Richard Attenborough as Roger Bartlett, aka “Big X”, RAF Squadron Leader and escape artist
Sagan-Silesia (now Żagań, Poland), Spring 1944
Film: The Great Escape
Release Date: July 4, 1963
Director: John Sturges
Wardrobe Credit: Bert Henrikson
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Today would have been the 100th birthday of English actor and director Richard Attenborough, born August 29, 1923 in Cambridge. One of this prolific stage and screen actor’s best-known roles was leading the ensemble cast of The Great Escape (1963) as Roger Bartlett, aka “Big X”, the Royal Air Force officer who organized the mass breakout from Stalag Luft III.
Bartlett was based on real-life RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, whose birthday was only one day after (and 13 years before) the actor who portrayed him—born August 30, 1910 in Springs, Transvaal, South Africa. Bushell pursued his secondary education in England, first at Wellington College before studying law at Cambridge, where the athletic scholar distinguished himself as a champion skier. A skiing accident scarred Bushell’s left eye for the rest of his life, represented in The Great Escape by a scar painted over Richard Attenborough’s opposite eye as the fictionalized Roger Bartlett.
“He was a big, tempestuous man with broad shoulders and the most chilling, pale-blue eyes I ever saw,” Paul Brickhill described Bushell in his excellent 1950 chronicle The Great Escape, which formed the basis for the film of the same name. “After it had been sewn up, the corner of his eye drooped permanently, and the effect on his look was strangely sinister and brooding.”
The adventurous Bushell yearned to fly and was commissioned as a Royal Air Force officer in 1932. He continued practicing law, defending fellow RAF fliers including Paddy Byrne, with whom he would eventually be imprisoned at Stalag Luft III. After England entered World War II, Bushell was given command of No. 92 Squadron and promoted to Squadron Leader (OF-3). In May 1940, Bushell was leading his squadron against their first enemy engagement and damaged two German planes before he himself was shot down, crash-landing his Supermarine Spitfire fighter in occupied France. The downed Bushell was quickly captured by the Germans and transferred into a prisoner-of-war camp for Allied airmen. “If the Germans had realized what a troublesome man they had caught, they would possibly have shot him then,” Brickhill editoralized. Continue reading