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The Great Escape

The Great Escape(1963)

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The Great Escape (1963)


The Great Escape is the true story of one of the largest mass POW escapes during World War II. Hundreds of Allied officers, most of them British, as well as three Americans, who are classified as security risks by the Nazis for their repeated breakout attempts, are brought together in a remote "escape-proof" prison camp. With the arrival of Big X (the code name for an undercover British flight commander) to Stalag Luft III, a plan begins to take shape to smuggle out 250 prisoners, thereby tying up an inordinate amount of German military resources in their pursuit. Every detail of the plan is carefully thought out and executed: forging identity papers, retailoring uniforms into civilian clothes, digging long, intricate tunnels underground, and keeping it all hidden from their German captors until they can escape to freedom.

Director: John Sturges
Producer: John Sturges
Screenplay: James Clavell, W.R. Burnett, based on the book by Paul Brickhill
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Editing: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: Fernando Carrere
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Steve McQueen (Capt. Hilts "The Cooler King"), James Garner (Flight Lt. Hendley "The Scrounger"), Richard Attenborough (Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett "Big X"), James Donald (Group Capt. Ramsay "The SBO"), Charles Bronson (Flight Lt. Danny Velinski "The Tunnel King"), James Coburn (Flying Officer Sedgwick "The Manufacturer"), Donald Pleasence (Flight Lt. Blythe "The Forger").
C-173m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

Why THE GREAT ESCAPE is Essential

Based on a real-life war story that was sold to director John Sturges on his promise to remain faithful to the actual event, The Great Escape (1963) was not completely truthful in its depiction of a mass escape from a Nazi prisoner of war camp. But it had in its favor a wealth of bravado stunts, exciting action scenes, suspenseful moments of deception and discovery, incidental humor, appealing performances, and noble sentimentality that guaranteed its run as not only one of the most successful motion pictures of 1963 but one of the best-liked adventures of all time. Even many who weren't yet born when it was released treasure memories of seeing the film, and it continues to resonate with audiences and filmmakers alike in references, parodies, and affectionate tributes that crop up in dozens of movies and television shows to this day.

The Great Escape also remains a classic in the repertoire of Steve McQueen, one of the most popular screen stars of all time. The picture went a long way to establishing him in that position, as well as helping create, through his individualistic character Hilts, the King of Cool image by which the star is known today, even years after his untimely death at the age of 50 in 1980. Yet, despite the fact that McQueen was the above-the-title star of the picture, and went to great pains during its production to be sure his role, career, and image were well served by the project, he is in it only intermittently for the first hour and a half. Instead, everyone in the cast has his moment to shine, and the production is notable for an equally strong performance by James Garner, early work by future stars James Coburn and Charles Bronson, and the introduction of a number of British actors to international audiences such as Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum and John Leyton. Sturges never wavered from his initial intention of making a true ensemble piece in which each character, each cog in the intricate escape machine, functions equally. But it's a testament to McQueen's enduring star power and, in particular, the iconic status of his unforgettable daredevil motorcycle sequence, that we still think of The Great Escape as his picture.

Sturges has been noted as one of the first directors to make solid dramatic use of the wide screen format, pushing it beyond its function as a mere gimmick to lure audiences back into theaters. He uses it to excellent effect in The Great Escape, not only in the exciting escape-and-pursuit action scenes but also to convey a sense of the length and narrowness of the claustrophobic escape tunnels. Beyond a sense of fun, adventure, and suspense, Sturges keeps his focus on process and relationships, striving for a solid sense of character and a tribute to cooperation and the human spirit that has made the film a perennial favorite.

by Rob Nixon

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The Great Escape (1963)

A highly fictionalized sequel about the attempts to avenge the massacre of Stalag Luft III's escapees was made for television as The Great Escape II: The Untold Story (1988) starring Christopher Reeve and Judd Hirsch. Donald Pleasence, "The Forger" in the original, returned to play a dastardly SS member in the sequel. It was co-directed by Jud Taylor, who played Goff in the original.

Although not connected in terms of plot, there is a strong resonance in theme and character between The Great Escape and Papillon (1973), a later McQueen movie about a prison escape.

