of the surviving escapees, squadron leader Bertram “Jimmy” James and flight lieutenant Sydney Dowse, both of whom since passed away in 2008.

It was also thrilling for me that several actors from the film adaptation were there as well, including John Leyton, George Mikell, Tom Adams and Angus Lennie. I got to spend a good half-hour with Angus talking about the making of the film, the London stage, and working with actors like Alec Guinness. “People in my business have great strength,” he said. “I used to go and see the films and think I could do that. How could I do that? I was just a little boy who wanted to sing and dance. I think it was determination, too. At the age of 16, I was in London performing. If you did that today, you’d end up sleeping on the Strand.”

James Garner and the late Donald Pleasance in a publicity still from The Great Escape (1963).

James Garner and the late Donald Pleasance in a publicity still from The Great Escape (1963).

I also spoke briefly with Tim Carroll, author of The Great Escape From Stalag Luft III about the connections between the film and the real-life events of the escape. “There’s a moment in the film that captures the experience for me, and it’s the moment just as Donald Pleasance, playing the forger, is killed by the Germans,” he said. “He says to James Garner, ‘Thanks for saving me.’ That’s what these men cared about.”

In honor of the anniversary, I thought it was worth reprinting my original story. Enjoy.

THE GREAT ESCAPERS REUNITE IN LONDON (2004)

Trolley Escape

Jimmy James and Sydney Dowse with a recreation of one of the escape trolleys used to flee from Stalag Luft III.

“For you, the war is over,” said Nazis to Allied aircrew that were shot down over Europe in World War II and captured. That was not good enough for the prisoners of Stalag Luft III, a POW camp 100 miles southeast of Berlin run by the Luftwaffe. Dozens of prisoners spent eleven months excavating three escape tunnels, “Tom, Dick and Harry,” with bed boards and stolen materials while others forged fake identification and scrapped together civilian clothing.

The March 24, 1944 escape of 76 prisoners is one of the best-known episodes of World War II and was fictionalized in the 1963 film, “The Great Escape.” The 60th anniversary of the escape was marked by a reunion on March 16 at the Imperial War Museum in London. Attending the event were two escapees who made it out of the tunnel, Squadron Leader Bertram “Jimmy” James, 89, and Flight Lieutenant Sydney Dowse, 84. Fourteen other veterans attending included Flight Lieutenant Alex Cassie, a skilled artist who played a crucial role as a forger of documents and Flight Lieutenant Ken Rees, who was caught in the tunnel when the Germans discovered it and inspired Steve McQueen’s role in the film as “The Cooler King.”

The unprecedented escape was a major disgrace for the Nazis and led to tragedy for many of the escapees. Out of the 76 men who left the tunnel, only three made it to safety and 50 of the recaptured prisoners were murdered by the Gestapo on Hitler’s direct orders.

Read more about The Great Escape after the jump.

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Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation

ImageI’m doing a lot of interviews with cool people right now, but I wanted to jump on for a few minutes and add a little back story to a story that was published today. In a feature I think turned out pretty good, I interviewed the great singer-songwriter Joe Henry and his talented filmmaker brother David about their new collaboration, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him. You can check out the resulting feature, “A Little Pryor Love,” at Kirkus Reviews here.

Now, I know a lot about Richard Pryor—we’re talking professional-level lore about his comedy, his process, and his deeply screwed-up life. Not only did I read his autobiography and several other books about the man, but I own maybe three box sets that chronicle his decades of comedy and dozens of associated albums. To me, he was in that pantheon that includes George Carlin and Bill Hicks where I just couldn’t get enough of the man. Much of comedy is of its time. People like these—and let me include contemporary comedians like Tig Notaro in that lineup—somehow breach that barrier.

In these very early interviews, Joe and David both said they were the same way; swapping Richard Pryor albums and staying up late to see him on television. I had heard a rumor that Joe keeps a portrait of Richard in his office, and I was pleased to find out that not only was the rumor true, but it still hangs there today. Anyway, the point is that I took this book with me on vacation to the heart of desolate Mesa Verde National Park and was just absorbed by it, and learned a great many things about Pryor that I—and in fact, not many other people—knew at all about the fiery rise and doomed arc of his life.

