powered by AFI
The working title of the film was The Last Escape. The following written prologue appears in the onscreen credits: "This is a true story. Although the characters are composites of real men, and time and place have been compressed, every detail of the escape is the way it really happened." The closing credits include the following written epilogue: "This picture is dedicated to the fifty." The cast of characters listed at the end of the film introduces the principals by showing shots of them from within the picture, with their names and respective character names superimposed. The list begins with Robert Graf as "Werner 'The Ferret,'" then proceeds by order of importance, ending with Steve McQueen as "Hilts 'The Cooler King.'" Although the copyright claimant for the film is Mirisch-Alpha, the production companies were The Mirisch Corporation and Alpha Corp., the latter of which was the company of director-producer John Sturges. As noted by Sturges in interviews conducted in the mid-1970s, which were later used for a modern source book, Alpha and Mirisch were co-owners of the picture, with United Artists supplying the funding for it in exchange for exclusive distribution rights.
According to the interviews with Sturges, he had been intrigued by Paul Brickhill's book for many years and credited his success with the The Mirisch Company's The Magnificent Seven (1960, see below), for making it possible for him to film The Great Escape. The earlier film co-starred McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, who were reunited in The Great Escape. In other interviews, Sturges noted that he had tried in vain to interest various studios in adapting Brickhill's book for the screen, but they felt that the picture would be too depressing and would not appeal to women because there were no female characters.
A February 1961 Daily Variety news item reported that Walter Newman would adapt Brickhill's book, and in the mid-1970s interviews with Sturges, the director confirmed that Newman worked on the screenplay, fleshing out an initial treatment prepared by William Roberts. According to Sturges, Newman's work created the initial basis for many of the characters and the details of the escape, but because Newman could not finish his screenplay in time to finalize the funding, he was replaced by W. R. Burnett, who was announced as the screenwriter in a July 1961 Hollywood Reporter item. In a featurette created for the picture's 1998 DVD release, Sturges revealed that a total of six writers worked on the screenplay, of which there were eleven versions. The director admitted that there was no complete script even after filming began, and that writing continued throughout production. In the mid-1970s interviews, Sturges related that after Burnett had completed his work on the script, writer James Clavell, who was credited above Burnett in the onscreen credits, was hired to add more detail to the English characters. Clavell continued working on the script on location, and later, during production, Ivan Moffat was brought on to enhance the action sequences and expand the part of "Capt. Virgil Hilts," played by McQueen. Sturges and others confirmed that Moffat was responsible for the recurring baseball tossing that Hilts uses to pass the time in the cooler. Clavell also wrote the 1963 novel King Rat, a much darker view of POW life in a Japanese prison camp, which was adapted into a 1965 film (see below).
February and March 1962 Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter items stated that John Mills was considered for a role, as was Richard Harris, who was included in the cast in the film's initial appearances on Hollywood Reporter production charts. Sturges' 1970s interviews reveal that, although Mills had turned down the part of "Roger Bartlett," Harris had committed to the role but was prevented from making the picture by a scheduling conflict. Michael Wilding was also cast in the picture, according to Sturges, but he, too, had to drop out.
Several news items in early 1962 reported that principal photography would take place in California, not abroad, and in the mid-1970s interviews with Sturges and several of the principal crew and cast members, it was stated that Sturges originally wanted to shoot some second-unit, establishing shots in Germany, with the majority of filming to take place in Idylwild, CA, in the mountains near Big Bear, where the prisoner of war camp would be built. According to Sturges, they were prevented from filming in California because the Screen Extras Guild would not give them the necessary cost-cutting concessions to hire nonprofessionals for the more than 600 extras needed for the production.
In order to keep the budget under $3.9 million-the amount loaned to The Mirisch Company and Alpha Corp. by UA-the filmmakers decided to shoot the picture entirely on location in Germany. The interiors, including the interiors of the barracks and the escape tunnels, were shot on two sound stages at the Bavaria Studios in Geiselgasteig, near Munich. The entire exterior set of the camp was built on the backlot of Bavaria Studios, in what was considered to be national forest land. In order to receive government permission to clear the area and construct the camp, the filmmakers agreed to replant the area after production, as well as redistribute the uprooted trees throughout Germany. The camp area, recreated by the design team from historical research, covered approximately 500 yards by 300 yards and took about six weeks to build. Although several other location sites had been planned initially, in order to save money, most of the sequences showing the various prisoners fleeing, including the film's iconic motorcycle chase, were shot on location in and around Fssen, Germany.
In interviews, McQueen's former wife, Neile McQueen Toffel, revealed that when McQueen took note of James Garner's character's ("Flt. Lt. Robert Hendley") distinctive attire and number of lines in the script, he protested and requested that his part be enlarged. In modern interviews with Garner and Donald Pleasence ("Flt. Lt. Colin Blythe"), both actors related that McQueen walked off the picture for six weeks while changes were made to the script. The entire motorcycle sequence was added specifically for McQueen, a well-known dirt bike enthusiast, although sources conflict about when the sequence was written, whether it was before or during production, and also about exactly how long McQueen held up production.
