The death at age ninety-two of Eric “Digger” Dowling on July 21 provided the occasion for the British national tongue to wag—and yet again to seek out a favorite cavity in one of its formerly sturdiest molars. This gaping national shame was John Sturges’s movie adaptation from 1963 of Paul Brickhill’s book The Great Escape. Dowling was the real-life version of the character played in the movie by Charles Bronson, Danny the Tunnel King. All the obituaries mentioned that the real, the British, Tunnel King had not been a fan of the movie, and that he was particularly censorious about the famous scene in which Steve McQueen attempts to jump the barbed wire perimeter fence on a motorcycle. That, the Digger had once observed, was “well over the top”—which, ironically, is just what poor Steve McQueen wasn’t. But the perpetual source of annoyance to the British media and that which is always...


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