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The Great Escape (1963) Poster

Goofs

Anachronisms 

The motorcycle that Hilts uses in his escape attempt was a 1960s British Triumph 650.
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Sedgwick is shown reading "Liberation", a newspaper not published during the German occupation of France.
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As the rowboat escapees, the "Tunnel Kings," near the end of their journey in a harbor, what appear to be container cranes can be seen in the background as they approach the ship and clamber onto the gangway, on both sides of the large vessel. Containerization did not begin until the mid 1950's and containership cranes were unknown in the 1940's.
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During the escape, there is a brief shot of a bridge spanning a river. This bridge is very obviously a post-war construction.
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Hilts' watch is a Rolex Submariner not available in the 1940s.
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Traffic signs are clearly post-war.
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The railway logo is incorrect.
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The transport truck carrying the 50 prisoners who are to be shot has modern brake lights, circa early 1960's. Military trucks, especially during the war, either had no brake lights or taillights or only one very small red light at the rear.
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Hilts's baseball glove is a present-day (i.e., late 1950s/early 1960s) model, far too modern in design for a wartime glove.
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Audio/visual unsynchronised 

When the Americans are marching as "The Spirit of '76", they stop before the Senior Barracks Officer. The last fife note is heard after Hilts lowers the fife from his lips.
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When celebrating the 4th of July, James Garner plays the drum. His drumbeats don't match the drum sounds.
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During the majority of the 4th of July scene the background soundtrack loops over and over. This goes on for nearly 10 minutes.
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When the 50 are shot by the Germans near the end of the movie, you can see that the machine gun's ammo belt runs out, yet you can still hear the machine gun being fired for a few seconds longer.
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Character error 

When Hendley and Blythe are playing chess, the chessboard is set up with a black square in the bottom right corner, i.e. the board is positioned sideways.
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In an early scene after the prisoners are brought into the camp, Werner asks Hendley why an American would fight alongside Britain, who burned down the U.S. capital in 1812. While it happened during the War of 1812, the burning of Washington occurred in 1814.
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Throughout the movie, British and German officers pronounce "lieutenant" as "lootenant" rather than "leftenant".
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In the opening scenes, Hilts and Ives are sentenced to 20 days each in the Cooler by the Commandant. When Hilts and Ives are to be released from the Cooler, Hilts counts the 14 day-marks on the wall and as he's counting the 15th day on his fingers, the door opens and they walk out.
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At the conclusion of the March of '76, the Americans present to the British with invitations to join for a celebratory drink. At the door of the hut Goff declares "down with the British!" to which Roger and Mac enthusiastically reply "hear, hear" and "quite right, too". Goff's error was saying "British" when the correct usage would be "the English". In this context, the appeal of an inebriated Goff to a bemused Roger (based on South African Roger Bushell) and the Scottish MacDonald would be sufficient to excite a moment of humour between the three historical enemies of England.
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Continuity 