I tend to write long anyway, so I’m grateful to my editors at Kirkus Reviews for as much rope as I get, but there’s a lot that gets left out of these stories. I always liked liner notes, so here’s a couple of unpublished bonuses for you travelers who followed this story down the rabbit hole. Here’s David Henry on the dual nature of Richard Pryor:

“Almost everybody we talked to still absolutely love him, even if they were brutalized by him or betrayed in some way. He was an irresistible person. But no, we didn’t soft-pedal any of his behavior. He was very forthright about using coke to wild excess, but he always placed it in the past. He never owned up to being a current user. He could still tell the truth but he wouldn’t admit that he wasn’t going to stop.”

And here’s Joe, when I asked him if the experience of producing or collaborating with so many different artists (and it’s a laundry list) comes to mind when he thinks about the mad life of Richard Pryor

“It does have an effect. Anytime I’m that deeply invested with another artist, it changes things for me in ways that I sometimes understand, and more deeply in ways that I don’t. I think the most visceral way I can suggest studying Richard has changed me is to be so aware of how vulnerable one has to be, in the grander sense of the word, to be able to give something back of substance.”

Just to add to the experience, I wanted to share the song that started this whole ride. In 2000, Joe wrote a song that later appeared on his 2001 album Scar, and featured accompaniment by the legendary jazz trumpeter Ornette Coleman. It’s an extraordinary piece of art in which Joe sings in the persona of Richard Pryor.

You should also check out Joe’s Esquire article that followed, “How to Write a Song.” And on David’s behalf, I would also encourage you to check out his new movie, Pleased to Meet Me. Although the film hasn’t been sold yet, there’s a lot of interest in it, and it’s a very strange comedy starring John Doe from X, Aimee Mann, Loudon Wainwright III, and Joe Henry. There’s a great trailer on the site as well.

And by all means, go check out Furious Cool. It’s a fantastic examination of one of America’s most gifted, searing and flawed personas. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite moments with Richard Pryor from Live on the Sunset Strip.

Keep in mind, almost everything Richard Pryor ever put on tape is NSFW, so be forewarnedit’s not at all my intention to offend anyone, so be aware there’s some hard language here. But give yourself a few minutes of open-mindedness and you’ll experience a great moment of enlightenment on the part of a guy who was often not very self-aware. Ladies and gentlemen, Richard Pryor.

Life of Crime

Author’s Note: An abridged version of this essay appeared at Kirkus Reviews.

“Ah, hell.”

This, said aloud as my wife and I returned from the gym this morning. She knew immediately that someone had died, because it’s what I always say when I skim the news in the morning and stumble across something sad. It’s the exact same thing I said when Hunter Thompson committed suicide in 2005, and when Don Westlake skipped out on us on a Mexican vacation in 2008.

“Who is it,” she asked.

“Elmore Leonard passed away,” I said. She knew, as I did, that Leonard had a stroke a few weeks ago, but not much else.Elmore Leonard

“Is he the cranky one?”

“Which cranky one,” I asked.

“The one who was really mean.”

“No,” I said, wondering which one of the half-a-dozen mean-spirited crime novelists I had interviewed, to my delight. In her head, James Ellroy is the one in the pink sweater vest, Richard Price is the guy who wrote that Tom Cruise movie, and… now I think I know which one she thinks is the mean one, but we’ll leave that for another day.

“No,” I said. “He was really very gentle. Well-spoken. He was nice.”

I didn’t know Elmore Leonard, not well enough to comfortably call him “Dutch,” but I liked him a hell of a lot. I don’t even think he was the most gifted crime novelist in the trade, but I think he had as much influence on pop culture as nearly anyone in the genre in the past fifty years.

I first met him in 2000, long before I started writing book reviews and interviewing authors. He had come to the Tattered Cover in Denver to promote one of my favorite novels of his, Pagan Babies. It was the pinnacle of that incredible decade when Leonard managed to produce Rum Punch, Out of Sight, the novels that inspired Justified, not to mention Get Shorty and Be Cool. I don’t remember too much about the encounter except that the great author laughed out loud when I called Out of Sight a romance novel. He thought that novel had been misinterpreted, and that it was indeed a love story. I think he was happy when Steven Soderburgh got it right with George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.

