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Beach veterans Albert Wallace and Al Prince speak at Fox Theatre

Above: From left to right, Albert Wallace, Al Prince and author Ted Barris

By Ryan Hurley

            The Great Escape bookstore, in conjunction with author Ted Barris and Dundurn Press, hosted a screening of the 1963 classic movie at the Fox Theatre on Sunday, April 6. The theatre was packed with people who were there to see the movie, but also to hear the real story behind the famous film. The film tells the story of Allied airmen wo escaped from a German prisoner of war camp in 1944. Of those who escaped, most were recaptured and 50 were executed by the Gestapo. This led to outrage among the Allies, who swore vengeance on the Germans after the war.
           Ted Barris gave an excellent talk regarding the difference between Hollywood interpretations of historical events and reality. “Hollywood never let the truth get in the way of telling a good story,” he is quoted as saying on his website. While that may be true, it doesn’t seem that the actual events behind the story were any less interesting than the Hollywood production. The movie itself is loosely based on a non-fiction book, by Paul Brickhill, an Australian POW who participated in the escape.
           Barris’ book attempts to tell the larger story of the events surrounding the escape. He manages to relate what happened in both an interesting and informative way. He does not lose the reader in historical jargon and the Byzantine details of an academic history. The narrative of the book is told through very well researched accounts of those who experienced the escape firsthand. This firsthand approach to history is interesting and relatable, but more importantly, it’s accessible to everyone.
           This accessibility was enhanced by the attendance of two veterans who were able to answer questions from the audience regarding their experiences. Albert Wallace was an RCAF gunner who was shot down during the war. After being imprisoned, he became a member of the escape committee, eventually working to disperse sand from the tunnels. Those who did this were nicknamed penguins, because of the way they walked when smuggling illicit sand to places where it could be disposed of. Al Prince was a Canadian who served in the RAF and flew aircraft that brought Allied POWs back to England at the end of the war. The two men were great speakers and were very well received.
           This event shows us the importance of remembering history. Behind the glorified version we see on the movie screen, there were once real human beings. While its dated nature makes it easy for us to view the 1963 movie today with a grain of salt, we must remember that a few shiny special effects don’t make our movies any more accurate. Though movies may be entertaining, it is important to remember the real stories and people behind them. Ted Barris’ book does an excellent job of piecing together the tale behind the famous film. Perhaps, with a better understanding of the reality of war—without the glitzy Hollywood propaganda—future generations will avoid it.