When Hendley's stolen plane crashes the wings are clearly ripped completely off the fuselage. When the plane is next seen on fire the wings are still attached.
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When Hilts and Ives are first put in the cooler, Ives is to the right as Hilts faces the door. As Hilts talks to Ives through the bars in the door, he faces the wrong direction.
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During the escape scene when Hendley and Blythe arrive at the holding barrack they are instructed to sit on the the third bunk on the left. They proceed down to the fourth.
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When Danny prepares to dig the first tunnel, he marks the outline using blue chalk. The outline is round/oval, but during a close-up shot when he writes the number 17 in the corner, the outline is more of a square. In the next shot, the outline is once again oval and the number 17 looks different.
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When Mac delivers some stolen goods to Hendley he has already walked past an open window in a separate hut through which Hendley is clearly visible.
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When Ives drops his cup and moves towards the fence, in the background Hilts turns and starts moving towards Ives. Camera cuts to Hilts and he turns and starts moving again.
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In the scene in Hendley and Btlyhes room, when Bartlet is telling Blythe he can't go. During close ups or the view is from the door there is an ashtray hanging on the side of Hendley's bunk. When the scene is viewed from across the room the ashtray is not there.
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Soon after his initial arrival at the camp, Hilts puts his gear bag on the ground next to the hut. Taking his ball and mitt with him, he walks over to the wire, leaving the bag behind. While talking to another prisoner about the blind spot between the towers, a camera shot back toward the hut shows Hilt's bag is gone.
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The steam engine of the passenger train with which the majority of the prisoners tries to escape is a German "Baureihe 78" (type 78) model. However, when arriving at its final destination where all passengers get off the train, the engine is a "Baureihe 64" (type 64) model (the engine of the freight train with which Sedgwick has escaped).
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Early on, Hilts leans against the corner of one of the huts and observes the guard towers for weak spots. Moments later, he pulls his baseball mitt and squints into the setting sun. A few seconds later he walks toward the fence, it is midday. In the next minute the sun shifts back and forth from late, midday and morning.
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In the tunnel, Colin's socks alternate between grey and white between shots.
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When Sedgwick (James Coburn) steals the bicycle, he attaches his suitcase to the bike upside down. When he rides away, the suitcase is right side up.
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When Hilts crashes his motorcycle into the barbed wire fence, he is clearly in front of the barbed wire. When they cut back for the close-up, he is entangled in the barbed wire.
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When Hilts turns and runs, in his attempt to stop Ives from climbing the fence, his vest is unbuttoned, buttoned, unbuttoned and buttoned again.
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Near the beginning of the movie, after Hilts takes his baseball and glove out of his rather large tan satchel, he drops the satchel onto the ground. He then works his way to the warning wire, where a shot of him from the fence clearly shows where the satchel should be in the background, but it is no longer there.
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Soon after his initial arrival at the camp, Hilts walks to the wire. A prisoner can be seen walking towards the corner of the hut behind and turning right. The camera goes back to Hilts for about five seconds. It then pans out and the same prisoner who by that time would be out of camera shot can be seen to be back in the place he was originally was and walking to the corner of the hut again to take the same route.
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After Ashley-Pitt demonstrates how to dispose of dirt, the entire camp sets about making gardens to implement the scheme. However, in the rest of the film there are no gardens anywhere to be seen.
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In Bartlett"s briefing, he says the first tunnel ("Tom")will go out from 105, and then says it will go out from hut 104, and Harry from 105. Danny is then shown starting Tom in 104. However, by the July 4th celebrations, "Tom" is in hut 105 when Strachwitz discovers it (and "105" is painted on the hut when the guards surround it).
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Motorcycles change in close-up shots.
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While Hilts is contemplating throwing his baseball to the "blind spot" at the fence, he backs up to the shadows at the corner of one of the prisoner's huts. When the camera cuts back to the same spot at corner of the hut, the area is no longer in shadows.
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On their first day in camp, Hilts throws his baseball to the wire to check the Germans' lines of sight. When he is finally stopped and the commandant comes over and Hilts is explaining what he was doing, the position of his hands change in differently angled shots.
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in the last scene as Hilts is outside being escorted to the cooler (as Goff throws him his glove), you can see that Hilts is not wearing a watch. As he is walking down the cooler hallway he is wearing a watch on his right wrist.
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When Haynes is going into the tunnel on the night of the escape, he's dressed in a Nazi uniform and has a steel helmet on. But the next morning, at the train station, he has a garrison cap on.
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During their initial escape attempt (walking out with the Russian workers) the two escapees are in different rows. In the next shot, during which one attempts to vouch for the other, they are in the same row.
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At various times in the film, Hilts is released from the "cooler" with a fresh shave and the same haircut that he went in with. Would the Germans have allowed tonsorial maintenance?
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Postion of the propeller crank when Hendley first hands it to Colin and when Colin begins to turn it
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When Steve McQueen, James Gardner and their bunk mate are testing the moonshine they're making, Steve tilts the cup as he would if drinking it all down. Notice, however, how little the other two tilt the cup that should be empty.
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When Hendley and Blythe jump from the train, the area behind them is open farm country. A second earlier, just before they jump, one can see streets and houses behind them. This cannot be explained away, as they were in a hurry to jump.
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When Ashley-Pitt is in the tunnel he has dirty trousers, yet when he emerges from the hole his trousers are clean.
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Crew or equipment visible 

