Buridan’s Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges’ ‘The Great Escape’

Escape in John Sturge’s The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.

The Great Escape
John Sturges
12 May 2020

Based loosely on Paul Brickhill‘s 1950 first-hand account, The Great Escape (1963), directed by John Sturges, carefully recounts the story of a mass escape of Allied prisoners from a newly devised, high-security German POW camp. Sturges’ film is one of the great ensemble works of the era, featuring such marquee-worthy names as Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, and James Colburn.

But it isn’t just the stars that make this film the memorable experience; this is a true ensemble film in the sense that it is more than a mere collection of recognizable actors. The point of the film is to examine how finely etched individuals function within and in support of a larger group. “Ensemble” is, of course, a French loan word deriving from the Latin conjunction in +simul, meaning literally “in, at the same time”. What better definition of the circumstance of the POW can be found? They are “in” at the same time; they are in it together. The problem then becomes how to get out together.

The very opening scene depicts the prisoners arriving at the camp. They get out of the transport vehicles and immediately begin roving the grounds, looking for weaknesses to exploit, seeking gaps in security, examining the terrain, determining the distance of the tree line. Before they bother to inquire as to where they will actually be living, what room and what bed they will be inhabiting before they even get a firm grasp of which of their colleagues and acquaintances have wound up at this particular camp with them, men such as Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson), Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen), and Robert Hendley (James Garner) are already fully engaged in sniffing out opportunities for escape, paths to flight, the means to freedom.

They are determined to be free. But what, precisely, is the quality of this determination? We can take that term in at least two ways. On the one hand, they can be “determined” in the sense of “to insist upon, to have made a firm resolution”. This is determination as free choice coupled with commitment to that choice. Under this mode of understanding, they decide, individually, that to be free is desirable. They are not compelled to such a desire, they rationally choose it.

On the other hand, they might be “determined” in the sense of “caused to occur in a specific way by a preceding and independent cause”. This is determination as the lack of free will, determination to which we are merely resigned, whether our lives are determined by the laws of nature or society or fate. This is determination that makes us the puppets of some other causal force, some design (or lack thereof) not our own. Under this mode of understanding, we are susceptible to the objection to common views of free will raised by Arthur Schopenhauer: we may choose our actions based on desire but we do not choose those desires.

These men are determined to be free, but in which sense? Are they constrained to pursue freedom owing to the traditions of honor and warfare? Are they constrained to pursue freedom owing to some basic human impulse that we are powerless to deny? Or do they desire freedom as an act of will? That is, do they choose freedom or has it, in some manner, chosen them?

To my mind, questions such as these and the way they get worked out in this narrative are what make The Great Escape not simply a great ensemble film but also, and more importantly, a meditation on what it means to be “in it together”. The film demonstrates that no simple solution to the problem of freedom and free will is viable. Choice happens within a texture of action and decision that cannot so readily be teased out or reduced to simple analysis.

The camp is supervised by Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger (Hannes Messemer), a man of honor who clearly venerates the discipline and mutual respect between war combatants and disdains the Gestapo. Early in the film, Luger warns the ranking officer among the POWs (the Senior British Officer, or SBO), Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald), that the German authorities have become increasingly impatient with escapees. This particular camp, Luger attests, was designed to house the prisoners with the greatest reputation for flight; the facilities are new and intended to keep the men firmly imprisoned.

Ramsey reminds Luger that it is considered a soldier’s sworn duty to escape such camps, that even if one’s flight is ultimately unsuccessful and the soldier is recaptured, at the very least his attempt would have drawn vital manpower and resources away from the front. Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Von Luger recognizes and even seemingly admires Ramsey’s resolve but he is also keenly aware of the mounting pressures of the Gestapo, who figure in this film as a force that is outside of the honor of war, that fails to abide by the principles of respect for one’s enemy through which war is supposedly conducted.

Von Luger’s tense relationship with the Gestapo, and the differing conceptions of war they represent, is clarified by another early scene. Gestapo officers accompany the prisoner Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), known as “Big X”, into von Luger’s office, releasing Bartlett into the custody of the camp. Bartlett is the veteran of several escape attempts and is considered one of the greatest flight risks in a camp full of them. The Gestapo had retained Bartlett, interrogated and tortured him, and scarred him near his eye to clearly mark him as an enemy of the Reich. They insist Bartlett be kept in isolation, a suggestion von Luger contemptuously rejects: for him Ir is not an act of oppression, it is a contest of wills on fields of honor; the POW camp is another field of honor. The point is to win the contest of wills, not to force one’s opponent to abandon will altogether.

