The “Based on a true story” disclaimer

The 1963 film The Great Escape, directed by John Sturges, contains this disclaimer at the end of the opening credits:

“This is a true story. Although the characters are composites of real men, and time and place have been compressed,- every detail of the escape is the way it really happened.”

Every detail? Well, that’s not entirely true.

But let’s charitably assume the message of this disclaimer is to instill within the audience the knowledge that a mass escape on the scale of the one depicted in the film did in fact happen, with all the ingenuity and scheming to boot; that a human achievement that ambitious is not purely fictional and should be taken as a historical record of sorts – a glimpse into the amazing and terrifying things which actual people did endure.

In case you don’t know – in case you’re the intended audience of this disclaimer – the film dramatizes the escape attempt of Allied prisoners during World War II from a German prisoner of war camp. The men – mostly British and Commonwealth airmen – dug, over several months, sophisticated tunnels. A night was planned for the breakout, and 76 men escaped before camp guards raised the alarm. After a frantic manhunt throughout the German countryside and transit system, most of the men were caught. Only three escaped to freedom. 50 were executed by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police. The escape was a remarkable show of ingenuity, teamwork, patriotic devotion, and perseverance. It was the sort of event which deserves to be memorialized in film. It’s a story the world needs to hear.

Yes, the film is fictionalized. There were no actual motorcycle chases as shown in the movie- star Steve McQueen requested their addition, wishing to showcase his skill as a capable rider. And let’s grant that the added fictional elements probably make for a flashier, more cinematic experience. We should thank the filmmakers for expediting what was in reality an excruciatingly slow and laborious process. After all – the film is already nearly three hours long. But those oddities which make the story all the more unbelievable – the scale of the operation, the mass movement of dirt (hiding dirt is harder than it sounds), the manufacture of clothes, scrounging of precious resources, forging of documents – all those things are preserved. They make you want to say jeez, what a pain in the ass these guys were to the Germans. I wish more had made it to freedom. They worked so hard to get back in the fight.

But let’s return to that disclaimer – would you believe that the events depicted in the film could have happened even if you knew nothing about POW camps? If you knew nothing about the Second World War? If you were just a regular ignoramus? The movie came out 18 years after the end of the war – Western audiences could easily remember a time when Nazis were not simply an abstract, cartoonishly evil enemy. Many of the actual men involved in the escape served as consultants for the film. They requested that the filmmakers omit certain details, out of concern for future POWs (don’t want to give away all their secrets). That’s how fresh the war and prison camps were at the time. But movies, like all art, must endure the famed “test of time.” Will there be an audience, one day, which will pass off The Great Escape as ludicrous, escapist fantasy? Let’s hope our history textbooks never get that bad. But – just in case – the filmmakers make sure you know. This is a true story.

You’ve no doubt seen lots of movies which insist on informing you of their own historical veracity. But the disclaimer, once stated, needs to make a case for its own inclusion. Some stories of human achievement are beyond conception – think 127 Hours. Others are more widely acceptable due to the omnipresence of their subjects – The Big Short, Apollo 13, Zero Dark Thirty, and (no matter what Twitter says) First Man. Still more are not well-known stories, but are entirely conceivable in their own right – Captain Phillips, Defiance, Valkyrie. All of these movies change the narrative, often with the effect of heightening the implausibility of their stories. We have to accept that that’s what all good storytellers do. They take the bones of a story, and lay over them details, details, imaginative details – until we have a fleshed-out movie. Loose interpretations will claim to be “inspired by” true events – a wise distinction.

Disclaimers are common practice in film. But we wonder as to the origin of the practice – someone, somewhere, said to themselves no, nobody would believe this. Some movies which take well-known stories and distort them beyond recognition feel no need to “own up” to their deceptive alterations. Should an audience be made aware, at all times, to the extent that what they’re watching is based on historical fact? To what extent material has been outright altered? To what extent it’s conjecture?

Well, this raises questions about the audience itself. If you think your audience is dumb, if you think your audience takes the Oliver Stone version of history as archival footage – then yes, you need to hold their hand all the way. If you think your audience is critical, is willing to pursue the true story themselves (if it interests them), is full of people willing to make up their own minds – then why bother? If nothing else, your movie is merely serving to expose the true stories to a wider audience, hopefully providing a few entertaining hours in the process.

The Great Escape does just that. It’s not the most thrilling movie nor the most action-packed. The drama is plain, procedural. Is it a great movie because it’s based on a true story? In part, yes. It is about men who fought, inch-by-inch, for freedom. The film explicitly honors those shot as it closes: “This picture is dedicated to the fifty.” It is made in remembrance of men who died at the hands of tyranny. It is an ode to real people. So, yes, the narrative would have less power if you didn’t know that real people actually did go through much the same thing.

I usually don’t find the infamous “disclaimer” to be necessary, nor does it betray a sense of faith on the part of the filmmakers in the strength of their material. But The Great Escape is one of those rare cases where it is essential.

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