On the left side of the screen in the closing scene, as Hilts walks to the cooler, the camera track is visible between the fence and the warning wire.
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When Hilts is setting a trip line across the road the sun is screen left. As he reaches the near side of the road he's suddenly lit from screen right and has two opposing shadows. The light (probably a reflector) follows him causing the post in the foreground to reflect the light and then the post also gains a shadow facing the sun.
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(at around 1h 23 mins) During the moonshine distribution scene, there is a crew member (wearing a red baseball cap) directing /moving the cast into position can be seen on the left-hand side of the screen.
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(at around 2h 35 mins) As Bartlett and Mac try to run from the police at the bus stop, a there is a spotlight on its mount on the left-hand side of the screen.
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Errors in geography 

There's no part in the German-Swiss border where you can see the Alps or any mountains like those in the film.
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Immediately after Lt. Henley tells Colin that they are just one mountain ridge away from Switzerland, their plane flies past the famous castle of Neuschwanstein, which is on the Austrian border, about 60 miles (and some very high mountains) away from Switzerland.
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While the producers and Sturgis do deserve credit for filming the movie in Germany, the truth is that Stalag Luft III was actually in the Silesian dust bowl near the city of Sagan (or Zagan) in Poland. The topography there is actually quite flat. So the scenes of gentle hills and mountains that are shown in the immediate aftermath of the escape while picturesque are not accurate. Moreover, the escape occurred in March when there was still snow on the ground.
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Factual errors 

As the prisoners arrive in Stalag III, many are carrying their belongings in duffle bags or suitcases which is pure nonsense. They may have received some extra clothing like socks and underwear from the Red Cross, but luggage would not have been needed or supplied. Almost all of the prisoners taken by the Nazis in 1943 were airmen who had been shot down and parachuted to safety and eventual capture. The airmen did not pack overnight bags for their missions.
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The film shows that the Germans discovered a tunnel located under a stove. The Germans actually did find one of the three tunnels, but it was located in a corner of hut 123. And in reality it was indeed the tunnel "Harry" located under a stove in hut 104 that was actually used by the airmen to escape.
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The film shows the executions being carried out by uniformed German troops using a Spandau machine gun. In reality, the executions were done by Gestapo agents who used pistols at close range.
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The film shows almost everything happening in the summer months. In reality, the actual escape occurred in March, 1944 while there was still significant snow on the ground. Most of the escapees who were trying to walk across country were forced by the deep snow to leave the fields and go on to the roads and into the hands of the patrols.
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The film shows a large number of the escapees being shot in one common space at one time. In reality, the 50 were shot in many different places, sometimes alone and sometimes in small groups.
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When Ashley Pitt is in the tunnel, the topsoil is a sandy color and the tunnel soil is dark. In reality it was the other way around with the topsoil being gray and tunnel soil being yellow.
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Group Captain Ramsey's bottom three service ribbons denote service during the first world war. (Correct order would be: 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal). However, these three ribbons are worn backwards on his uniform throughout the film (Victory Medal, British War Medal, 1914-15 Star).
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Throughout the film actors are seen wearing rings and watches. No allied POW would have been allowed to keep anything remotely this valuable, or useful, for themselves. And if they were, lower grade guards and administrators would have targeted them for abuse and/or theft.
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There are 3 instances in the movie when the German MG-42 machine gun is fired - first when Hilts is testing the blind spot by the fence, 2nd when Ives is shot on the fence, and finally, when Roger and the others are executed. The sound of the machine gun is that of a US or British gun (maybe a Browning or Vickers) which had a rate of fire of about 600 rounds per minute. The German MG42 fired between 1500 and 1800 rounds per minute, over twice as fast. During World War II, American G.I.s called the German MG42 machine gun "Hitler's buzz saw".
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In the beginning when the motorcade arrives at the camp, the command 'Aussteigen!' ('Alight!') is given. In military parlance it would have been 'Absitzen!' ('Dismount!').
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TALLY HO is a British expression that would have surely caught the attention of the German enemy. The expression that the fugitives should have used is HALALI, the German equivalent of tally ho.
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At the Cafe Suzette, the father pours Pernod out of a tall green bottle which is correct. However the liquid seen in the glasses is amber/gray in color. Pernod is actually light green.
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Miscellaneous 

