The Hero Maker
By Stephen Dando-Collins; published by Penguin Random House Australia (2016); 402 pages; illustrated.
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I was fascinated by stories of derring-do during World War II. They were very popular back then, when memories of the war were still recent. Books and movies a-plenty came out, telling the great exploits of military heroes. I devoured these, particularly those to do with World War II aviation. They helped encourage in me an interest in flying and flyers that has stayed with me ever since.
Three of the most famous and popular stories from that era were "Reach for the Sky", the true story of Douglas Bader, the legless British fighter ace; "The Dam Busters", the story of the RAF bomber raid on the great dams of Germany; and "The Great Escape", the story of a real-life mass escape from a German POW camp in 1944. All these accounts were bestselling books at the time. All three of them were turned into hit movies. And all of them were written by Paul Brickhill, an Australian. He wrote other true-life accounts of World War II events, but these three books in particular made him a very wealthy man.
Until recently, I knew virtually nothing about Paul Brickhill's background. I still have DVD copies of the films "Reach For the Sky" and "The Dam Busters" – I've just about worn them out – and have seen "The Great Escape" multiple times, but my knowledge of their original author you couldn't even write on the proverbial postage stamp. Little was published about Brickhill, until now. Then, last year (2016), an excellent biography of the writer appeared, penned by Stephen Dando-Collins, an Australian author well-known for his military and other historical books. Titled "The Hero Maker", Collins's book is a fascinating life story of a man famous in his time, but now largely forgotten.
Born in Melbourne in 1916, Brickhill came from a family of journalists, a profession which he joined after the Brickhills moved to Sydney. Then, at the outbreak of World War II, he joined the air force and trained as a pilot. He was posted to England and joined an RAF fighter squadron flying Spitfires. He served in the Mediterranean and North African theatres. He achieved no great successes as a fighter pilot and was eventually shot down in early 1943 in Tunisia, was captured, and ended up in a German POW camp, Stalag Luft Three – the camp from which the Great Escape took place.
Brickhill took part in planning the Great Escape. He was almost one of the escapers, but claustrophobia ruled him out from crawling through the escape tunnel. This probably saved his life: most of the escapers were caught and a majority of those were executed. Collins's account of this incident is fascinating; particularly as it reveals the extent of opposition to the escape from other POWs who (quite rightly as it turned out) feared reprisals, and refused to help the escapers. Brickhill also took part in the "death march" of early 1945, when several hundred thousand Allied POWs were marched westward by their German captors, in dreadful winter conditions, to escape the advancing Russian armies. Brickhill survived and returned to England.
His experiences in captivity, his journalistic background, and his desire to commemorate the 50 POWs who were executed after the Great Escape, led him to write and publish during the late 1940s pieces about wartime POW escapes. One of these pieces grew into his book "The Great Escape". It was a great success and made his reputation as an author. He was then approached or commissioned to write his subsequent books "The Dam Busters" and "Reach For the Sky". These were phenomenally successful too. The latter two were turned into very successful movies by British filmmakers in the 1950s, then Hollywood turned its attention to "The Great Escape", releasing this hit movie in 1963.
Collins's biography is especially entertaining and instructive when setting out Brickhill's problems with having his books turned into movies. Royalty disputes with Douglas Bader, arguments about the movie version of "The Dam Busters" with Guy Gibson's widow (Gibson commanded the squadron which carried out the actual "dam busters" raid), and complaints by Steve McQueen that his role in "The Great Escape" movie was not dramatic enough – all these made Brickhill's path from successful author to successful movie mogul difficult and stressful.
Yet, after the success of "The Great Escape" movie, Brickhill's career stalled and never really recovered. Brickhill had ambitions to be a successful writer of fiction; he produced only one novel, a thriller entitled "The Deadline", which had only modest success. This career stagnation had much to do with his private life and personal demons.
When it comes to Brickhill's private life, Collins the biographer pulls no punches. Brickhill suffered from alcoholism and depression, almost undoubtedly brought on by his wartime experiences. Today, it would probably be described as "PTSD". He married a professional model some 12 years younger than himself. It was one of those up-and-down, tempestuous relationships, punctuated by periodic separations. There was also occasional physical violence by Brickhill towards his wife, which he always felt tortured and remorseful about afterwards. Although the marriage produced two children, it ultimately ended in a bitter divorce.
Although Brickhill spent most of his successful professional years in the UK, he visited Australia frequently. He was close to his parents who lived in Sydney. Indeed, he gave them a lot of financial help. Brickhill ultimately settled back in Australia, in Sydney, hoping it would save his marriage and revive his career. It didn't. In his final years, Brickhill basically became a recluse in his harbourside Sydney apartment, seeing few people and largely passing from literary memory. He died, alone, in 1991.
Collins, as biographer, does a good job. He writes well, directly and simply. He has a story to tell and he tells it interestingly and expertly. While he is sympathetic to his subject, he is not averse to discussing and making clear his subject's darker side. Brickhill had a fascinating, drama-filled, and eventually, rather sad life. Collins captures all these aspects in a very readable fashion. Collins, the biographer, clearly feels that Brickhill, the successful Australian writer, has been unnecessarily forgotten and deserving of a literary resurrection. This biography goes a long way towards achieving that laudable aim.
For anyone interested in World War II history, the trials of being a successful author, the tribulations of movie-making, and the pitfalls of May-December marriages, this is the book for you.