Elmer Bernstein's score for The Great Escape made the soundtrack recording very popular, and his main theme has become iconic for the action genre, receiving frequent air play at the time of the film's release. In England, it has been a common theme at football matches, and one observer recently even noticed its use as a ring tone for cell phones.

The musical theme, as well as direct references to scenes and motifs in the film (especially parodies of McQueen repeatedly throwing the baseball against the wall while in solitary), has turned up in advertisements for beer, Hummer automobiles, Shell Oil, and others.

A parody of McQueen's motorcycle escape sequence was done in the comedy Top Secret! (1984) starring Val Kilmer.

In the remake of The Parent Trap (1998), the twin characters played by Lindsay Lohan are marched off to an isolated cabin with The Great Escape theme playing on the soundtrack, in a parody of McQueen's being led to "the cooler."

England's Monty Python comedy troupe parodied The Great Escape in sketches on its TV series in the late 60s and early 70s. One spoof featuring a weight-loss product called Trim Jeans shows a remake of The Great Escape "with a cast of thousands losing well over 1500 inches" while performing the story clad in the product.

In their TV series Ripping Yarns, Python members Michael Palin and Terry Jones spoof the movie in an episode entitled "Escape from Stalag Luft 112B," in which a character repeatedly fails to escape from a prison camp from which all the other inmates have fled.

Many aspects of The Great Escape have been parodied and referenced in the television shows The Simpsons, Hogan's Heroes, Nash Bridges, Seinfeld, Get Smart, Red Dwarf, and many others, and in the movies Chicken Run (2000), Reservoir Dogs (1992), and Charlie's Angels (2000) to name just a few.

In his stand-up performances, British comedian Eddie Izzard does an extended riff on The Great Escape, noting that all the British characters end tragically while the Americans played by Garner and McQueen survive.

Several documentary shorts by director Frankie Glass about the true story of the war prisoners and the making of the film are featured on the 2001 deluxe edition DVD release of the movie, with interviews of several people connected with the real-life adventure. A 1993 making-of documentary by director Steve Rubin, Return to the Great Escape, is included in other DVD versions and served as the source for several of the quotes by actors and crew members used in this article.

A video game version of The Great Escape was voted 23rd best game of all time in January 1992 by Your Sinclair, a British computer magazine.

by Rob Nixon

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The Great Escape (1963)

For the London premiere of The Great Escape, Sturges received the highest civilian honor from the British Air Force, Friend of the RAF. Five RAF bands paraded in front of the Strand Theatre at the opening and jets buzzed in formation overhead.

The Great Escape was one of the top grossing U.S. films during its release in 1963.

The real-life escape on which the story is based took place on March 24, 1944. Steve McQueen was born on March 24, 1930.

Although in the movie it appears that the camp commandant, Colonel von Luger, is taken away by the Gestapo for having allowed the massive escape to occur, in real life the commander was arrested for his involvement in a black market operation uncovered during an investigation of the escape.

During production, Charles Bronson met David McCallum's wife, actress Jill Ireland, and joked to his co-star that he was going to steal her away from him. McCallum and Ireland divorced in 1967 and she married Bronson.

James Clavell, only one of two writers credited for their work on the script, was the author of a 1962 novel about a Japanese prisoner of war camp, King Rat, which took a decidedly darker view of the experience. The book was made into a film in 1965. Clavell also wrote the novels Tai-Pan and Shogun and the screenplays for The Fly (1958) and To Sir, with Love (1967).

The execution of the fifty recaptured escapees - which didn't happen as one mass murder as depicted in the movie - was one of the charges at the Nuremburg War Crimes trials of former Nazi leaders.

Donald Pleasence's character, the forger Blythe, is said to have been based in part on British-born John Cordwell, who later became a prominent Chicago architect and proprietor of the city's Red Lion Pub. Other stories claim the forger in the real-life "Great Escape" was James Hill, who became a writer, producer and director (Born Free, 1966).

In an interview about the production, director John Sturges said McQueen and Garner later made a racing film together. Actually, both made movies about racing but never acted in a film together again. McQueen made Le Mans in 1971 and Garner starred in Grand Prix in 1966.

The men executed after the escape were commemorated with plaques placed near the site of the camp close to Sagan, in what is now Poland.