The planes in the airfield are American AT-6 Texan trainers painted in Luftwaffe grey. The Luftwaffe did in fact operate several AT-6s that had been captured from Belgium, who had bought them from the United States.
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Early in the movie, when the guards do a surprise inspection and come into the shower at night while Charles Bronson is digging, the guy looking out through the peep hole in the door could only see straight ahead to the next hut, whereas the guards are coming from his far right far beyond where he could see.
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Incorrectly regarded as goofs 

Timbers are needed to hold back thousands of pounds of dirt from a tunnel collapse. The three feet long, 1/2 inch thick pieces taken from the bed frames shown used in the tunnel could not withstand the weight. However documentary interviews and excavation of the actual Stalag Luft 3 site, shows that the films depiction of the tunnel's construction was accurate. While the material used may not have been adequate for a professional tunnel or mine, they were apparently adequate for the task and some are still holding up the tunnel even now.
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Hendley wears USA flashes on his uniform. This shows that he is an American serving in the RAF and is a member of the Famous "Eagle" squadrons, three squadrons composed of Americans who joined the RAF. This also means that Hendley was shot down before 1944, since the squadrons were re-absorbed by the USAAF at that time.
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At least one escapee is dressed as a German guard. While this is against all standard protocols, and being caught in a uniform would be an act of spying punishable by execution after torture, the source book itself states that one of the escapees, Tobolski, did in fact escape disguised as a Luftwaffe Unteroffizer.
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When Roger meets the SBO for the first time, Roger is told that the prisoners wanted to "bring out the Welcoming Committee". However, Roger was specially delivered to the camp by a Gestapo/SS detachment. The SBO and other prisoners would have had no prior knowledge that Roger was arriving. Earlier on, MacDonald notices Bartlett arriving at the camp, and goes off to pass the word onto the other soldiers. Between when Bartlett is brought into Von Luger's office, and the time he goes to see Ramsey, this would have been enough time for a small, impromptu welcoming committee to have been formed.
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When Hilts is escaping on the motorbike, he clearly gets lost and has no idea which direction Switzerland is in. But as the weather is sunny, he could have easily used the sun's position to go west. Perhaps he just didn't think of it.
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Bartlett says they don't know the area outside the camp, which seems incongruous given that he arrived in an open car and could see for himself. However, he would only have seen the specific route he was driven on; they needed a much more comprehensive picture.
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Just before the escape starts, Bartlett seems to say "You go first, Danny," even though Danny isn't present, having returned to the hut. On a closer listening, however, the name he says is not "Danny" but "Eric", Ashley-Pitt's first name. Ashley-Pitt does in fact go first.
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Plot holes 