The Gestapo see it otherwise. War is an extension of the police state; it is fundamentally about suppressing and dominating the other—who is not really even an opponent, merely a problem to be controlled or eliminated. Control and elimination are not approaches limited in their use to dealing with the external enemy; they can be turned toward members of one’s own society. The Gestapo do not hesitate to intimate that failure to control Bartlett will result in harsh discipline for von Luger. Moreover, they warn Bartlett that should he fall into their hands again, he will be shot. This is, of course, an extraordinary way to deal with a POW escapee; it breaches the limits of honor in warfare. But that’s precisely the point: the Gestapo don’t view this as war against an honored adversary; they see it a means to totalizing control.

When the Gestapo prepare to leave they initiate the Nazi salute and register disdain when von Luger responds in a perfunctory manner, without conviction. The lines are drawn but their motivation is not entirely clear. The Gestapo judge what they take to be von Luger’s choice not to abide by the strictures of Nazi behavior. Von Luger doesn’t see himself as a part of the Nazi regime; he is a soldier and a German (perhaps even in that order). Does this mode of being determine his choice or do his choices lead to this mode of being? Is he freer than the seemingly limited Gestapo, beholden as they are to an ideology that clearly restricts them? Or is he just as constrained?

Bartlett is put among the general population of the camp and, in a discussion with Ramsey, soon undertakes the role of the architect of an escape on the grandest of scales. He proposes not to simply encourage and aid a few escapees in sporadic attempts, but rather to organize a mass escape, to tunnel out the maximum possible number of POWs, to confound the enemy and disperse their forces across the landscape in pursuit of 250 men. Bartlett is passionate in his delivery and this gives Ramsey a moment of doubt. He suggests that it almost sounds as though this is personal for Bartlett, as though he is seeking some measure of revenge for the iniquitous manner in which he was treated.

Bartlett clearly is distraught and we might sympathize with Ramsey’s concern. Bartlett, however, is somewhat offended by the suggestion and insists that he acts from duty. That he is honor bound to cause disruption to the enemy, to thwart their efforts from behind the lines of battle. When Ramsey points out that the high command of Germany has relegated the prisoners to the supervision of the Luftwaffe and not the Gestapo, Bartlett erupts. To him, they are all the same. If the high command was so honorable they ought to have rejected Hitler outright.

To Bartlett, the high command, the Luftwaffe, the Gestapo—they are all the same, they are all the enemies to anyone who values freedom. Ramsey endorses Bartlett’s plan but wonders if he has considered the possible consequences. Bartlett, in a steely manner, insists that he has considered the consequences of doing nothing and that those consequences are unacceptable. We might wonder if he has really answered the question.

What is the nature of freedom and choice as foregrounded in these scenes? Like any great film, The Great Escape requires an experience of the whole in order to properly grasp the manner in which it deals with, in this film’s case, the notorious conundrums surrounding free will. But these scenes set the terms of the debate. Who is free to choose and who is constrained by a determined fate to act accordingly? What role does duty play in free choice? If it is my duty to do X, and I do X, can I really be said to have freely chosen to do X?

Why is a commitment to duty with respect to freedom seen as superior to the feelings involved in a desire for revenge (with the pursuit of freedom becoming a means to that end)? Must freedom be always treated as an end in itself or can it be a means to some deeper concern? Which concerns qualify as sufficiently deep to ground desire (whether for freedom or anything else)? Or are we always mere slaves to desire (in the manner Schopenhauer seems to suggest)?

Finally, what role do consequences play in our choices? Do we act because something is right or because it is likely to turn out right? Can we act rightly knowing we cause pain and loss?

Let’s back away for a moment from the film itself to turn to a familiar thought experiment designed to get us a bit closer to the matter at hand in our concern with free will. This is a thought experiment that is sometimes dismissed by celebrated philosophers (neither Baruch Spinoza nor Theodor Adorno thought all that highly of it) and yet, carefully considered, I think it brings to light the complexity of the issue of free will and the need to move beyond simple caricatures of the dilemma involved in choice.

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