Charles Bronson worked with John Sturges three times previous to The Great Escape; in Bronson's second (uncredited) film role in The People Against O'Hara (1951), Never So Few (1959) and The Magnificent Seven (1960), both of which also featured Steve McQueen. Later, Bronson worked with Sturges on a European-made Western, Valdez, il mezzosangue (1973) aka Chino.

Sturges directed James Garner again in Hour of the Gun (1967), a return to the Wyatt Earp story Sturges had explored earlier in his Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957).

The Oscar®-nominated editing on The Great Escape was by Ferris Webster, who also received Academy Award nods for his work on The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Blackboard Jungle (1955).

The cinematographer of The Great Escape was Daniel L. Fapp, who won an Academy Award for West Side Story (1961) and was nominated six other times, including his work on Sturges's film Marooned (1969).

Memorable Quotes from THE GREAT ESCAPE

COL. VON LUGER (Hannes Messemer): There will be no escapes from this camp.
CAPT. RAMSAY (James Donald): Colonel von Luger, it is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they can't, it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability.

VON LUGER: Are all American officers so ill-mannered?
HILTS (Steve McQueen): Yeah, about 99 percent.

BIG X (Richard Attenborough): I'm going to cause such a terrible stink in this Third Reich of theirs that thousands of troops that could well be employed at the front will be tied up looking after us.
BIG X: By putting more men out of this perfect camp of theirs than have ever escaped before.

BLITHE (Donald Pleasence): Tea without milk is so uncivilized.

HILTS: How many you taking out?
BIG X: Two hundred fifty.
HILTS: Two hundred fifty?!
BIG X: Yup.
HILTS: You're crazy. You, ought to be locked up. You, too. Two hundred fifty guys just walking down the road, just like that!

HILTS: American moonshine. Don't smoke right after you drink it.

ASHLEY-PITT (David McCallum): See you in Picadilly.

VON LUGER: It looks after all as if you will see Berlin before I do.

Compiled by Rob Nixon

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The Great Escape (1963)

In March 1943, Canadian RAF officer Paul Brickhill was shot down over the Tunisian Desert in North Africa and captured by troops from German Field Marshall Rommel's Afrika Korps. He ended up in a prison camp southeast of Berlin near Sagan, Germany, called Stalag Luft III, carved out of a forest and secured with the latest precautions, including two nine-foot barbed wire fences, machine gun towers, and a fully armed German garrison. The camp was considered escape-proof by the Nazis, but Brickhill soon joined about 700 other Allied prisoners of war in executing a vast plan by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell to get 250 men out of the prison. Brickhill's job was to lead a group that guarded the forgers as they covertly reproduced the identity papers the escapees needed to make their way across Germany to safety; however, he was finally excluded from the breakout roster and forced to stay behind because of his claustrophobia.

On the night of March 24, 1944, Bushell and 75 other officers, supplied with forged identity papers and civilian clothes, broke out of the camp through an elaborate tunnel. Bushell and 49 others were recaptured and murdered by the Gestapo. The rest, except for three officers who made it back to England, were returned to prison.

After the war Brickhill returned to a fledgling writing career and spent four and a half years working on a novel based closely on his prison camp experiences. He returned to Germany twice for research, including reading thousands of pages of unpublished Gestapo reports and visiting the scene of the murder of the 50 officers with the permission of the Soviet occupation forces. He also conducted interviews with many of the survivors.

Brickhill's novel was published by W.W. Norton & Company in August 1950 and became a hit, but satisfied that he had done his best to tell the story of his fallen comrades, he adamantly refused to sell the screen rights. He claimed it was not his story to sell and that the families of those slain during the escape attempt would prefer the wartime tragedy be forgotten.

Brickhill's book was read with keen interest by John Sturges, a young director with a handful of minor feature films to his credit. A film editor at RKO Studios before the war, Sturges was assigned to an Air Corps photo unit shortly before D-Day to accompany director William Wyler to Corsica where they would create a documentary on a P-47 fighter bomber squadron in Northern Italy which was given a general theatrical release as Thunderbolt in 1947.

After the war, Sturges returned to film work, eventually signing on with MGM as a contract director. In the summer of 1950, he picked up a copy of Reader's Digest and began reading the serialization of Brickhill's book, The Great Escape. He was immediately fascinated. "It was the perfect embodiment of why our side won," he later said. "Here was the German military machine, the sparkling uniforms and the absolute obedience to orders. On the other side of the wire, there were men from every country, every background, makeup and language, doing everything they pleased. With no arbitrary rules, they formulated an organization which eventually clobbered the German machine."

