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

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.

Image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay

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.

Richard Attenborough as Bartlett ‘Big X’ and Charles Bronson as Danny ‘Tunnel King’ (© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved. / IMDB)

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.

Putting One’s Ass on the Line: Commitment and Choice

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Buridan’s ass finds himself standing equidistant between two bales of hay. The bales are perfectly equal in size and appeal to appetite. The ass has no reason to pick one over the other, and so, in utter frustration at his inability to come to a rational decision, he perishes of starvation. We can’t persuade the ass to simply consume both bales because the decision will remain as to which one should be consumed first.

The tale of Buridan’s unfortunate beast of burden is what Daniel Dennett would refer to as an “intuition pump” in that it is a fairly simple (undoubtedly too simple, even simplistic) anecdote that appeals to an intuition we might have about a subject—in this case, free will. That intuition, buttressed by the story told, then takes root as a belief concerning the nature of the subject. The clever but misleading aspect of most intuition pumps is not that they don’t reveal anything of importance to the subject (if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have the lasting power they do). The problem with the intuition pump is that we allow them to take the place of the thought they are designed to promote. We point to the story and say “enough said,” rather than “hmm….let’s think about this further; what is left out of account here?”

In this case, the parable of the philosophical ass reveals what many take to be the central premises of (and therefore the central problem with) free will: free will, our intuition insists, depends upon our ability to do otherwise and our ability to base our choices on reason. The latter gives the main force to predicament of Buridan’s ass. The poor fellow needs a reason to munch on one bale rather than the other but there is no basis for preference—being a principled ass, he dies instead of compromising. The former premise (one can always do otherwise) plays a subtler role in this tale. The fact that he dies is, I suppose, meant to suggest the burden of choice faced by our beast of burden. He is (like many of us are when we face difficult choices) haunted by the notion that whichever he picks, the other might have turned out better. Life is hard for an existentialist donkey.

Now, we might come up with all sorts of ways out for our friend. For example, let’s imagine that the ass has a hurt left leg; stepping off to the left hurts more than stepping to the right, so he consumes the bale to the right. “Not fair!” cries the intuition pump. The hurt leg offers a reason for choice that ought not to be there by the rules of the thought experiment. And that is precisely the point. The intuition pump operates through exclusion and oversimplification. As Spinoza famously pointed out (I am paraphrasing): what could be more asinine than dying from such a simple matter? In reality, the ass would choose one or the other—perhaps at random, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the ass would choose irrational food over irrational death—and that would be the rational choice overall (assuming it is a choice).

But this is precisely the point that the intuition pump, when taken on its own and not as a prod to further thought, obscures. The ass’s choice, like any choice, is embedded within a series of actions and choices and circumstances. We like to think of free choice as a person at a crossroads. She can go straight ahead, turn left, or turn right; and we like to imagine that this is all there is to the matter. Of course, that’s absurd. How did she get to the crossroads? Where did she intend to go? Is she arriving somewhere or fleeing someplace? The intuition pump of Buridan’s ass wants us to believe that one decides between a limited number of things in a kind of vacuum. But precious few choices in life work in this manner; perhaps none do. Every decision we make is not a brand new choice with no context.

But this is also why the donkey has to die in this little, perverse tale. Lurking behind this intuition pump is the notion that commitment is absolutely vital to free choice. We aren’t impressed by the notion of free choice as random inclination. Imagine you stand before a screen and every few minutes an X and a Y appear. You can click on either one or click on neither. It doesn’t matter; nothing will change. The X and Y will reappear like clockwork and you can choose again. That is not what we value in free choice; we don’t like the idea of free choice having no efficacy. That’s not choice, its randomness.

Free choice, we assume, ought to lead to some sense of order, not entropy. And yet it can’t be the result of an assumed order either. It has to make a real contribution; it has to make a real difference. The ass dies not because he is foolish, but because (under the terms of this story) he is committed to behaving rationally and finds that this choice offers him no possibility for doing so.

Except it does. He must eat to survive. He has a duty to continue on; this is his commitment to himself as a living entity. This is one of the greatest flaws in our too-swift reading of the ass’s predicament. Most arguments for and against the notion of free will depend on a dualism that can hardly be countenanced. The body is left out of account, as though we are free floating minds that from some great ontological distance direct our bodies to carry out our will. We decide freely (in this dualist scenario), we are free, because we are not part of the world.

So, the world (the physical bodies and forces external to the self—including, in this case, our own bodies) are determined by the quasi-mechanical laws of nature; in order for our choices not to be just another example of law-bound determinism, many thinkers (such as Descartes, but in a far subtler manner even Kant) posit a breach between our world-bound body and our liberated soul, identifying the “true self” with the latter. The soul is identified with God and His gift of free will, the body is identified with the ordered and unforgiving mechanical universe. So, of course, the donkey eats because he is not truly free; he is welded to the body. We can almost imagine the warden confronting us and our put-upon donkey to buttress the distinction between our freedom and his unfreedom: Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me.

Embodied Willing as the Great Escape

Charles Bronson as Danny ‘Tunnel King’ (Criterion)

Of course, the problem here is we are bodies in the world and any notion of free will worth preserving has to take account of that ineluctable fact. Decisions worth preserving are not simply acts of a disembodied mind carried out by an enslaved, obedient body. This is the view of the Gestapo in The Great Escape. The Nazi regime is the sacrosanct mind that knows best how the recalcitrant world ought to be fashioned and any entity, like the POWs and especially Bartlett, standing in the way must be eliminated. The discipline of the Gestapo is its subservience to the Nazi order, a manner of subservience they attempt to disseminate through intimidation and force.

