Captain Hilts was gloriously unbreakable. He knew that no one alive had the ability to reach inside of him and break his will, and he really enjoyed that knowledge. It’s where his swagger came from.
Back in 9th or 10th grade, my straight-laced homeschooled self saw Steve McQueen’s character smirk and talk back to the kommandant on the family TV screen and had an instant crush. I was blown away by his chutzpah, his happy, confident determination to never stop rebelling until he succeeded. Sure, he was a hero, but his goodness was almost secondary to who he was in the classic film The Great Escape. His true essence, and the source of his power, was his proud, fierce indomitability. He was a thorn in the side of the Germans who flashed his smug defiance out of his eyes. He’s my hero and inspiration, and he always will be.
We first see his character strolling into the high-security prison camp with a rucksack of belongings, a blue T-shirt that brought out his eyes, a leather pilot’s jacket, the wheels of escape strategies already turning in his mind, and a fire for freedom in his belly. “Cooler King” they called him, because he was forever attempting to escape, and forever getting himself placed in solitary confinement in the “cooler” as punishment. He marched into that cell head held high, every time, baseball mitt and ball in hand. The sound of that ball smacking off the walls was the sound of his unbroken spirit, loud, happy, and defiant for all to hear.
At the end of the movie, Hilts is brought back alive after a mass escape attempt that claimed the lives of many of the men. He takes the news in stride, as to be expected in the face of such long odds, but also learns that their efforts have gotten the commandant fired. He stands there in handcuffs, sizing up the new commandant, and begins to smile. Captain Hilts has found a new boxing opponent, and he clearly relishes the thought of the upcoming battle of wills. Right before being escorted away, he turns back and says, smirking, “Oh…you’ll still be here when I get out?”.
Hilts lost the best attempt he was ever likely to get, but at least he was alive when others weren’t. As long as he was alive, he was in the game and fighting. That made him unbreakable, and now, in their darkest moment of defeat, the hundreds of men left in the camp fell in behind him. They crowded in, spirits leaping within them, to watch the most inspiring figure in camp get ready to accept his assigned number of days in a cell and then come back out swinging like he always did. His march back to the cooler, in front of everyone in the camp, becomes a march of triumph instead of defeat.
I’d like to think there was a seed of Hilts’ wonderful spirit deep in my heart, sustaining me through the difficult years. There was conflict at home with a mostly unyielding authority figure and I lost every time. His house, his rules, and he could change them when he liked. I remember ugly, tearful scenes because I didn’t want him to keep trying to micromanage my calendar the first two years of college. I remember angry, desperate arguments because I didn’t want him to keep assigning me squats as punishment for raising my voice and being “disrespectful” during arguments with my parents. It was humiliating, so horribly humiliating, to be told “no breakfast” and made to do squats in front of the whole family sitting around the table because I came downstairs for breakfast late. Which became the start to almost every day, because I am really not a morning person. This lasted from about 11th grade through the first year of college.
One brother wondered why I didn’t stand up for myself, but the younger one said “I saw you as the nail that wouldn’t be hammered down.” Now that I’ll hang my hat on. I tried my best, and often failed, to hold onto my dignity, but there is a deeper dignity that cannot be taken. It’s what Hilts had. When you’re independent and conscious of your individuality, you have a special power because meeting others’ standards holds no allure. And their disapproval means very little.
I hope that somewhere under my distraught pile of denial, resentment, humiliation, powerlessness, passivity, and self-condemnation was Captain Hilts, deep in the cell of my heart, tossing his baseball against the walls. There was a window in that cell, you know, that he could look out of. There’s always a window in your mind that you can look out of, and that’s how I survived. Imagination is a powerful, beautiful thing.
I capitulated a lot, because when I did resist, it wasn’t effective. But I did hold onto my self-respect and bided my time. I can say that I outlasted, because I never tried to turn into what he wanted me to be. I only ever wanted to be myself.
Thank you, Hilts, for showing me what spirit looks like. It took a while, but the seed you planted has finally bloomed, and the happiness and confidence is intoxicating. I’m older now, 29. I’m sitting here in a cafe in Europe, next to a cobblestone street, listening to Higher Love with a big smile on my face. I finally have a leather jacket of my own now. Most importantly, I, too, know that no one alive has the ability to reach inside of me and break my will. I really enjoy that knowledge. It’s where my swagger comes from.
“Still I Rise” – Maya Angelou