Convinced the story would make a great film, Sturges dogged MGM head Louis B. Mayer, finally getting an appointment to sell him on the idea. Mayer and studio executives quickly rejected the project, insisting the ending was too tragic and downbeat. They also felt the story was too big, with too many characters and plot details that would run the production costs sky high.

After several successful, high-profile action-oriented films, including Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), and two Spencer Tracy vehicles, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and The Old Man and the Sea (1958), Sturges at last had the clout to strike out on his own. He left MGM in 1959 and partnered with successful independent producers Walter, Marvin and Harold Mirisch. With their policy of extending creative freedom to directors while maintaining all responsibility for financing and distribution through United Artists, the brothers had secured deals with the likes of William Wyler, John Ford, and Robert Wise. Sturges's first project for them was a Western with star Yul Brynner and several up-and-coming actors (Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson) based on Akira Kurosawa's classic adventure The Seven Samurai (1954). Thanks to the box office success of The Magnificent Seven (1960), which proved his ability to create a compelling ensemble action film with well-drawn characters, Sturges was given the front money to purchase Brickhill's book and hire a screenwriter to adapt it. The director wrote to Brickhill, who was now living in Australia, and despite years of refusal to discuss a film adaptation, he agreed to a meeting with Sturges in Hollywood.

Brickhill responded well to Sturges's enthusiasm and sincere promises not to take liberties with the story. He agreed to sell Sturges the novel and become a partner in the venture.

With Brickhill's help, Sturges located Wally Floody, the "Tunnel King" of Stalag Luft III (whose character in the story is Polish flyer Danny Velinski, the tunnel mastermind who suffers from crippling claustrophobia as Brickhill did). Floody was hired as the film's technical adviser.

William Roberts was hired to develop a treatment of the story. Roberts had worked on The Magnificent Seven script with Walter Newman. Because security precautions in the stalag required that only 12 officers know the full escape plan, Sturges advised Roberts to reduce the principals to the same number, flesh them out as distinct characters, and tell the story entirely through their eyes. The writer structured his treatment much as the script for The Magnificent Seven had been built, with a central authority figure (such as Yul Brynner's character Chris) who dominated the plot while being able to introduce other characters working with him.

Roberts was also given a scrapbook in which Sturges had pasted sections of the book, cut apart and arranged by separate aspects of the story and escape plan: tunnels, traps, camp, Big X (the character based on Bushell), tailors, forgers, Gestapo, etc.

While The Great Escape screenplay was still taking shape, Sturges began his next picture, a big budget Lana Turner soap opera based on the James Gould Cozzens novel By Love Possessed (1961), and needed Roberts for some serious script doctoring. The Great Escape's script was then turned over to Walter Newman, with whom Sturges had had a contentious relationship on The Magnificent Seven. Newman spent much of his time making the complicated escape events dramatically feasible with the plan to go back and flesh out the characters later. He didn't remain on the job long enough for that. "It was extremely difficult to work with John," he later said. "He was working on so many projects. And even when we did work together, he failed to concentrate his ideas and present them in usable form."

Satisfied with an initial script draft, the Mirisch brothers made the necessary arrangements to secure the services of James Garner, a popular young actor who had recently made the transition to movies from his successful Western TV series Maverick, and Steve McQueen, himself a former TV star of the Western series Wanted: Dead or Alive. He had become a hot movie property, thanks largely to his work on two previous Sturges films Never So Few (1959) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). They were cast, respectively, as two of the three American characters in the movie, Hendley aka "The Scrounger" and Hilts, "The Cooler King" (nicknamed for the amount of time he spent in the isolation cell).

McQueen jumped at the chance to earn $100,000 playing an action hero. In addition, he was to receive first-class air transportation for his wife, two children, and their nurse and $750 per week in living expenses, all of which was tax-free due to the European location. His screen credits called for his name to lead the cast and appear above the film's title in equal-size type. He also made a major script demand, that his role feature an extended and exciting motorcycle chase. Even though this meant changing the story, Sturges agreed.