I finally got to interview him in 2007 for the historical novel Up In Honey’s Room. That was quite a day. I was working on the Mystery Special for Kirkus Reviews and had to squeeze in Elmore Leonard between Donald Westlake and Walter Mosley just before Christmas.

I was always impressed how easy it was to talk about his work. “I have a good time writing books, and I don’t want it to be work, ever,” he said, which may have been a clue to why it was so easy for him. This, despite being the guy who wrote his “Ten Rules of Writing” for The New York Times partially as a solution to the “Where do you get your ideas?” question that grates on writers of his caliber. He also spoke about his predilection for writing about criminals rather than law enforcement.

“I like to write about the criminals because most of them are either dumb, or it’s a guy who’s made a mistake,” he said. “While he might be trying to go straight, you never know what he’s going to do next because he has the ability to break the law. I kind of like these guys. I really have affection for them, even the bad guys. The poor guys are just dumb. I could never do, for example, a serial killer, because I could never find any affection for somebody who just wants to kill people.”

I also liked—and continue to like in current pulp writers—the fact that there is never any pretension in people like Elmore Leonard about why they write in “The Genre.” (Bear in mind, this is a guy who lived to see 3:10 to Yuma, The Big Bounce and 52-Pick-Up made into movies. Twice. Each.)

“It was always the market,” he told me. “With westerns, all the pulp magazines were done by the end of the 1950’s. Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post were paying the most for westerns, but they were even done. That was my goal, just to hit the slick magazines with my westerns. But my agents at the time said my stories were a little too relentless.”

“These stores always appeal because there are obvious good guys and bad guys,” he continued. “There is also always an ending to the story, unlike literary fiction, where you’re not always sure what the point is. Ed McBain and I were on Good Morning America once and we were asked to what we attributed the renewed interest in crime fiction. We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘We thought they were always popular.’”

Crime, yes. Mysteries, not so much. “I have never considered my books mysteries,” he said. “There’s no mystery to it. The reader always knows what’s going on. But there is always a crime. There’s always a crime. There’s always a gun.”

I caught up with him the following year to talk about Road Dogs, the novel that brought back Jack Foley from Out of Sight, as well as Cundo Rey from La Brava and Dawn Navarro from Riding the Rap. It was a good conversation—a lot of talk of prison culture and Jack Foley’s nature—“He just can’t stop,” Leonard said. “He’s robbed too many now. In my mind, he will rob another bank. The cops are waiting when he comes out, but that’s a mistake; he’s just opening an account. But I want the reader to always wonder if he’s going to rob a bank again. There’s always a chance.”

Then something happened that still makes me smile to remember him. Leonard was on page eight of the novel that would become Djibouti, his second-to-last novel to be published to date, including last year’s Raylan. He gave me the rundown of the plot as he understood it at the time—he never knew the ending when he began a book—and then says, “Hang on, and I’ll read you what I have so far.” And then he proceeded to read me the beginning of Djibouti right from his typewriter.

There will be lots of tributes coming down now, already starting with The New York Times and other news outlets, all of which will cover Leonard’s extraordinary career in detail. I’ll be interested to see what his fellow writers have to say myself. For now, I’m just really glad to have met him, and spoken with him about a lifetime’s worth of great stories. I will always remember him as a guy in a Detroit suburb, happily banging away on a typewriter.

I’ll leave you with a nice moment that Leonard shared with me at the end of one of our conversations.

“I threw out the first pitch at a Seattle Mariners game,” he said. “It wasn’t a special occasion, but I did get to throw out the first pitch. I practiced for it that morning. I went out in the backyard and measured out sixty feet and I kept throwing at a wire fence to make sure I could throw it in a straight line. When, when you get to the ballpark, they don’t want you messing up the mound, so you’re only 50 feet from home plate.”

elinuniform“It was a lot of fun,” he remembered. “The first time I ever got on the (Detroit Tigers) field, I was with Mike Lupica. He took me down on the field and introduced me to Ernie Harwell and the guys. I told them, for fifty years, I been wanting to come down here. Ernie Harwell says, ‘Why didn’t you call me?’”

Home run, Dutch. Rest easy.