Bartlett, Ramsey, and von Luger find themselves in a far more difficult position with respect to freedom and choice. They recognize that they are not mere bodies but also that they are not mere minds floating beyond consequence. Like our donkey, Bartlett and von Luger realize that they are putting their asses on the line. Both seem to feel that their honor is predicated upon accepting those consequences and being willing to suffer them.

But, of course, Bartlett, in his fervor for honor and perhaps revenge, seems to have missed the point of Ramsey’s question about consequence. Bartlett, after all, is not the only one who might suffer, not the only one who may have to face those consequences. Perhaps Bartlett doesn’t see that quite so clearly. After all, he is the one who was threatened with being shot. No mention was made of that becoming a general policy, aside from some vague suggestions by von Luger to Ramsey concerning the impatience of the Reich with respect to escapees.

Of course, one accepts that one might be shot in flight. That, somehow, is not the consequence of concern. It is a different matter to be shot in cold blood after being recaptured. The difference seems to lie in the nature of the death. When you are shot fleeing a prison camp, you are shot in a mode of action. You may escape the bullet or you may not. It is not a foregone conclusion, no matter how unlikely a positive outcome may be. Once you are caught and shot by a firing squad, no possibilities remain. No chance holds; there’s no honor in it, to put it in terms familiar from these kinds of films.

Now, this gives us an insight into free will and the desire for freedom that Buridan’s ass obscures. Choice occurs in motion. The intuition pump imagines a totalizing present where the ass is perfectly perched between two bales of hay. There is no account of how the poor creature got there, no account of what led into that moment and what the ass had in mind to do later. Choice does not occur in a frozen present. It, like our embodied nature, is bound up in time.

Choice isn’t perfectly free (whatever that would mean in reality) because each moment, each choice, is conditioned by the moments and choices that precede it. Each choice is arrived at through a projection into the future of the possible consequences and benefits deriving from that choice. That doesn’t mean that every choice falls under the category of mere compulsion. We shape ourselves in movement. Better to be killed in our motion toward freedom than to be resigned to captivity.

Choice is always a moving target and the precise mixture of reason, impulse, and desire is never clear, never simple. Take a case in point. Virgil Hilts (McQueen) immediately gets sent to isolation (the Cooler). There he devises a plan with “the Mole”, Archie Ives (Angus Lennie) to create a “moving tunnel” at the dead space under the wire, the space that neither guard tower can clearly view. The plan is simple, bordering on ridiculous. Ives will be ahead of Hilts and as Ives moves dirt toward Hilts, Hilts pushes it behind him, closing the tunnel behind them. They will get air with small breathing tubes they will push through the surface of the ground above them. The plan fails—it’s almost ludicrously dumb. Hilts and Ives return to the Cooler and plan to try again; this time just cutting through the wire.

Bartlett and Ramsey gently ask if Hilts might consider doing reconnaissance once he has escaped in order to assist their much-larger attempt. That would require, Hilts realizes, getting recaptured. He refuses. It isn’t logical. Once he’s out, he will move as far away as possible as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, Ives is succumbing to the pressure of the camp; he is growing desperate. When one of the large tunnels is discovered (a tunnel he was not even really planning on using, since it seemed he had thrown in his lot with Hilts), he cracks. He throws himself on the wire and is shot dead by the guards—assisted suicide. Now Hilts decides to do as requested. He will escape, get a clear sense of the surroundings and the best lines of flight, get recaptured, and then share that information with the planners of the large escape. So: why did he change his mind and was it a free choice?

Clearly a deciding factor in his change of mind was the revulsion he felt in seeing his friend die so pointlessly. This is bodily revulsion; it isn’t logical exactly. There is an ineluctable, built-in reaction we seem to have when something disgusts us. Can such impulses be part of free choice or are they what determine us to do what we do? Are they the sign of a lack of choice?

The film doesn’t decide such questions on our behalf. But it does suggest that whatever is involved in the pursuit of freedom and whatever is involved in free choice (and those are, of course, not the same thing), it must include a space for temporal development and an acknowledgement of our corporeal mode of being. Choice is not a decision we make behind the scenes. It is never radically free in that overly simplistic sense. We shape ourselves. We are in motion toward something.

In The Great Escape that something is freedom. And in comporting themselves toward freedom Hilts and Bartlett make decisions as part of that shaping process. They can’t choose just anything. Their choices derive from commitment. But that doesn’t make those choices empty. Conclusions here are not foregone. Whatever is involved in freedom can’t be partial, it can’t merely involve the rational part of our selves. Freedom and choice require that we are entirely involved, entirely committed, willing to put our asses on the line.

Criterion Collection has released a blu-ray edition of The Great Escape featuring a host of extras including two audio commentaries, interviews with the cast and crew, a discussion with critic Michael Sragow, a documentary about the real-life event on which the film is based, and a feature on the US Army Air Forces pilot David Jones, who was the inspiration for the character played by Steve McQueen. The extras are interesting but largely incidental to the impact of the film, which still holds up as a source of fascination.

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Work Cited

Dennett, Daniel. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. MIT Press. November, 1984.