Two other actors from The Magnificent Seven were cast as Allied officers, Charles Bronson and James Coburn.

Sturges had by this point moved on to other projects but still needed someone to tighten Newman's script and eliminate the numerous subplots he had created. He turned to W.R. Burnett, the writer for Sturges's latest Western, Sergeants Three (1962), a comedic adventure featuring Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals. Burnett was perfect for the job, having created a complicated crime plot with multiple characters in his novel The Asphalt Jungle (filmed by John Huston in 1950). Burnett ripped the existing script apart and developed a narrative that followed the straight line of the complex tunnel operation. When Sturges completed filming on Sergeants Three, he joined the writer in creating humorous interplay between the three American characters and their British comrades.

Burnett's screenplay opened differently from the completed film, with scenes of the various flyers being shot down and captured.

Sturges sent a copy of Burnett's draft to John Mills and Richard Harris, his first choices for the role of Big X, the leader of the escape plan. Harris loved the role and agreed on the condition that he be able to complete filming on This Sporting Life (1963). He also pointed out that Burnett's script had lost the essentially English feel of Brickhill's book which was addressed in future script rewrites.

Based on Harris's feedback, Sturges hired British writer James Clavell, who had been a Japanese prisoner during the war. In this phase of development beginning in early 1962, Sturges decided to reduce the importance of Big X and give him equal status with the two Americans.

Sturges's production plan for The Great Escape followed a process he used on his previous film, A Girl Named Tamiko (1962). He and his second unit directors Robert Relyea and Jack Reddish and art director Fernando Carrere would scout Europe to photograph locations that would be recreated in America. The camp itself would be built in the San Gabriel Mountains, a couple hours from Los Angeles, and only about 10 percent of the picture would actually be shot on location. The team hoped to visit the site of the infamous camp, but the area was now part of Poland, and they were not permitted behind the "Iron Curtain."

Despite Sturges' initial intention to film most of the The Great Escape in the U.S., several factors forced him to rethink that decision. According to Steven Jay Rubin in his book Combat Films: American Realism 1945-1970 (Jefferson: McFarland, 1981), the U.S. military, after huge demands placed on it during production of The Longest Day (1962), decided not to cooperate or work with Sturges' production. This meant potentially prohibitive costs for union-mandated professional extras in the States, so Sturges reluctantly chose to film in Europe instead. Relyea, however, in the documentary Return to the Great Escape (1993), said that after touring Germany he reported back to Sturges that California would simply not work as a location substitute.

by Rob Nixon

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The Great Escape (1963)

Director John Sturges and his crew arrived at Geisel Gasteig Studios in rural Bavaria in April 1962. Art director Fernando Carrere immediately began designing the tunnel sets on the studio's sound stages. They were constructed of wood and skins filled with plaster and dirt and open on one side with a dolly track running the length of the set in order to shoot scenes of prisoners scooting along through them.

The barracks interiors for The Great Escape were also constructed on sound stages at the German studio.

Sturges found a perfect spot for the recreation of the camp - a clearing in the countryside surrounded by dense forests. And the location was only a few hundred yards from the sound stages. The studio president, however, informed him there were tiny saplings under the snow, planted as part of the thriving German National Forest. Sturges had Relyea contact the Minister of the Interior and secure permission to film there, which was granted provided twice as many saplings be replanted elsewhere at the production's expense.

Jud Taylor, who played Goff, the third American in the prison, said the camp set was so authentic and impressive that one day he came upon a man walking his dog who was very distressed when he came upon the site. The man was greatly relieved, Goff said, when he learned it was just a movie set.

In early May 1962, Richard Harris backed out, partly because filming on his new movie, This Sporting Life (1963), was badly behind schedule but also because he was displeased with the diminished role of Big X after script changes had been made. Sturges quickly hired British actor Richard Attenborough.

The filming of The Great Escape began in June 1962 but because of heavy rains, the schedule was changed to shoot interiors from the middle portion of the picture first.

Early on in the production, Sturges began receiving memos from distributor United Artists requesting female roles in the picture. One even suggested having the dying Ashley-Pitt (played by David McCallum in the film) cradled in the lap of a beautiful girl in a low-cut blouse. The studio wanted to cast this bit by having a Miss Prison Camp contest in Munich. Sturges would have none of it.