When Ashley Pitt comes up with the idea to get rid of the tunnel dirt they show them depositing dirt in gardens the men are working on. They also show men marching with dirt coming out of their trousers. If they are marching and swinging their arms how can they pull the chords in their pockets?
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When the plan is being laid out to the large group, there are men stationed with their ears pressed against the doors to listen for approaching guards. There is a coded knock on one of the doors without that particular listener having heard anyone approaching..
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At the start of the escape sequence Capt. Hilts, the "cooler king", is wearing a dark top and white trousers and can easily be seen against the background. It seems implausible to attempt to escape through tunnel dirt in the middle of the night dressed in white.
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At the end the SBO tells Hendley that there were 50 killed. He later asks Hendley about Blyth. But the SBO had just read the list of 50 killed and Blyths name would have been on it. So he would have already known that.
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When Danny starts the first tunnel, in order to camouflage the sound of his pick, a man outside uses a sledge hammer to simultaneously drive a metal stake into the ground. It is never explained why the Germans would have approved this, given the man the stake and sledge hammer, or what the purpose of the stake was. The stake is never again seen in the movie and neither is the man who held the sledge hammer.
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Revealing mistakes 

When one of the officers has his papers checked on the train, the Germans say Danke to him , and he replies "Danke" when this should have been Bitte.
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Flipped shot. After Hilts steals the motorcycle, he is hiding behind a building waiting for the German troops to go by. As they go by, the sidecar on the German motorcycle is on the wrong side of the bike.
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In the tunnel scene where it is discussed that they will need to shore up the entire tunnel (after Willie is buried by a collapse), one of the supports of the base room is seen to move when hit by the trolley cart. Being thirty feet below ground, this support should be held firmly in place by the dirt overhead.
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When Hilts is playing the fife on the Fourth of July, his hands are in the wrong position. Both are on the outside of the fife, while anyone actually playing the instrument would have the right hand on the other side.
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When Ashley Pitt shoots the Gestapo agent to protect Roger at the train station, no bullet hole is seen in the Gestapo agent's tunic.
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After the escape... throughout the train stations, towns, etc. there are only two Nazi flags (Swastikas) shown, one an armband and one on the side of a locomotive. Throughout Germany and its occupied lands, the Nazi flag were ubiquitous hanging practically everywhere and in great abundance.
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Spoilers

The goof items below may give away important plot points.

Character error 

Upon learning that the tunnel was 20 feet short of the woods, Hilts comes up with the plan of using a rope signal to tell the escapees when it was safe to exit the tunnel, which Roger agrees to and orders 30 feet of rope to be sent down the tunnel.

However, this would be too short a length of rope to be used. As stated in the beginning of the film, the tunnels were at a depth of 30 feet (to prevent probing and sound detection). While not explicitly stated in the film, the real-life tunnel exit was also 30 feet down, as the prisoners didn't want to dig in a gentle up-slope for fear of the dirt trolleys derailing and causing a cave-in. Therefore, Roger should have ordered 50 feet of rope.
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Continuity 

In the very last scene, as Hilts is being returned to the camp, he has a bloody rip in his shirt, on the right shoulder. When he is marched directly to the cooler afterward in the last shot, the tear is gone.
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After Ives is killed, Hilts escapes and is purposely captured so he can bring back information about the area around the camp. He had obviously been in water, but different angles as he's brought back into the camp show the water line higher or lower on his pants legs.
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Soon after MacDonald is captured, Bartlett tries to be nonchalant as he walks along a sidewalk. The German soldier, in the car, yells at Bartlett to stop and he does...on the sidewalk. Cut to a different angle and Bartlett is stopped...in the middle of the street.
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Crew or equipment visible 

The Region 1 widescreen DVD version is framed such that some unintended things are seen to the left of the screen. When Hilts is serving moonshine, for instance, a crewmember can be seen pushing the prisoners forwards (in the Region 2 version, only his hand is visible). When Hilts is first sent to the cooler, the left-hand edge of the set can be seen at one point, too, with crew and equipment visible beyond (completely out of shot in the Region 2 version). When the prisoners are assembled the morning after the escape, there are several huge studio lights on stands on the left side of the frame between the trip wire and the fence. More studio lights are visible on the left frame during the first appearance of German town where Roger Bartlett and Mac McDonald are captured. The Region 1 Special Edition DVD has been reframed, removing most of these instances.
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Revealing mistakes 

After the plane crash Hendley's left leg is so badly injured he cannot stand on it. When he is returned to the POW camp he walks in normally.
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See also

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