The German characters were cast from actors out of Munich, including Hannes Messemer as the camp commandant, von Luger, and Til Kiwe, who played Frick. Both had their own prisoner of war experiences. Messemer had been captured on the Eastern front by the Soviet army, escaped, and walked hundreds of miles to the German border. Frick served time in an American prison camp in Arizona. He tried to escape seventeen times.

According to Sturges, The Great Escape screenplay went through six writers and eleven versions, and was still a work in progress during the actual shooting. "I'm not proposing that's a good way to make a picture, but it was the right way to make this one," he later said.

In July, Sturges showed the rushes of the first six weeks shooting, and McQueen decided his part was minor and undeveloped. He was particularly upset that his character virtually disappears from the film for about 30 minutes in the middle so he walked out demanding rewrites. Sturges admitted the half-hour gap was likely a problem, but with the production already behind schedule due to the heavy rain, he felt he couldn't take time out to do rewrites and rescheduling. Co-star James Garner said he and cast member James Coburn got together with McQueen to determine what his specific gripes were. Garner later said it was apparent McQueen wanted to be the hero but didn't want to be seen doing anything overtly heroic that contradicted his character's cool detachment and sardonic demeanor. At the same time, McQueen never really liked his character's calm acquiescence to his time in the cooler or the famous bit with the catcher's mitt and ball. Sturges considered writing the character out of the story altogether, but United Artists informed him they considered McQueen indispensable to the picture's success and would spring for the extra money to hire another writer, Ivan Moffit, to deal with the star's demands. McQueen returned to work.

Reacting to McQueen's walkout, cast member Donald Pleasence later said, "I hadn't realized things like this go on in Hollywood, being an obedient English actor from the theater mostly."

"McQueen was an impossible bastard," Burnett said. "Oh, he drove you crazy."

McQueen reportedly rarely mingled with others away from the set, preferring to stay in the chalet he rented for himself and his family and traveling to the set each day in a chauffeur-driven limousine.

"[James Garner] is a bright and likable, uncomplicated, and talented guy. He's an awfully good actor and I admire him as a person," Sturges was quoted in Garner's biography by Raymond Strait (St. Martin's Press, 1985). "McQueen and Garner got on quite well because they had so many common interests. Both were interested in cars and racing and that sort of thing."

Co-star James Coburn later commented on John Sturges's direction: "He had great faith in the actor. He would storyboard everything. He never talked to me about character or about anything. What was in the script was what was shot; what was on the storyboard was the way it was shot."

Jud Taylor said that Sturges "gave you [as an actor] a great deal of freedom to try things, but he had a very clear sense of when he liked something."

Donald Pleasence tried to bring his own war experiences to The Great Escape. Shot down over France in World War II, he ended up in a prison camp called Stalag Luft 21. Early on in the filming he tried to make suggestions, "but they didn't go down well with Sturges and the American crew, who believed all people who were in a prison camp, especially if you were American, were enormously brave."

James Garner also brought earlier military experiences to bear for his role. During the Korean War, he was a "scrounger" for an entire company, much like his character in the picture, "so I knew a little bit about the hustle...and I knew basically what Hendley would be like."

Charles Bronson had never been a war prisoner, but he did bring other real-life experiences to his role as a Polish former miner who masterminds construction of the tunnels despite his claustrophobia. Bronson was the eleventh of fifteen children of a poor Lithuanian immigrant in Pennsylvania. His father died when he was only ten, and like his brothers, he went to work in the coal mines until he was drafted for service in World War II.

Wally Floody, who was the real-life "Tunnel King" on whom Charles Bronson's character was based, was hired as technical adviser. His tasks (such as exploring the tunnel sets to determine if they were accurate in size) kept him busy as much as twelve hours a day. Floody told Sturges's assistant (and uncredited stunt pilot) Robert Relyea that he knew the production was on the right track and close to reality when he began to get nightmares about his prison camp experiences.

David McCallum said that when anyone, cast or crew, was sitting around the camp set with time on their hands, they were handed a length of rubber string around which they wrapped other pieces of rubber at six-inch intervals to create the hundreds of yards of "barbed wire" needed to surround the prison. The entire fence, McCallum said, was made by the company in its spare time.

After two months shooting in the camp, the production moved to the town of Fussen near the Austrian border for post-escape scenes. Because he was already running out of money, Sturges decided to cut back on his original plan to film in a number of locations. Fussen had all the elements he needed to simulate the various places where the escapees run, including nearby meadowlands to shoot McQueen's required motorcycle sequence.

Although McQueen was an expert motorcyclist, the major stunt of jumping the barbed wire fence was considered too risky by the studio for a star of his caliber, so a friend of his, Bud Ekins, was hired to perform the shot. Before leaving for Germany, Ekins bought two Triumph motorcycles and converted them to look like authentic German bikes of the period.

Ekins's scene was one of the last shot during principal photography on The Great Escape.

Ekins did the jump scene, but McQueen did all the rest, including playing his own German pursuers when it turned out the hired German stunt riders couldn't keep up with him. The scene would be shot first with McQueen fleeing the Nazis on his bike. Then he would change costume and shoot again as a pursuer with his face obscured.

The German National Railroad Bureau cooperated with Sturges' production to provide trains and logistics for the railway escape sequences. Platforms were fitted on passenger cars to accommodate huge arc lamps to illuminate the train interiors. On one flat car, a large Chapman crane was set up to swing out over the passenger car and film the jump from the moving train performed by two stuntmen disguised as Garner's and Pleasence's characters. The bureau attached a special radio operator to the crew to alert the train engineer to any potential traffic on the main line. The shooting schedule was squeezed in between actual runs on the rails. The bureau gave the production certain times and lengths of tracks to work on until a passenger train was scheduled to come by; the film train then had to duck onto a siding until the other passed.

During the jump sequence, the crew was warned at the last possible second that the crane was about to slam into a pole. It was withdrawn in the nick of time.

Sturges's assistant Robert Relyea was an amateur pilot and offered to fly the plane himself for the sequence in which Garner and Pleasence commandeer a plane for their escape. In one segment he had to simulate the plane losing power and descending over a line of trees. According to Relyea, a farmer in his field saw the plane with its Nazi insignia coming in low over his head and threw his rake at it. Another time Relyea was arrested when he had to put the plane down in a field that happened to belong to a German aviation official. He also piloted the plane in the crash shot, knocking himself unconscious and being taken to the hospital where he woke up later feeling a sharp pain down his back.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser The Great Escape (1963)

With a story based on an actual POW breakout in 1943 wartime Germany, director John Sturges brought to audiences The Great Escape, a 1963 box office smash that has since joined the ranks of other POW classics, such as Grand Illusion (1937) and The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957). While the film was blessed with a cast that boasted some of the best actors working in the movies, none was hotter than Steve McQueen, who had the starring role as the camp cynic and American rebel, "Cooler King" Hilts. In less flashy roles, James Garner and Donald Pleasance provide strong dramatic support as cellmates who attempt an equally daring escape from the camp.

But it's fair to say that McQueen literally stole the film from his co-stars with his climactic motorcycle flight from a squadron of Nazi soldiers. The motorcycle scenes were not in the real-life breakout but were added at McQueen's suggestion because of his own passion for motorcycles. Although McQueen did his own motorcycle riding, there was one dangerous motorcycle stunt he did not perform: the hair-raising 60-foot jump over a border fence. McQueen attempted the jump, but crashed, fortunately without major injury. McQueen's friend Bud Elkins, who was managing a Los Angeles area motorcycle shop when recruited for the stunt, eventually performed it. This stunt marked the beginning of a new career for Elkins, as he later stunt-doubled for McQueen in the influential and spectacular car chase sequence in Bullitt (1968). Despite Elkins covering for McQueen in the risky jump stunt in The Great Escape, McQueen played stuntman for other actors during production. In one scene, he doubles as a German motorcycle soldier who is pursuing McQueen's character. So in a sense, he is chasing himself via the invisible art of editing. Motorcycle enthusiasts claim to be able to tell which soldier is actually McQueen, based on his riding style. McQueen was the consummate speed freak both on and off the screen, having collected more than 40 speeding tickets from German police while shooting The Great Escape on location.

Surprisingly, The Great Escape went virtually ignored at Oscar time except for a sole nomination for Best Editing. What about a special award for Best Stunts? Or how about Best Picture, Best Director, or Best Music Score? The latter, by Elmer Bernstein, cleverly weaves together military marches, taut suspense music, and a title tune you can whistle. Instead, the Academy nominated the scores for Cleopatra, 55 Days at Peking, How the West Was Won, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and Tom Jones, with the latter winning for composer John Addison.

Director: John Sturges
Producer: James Clavell (uncredited), John Sturges
Screenplay: James Clavell, W. R. Burnett, based on the book by Paul Brickhill
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Editor: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: Fernando Carrere
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Steve McQueen (Capt. Virgil Hilts), James Garner ("The Scrounger"), Richard Attenborough ("Big X"), James Donald ("The SBO"), Charles Bronson ("The Tunnel King"), Donald Pleasance ("The Forger"), David McCallum ("Dispersal"), James Coburn ("The Manufacturer"), John Leyton ("The Tunneller"), Gordon Jackson ("Intelligence").
C-173m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.

by Scott McGee

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The Great Escape (1963)


Ferris Webster received an Academy Award® nomination for his editing on The Great Escape.

The film was a Golden Globe nominee for Best Dramatic Picture.

The Great Escape and Steve McQueen received second place in the Golden Laurel Awards presented by motion picture distributors. James Garner was also nominated.

McQueen was chosen Best Actor at the Moscow International Film Festival, and John Sturges was nominated.

James Clavell and W.R. Burnett were nominated for Best Written American Drama by the Writers Guild of America.

The Great Escape was named Best Picture of the Year by the Madras (India) Parents' Association.

The Critics Corner: THE GREAT ESCAPE

"There are some exceptional performances-histrionic and cinematic. Probably the most provocative single impression is made by Steve McQueen.... McQueen has a style, an individuality, that is rare on the contemporary scene. He is a throwback to the personalities of an earlier screen era. He is the possessor of the kind of unique star quality with which such performers as Cagney and Bogart captured the public imagination.
Variety, April 17, 1963

"Here, as in all [Sturges's] best films, we become involved with and concerned for the escapees, and in this instance to root for them. Their capture and execution-which we don't expect-is quite shattering and moving, while we are genuinely heartened and uplifted by the success of those who do make it, and by the dauntlessness of the cocky American played by Steve McQueen, who we know will try again."
DuPre Jones, Films and Filming, February 1974

"A first-rate adventure film, fascinating in its detail, suspenseful in its plot, stirring in its climax and excellent in performance. ... Steve McQueen takes the honors." Judith Crist, New York Herald Tribune, 1963

"Nobody is going to con me-at least not the director, John Sturges-into believing that the spirit of defiance in any prisoner-of-war camp anywhere was as arrogant, romantic and Rover Boyish as it is made to appear in this film. And nobody's going to induce me, with shameless Hollywood cliffhanging tricks designed to stretch the tension until you holler and with a thumping Elmer Bernstein musical score, to surrender my reason and my emotions to the sort of fiction fabricated here. ... It's strictly a mechanical adventure with make-believe men."
Bosley Crowther, New York Times, August 8, 1963

"Uneven but entertaining World War II escape drama, which even when it first appeared seemed very old-fashioned...Coburn is totally miscast as an Australian, yet turns in an amusing performance. Worth seeing for the last half hour, if nothing else, for one of the best stunt sequences in years: McQueen's motor-cycle bid for freedom."
- Chris Petit, TimeOut Film Guide

"...this is almost certainly his [Sturges] finest achievement, as he manages to keep a potentially plodding and downbeat story exciting and interesting throughout. Daringly, he delays the actual escape until nearly two-thirds of the way through the film; while the thought of two hours of planning and digging might sound dull as ditchwater, Sturges, with the aid of James Clavell and WR Burnett's strong script, concentrates as much on character development as the various escape preparations; there's also a generous dash of humour throughout that makes the characters more likeable than the stereotypes often seen in films like this."
- Alexander Larman, DVD Times

"McQueen's motorcycle ride has long been the stuff of cinematic legend, but the movie is packed with countless memorable episodes of this caliber. John Sturges directs with verve, with Elmer Bernstein contributing a sensational score that clearly should have taken that year's Oscar."
Matt Brunson, Creative Loafing (Charlotte, NC), June 2, 2004

Compiled by Rob Nixon

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