Stuntman Bud Ekins, a close friend of and double for McQueen, performed what became an iconic action film stunt: the motorcycle jump over a six-foot-wide wooden fence as Hilts attempts to cross the Swiss border. Due to insurance reasons, McQueen was not allowed to make the jump, but did perform the other elements of the biking sequences, including doubling as the German cyclist chasing Hilts. Toffel stated in her memoir that if she were to select a moment in McQueen's career that launched him into international stardom, it was the cycle jump, which for many years was credited to the actor, not Ekins. In a mid-1970s interview, Ekins confirmed that he did the jump, for which he was paid $750, and also that he was hired to create the motorcycles used in the sequence, which he constructed from new British bikes modified to resemble World War II-era German vehicles. The Great Escape marked Ekins' first feature film work, after which he went on to work as an actor and stuntman in numerous other pictures, including McQueen's 1968 hit movie Bullitt.
In his mid-1970s interviews that were used for a modern source book, Robert E. Relyea, who is credited onscreen as "assistant to producer," revealed (as confirmed by Sturges) that he directed much of the second-unit footage, including some of the motorcycle stunt sequence. Relyea also served as the pilot of the old, re-constructed aircraft that doubled as the German reconnaissance plane and as the plane on which Hendley and Blythe attempt to escape. With a dummy standing in for Pleasence, Relyea doubled for Garner and flew the plane for the crash-landing stunt. According to Relyea, because NATO refused to cooperate with the production and allow it to film on their airbase near Munich, a Luftwaffe airbase was used instead.
A number of the cast and crew members had had real-life military experiences that helped to inform their work on The Great Escape, including Pleasence, who served in the Royal Air Force during World War II and was placed in Stalag Luft 21, a German POW camp, after his bomber was shot down over France. Garner, who served in the U.S. Army during the Korean war, worked as a "scrounger," like his character Hendley. C. Wallace "Wally" Floody, a technical advisor on the film and former Canadian Royal Air Force pilot and engineer, spent nearly two years in the real Stalag Luft III as one of the "tunneling kings" until his transfer to another camp just before the breakout. Brickhill also served as a technical consultant on the film, according to Sturges, helping to verify details during pre-production, construction of the sets and designing of the costumes. Hannes Messemer, who played "Col. Von Luger," was a German POW in a Russian camp before escaping and walking hundreds of miles from the Eastern Front back to Germany. Additionally, a number of the German crew members had either served as POW camp guards in Germany or had been imprisoned in American POW camps in the United States, according to the 1970s interviews with the filmmakers.
As stated in the opening prologue, the film was based on a true incident. Brickhill, a fighter pilot in the Australian Royal Air Force, chronicled his time as a prisoner-of-war in the real Stalag Luft III, which was located ninety miles outside Berlin in Sagan, in what is now Poland. [Although the filmmakers applied to visit the camp, at the time of production, it was in East Germany and was not accessible to Americans.] The camp held captured Allied air force personnel, including South Africans, New Zealanders and Norwegians in addition to the British, Scottish, Canadian, Australian and Americans highlighted in the film. Brickhill's job, during the more than two-year-long escape project, was as the leader of security "stooges" who guarded the forgers who needed as much light as possible for their work. As in the film, "ferret" was the name Allied POWs gave to German security guards who patrolled the camp searching for escape tunnels. Brickhill wrote that the head of the escape, South African Roger Bushnel, "Big X" (Roger Bartlett in the film), eventually forbade Brickhill and a small handful of others from making the escape on grounds of their claustrophobia, a condition reflected in the film. Although acknowledging that the decision at the time was frustrating, however correct, Brickhill admitted it likely saved his life.
Work on constructing the three escape tunnels and producing the clothes, forged identity papers and myriad of other items necessary for the escape project began in late 1942. The breakout took place on the night of March 24, 1944 and did, as portrayed in the film, divert a great number of German military and police to track down the escapees. As shown in the film, despite discovering that the tunnel exit was just short of the intended cover of the forest, seventy-six men succeeded in escaping, and three men did evade capture, but, unlike in the film, no Americans were involved. Adolf Hitler personally ordered the execution of the fifty recaptured prisoners, whose memories are commemorated by three markers in the R.A.F. cemetery in Britain.
In the 1970s interviews, Sturges revealed that the film was made with the intention of having an intermission after the death of "Archie Ives," but despite the picture's length, it was shown without interruption. The Great Escape was one of the top-grossing films of 1963 and received an Academy Award nomination for Film Editing. Critics generally praised the film, with trade reviews correctly predicting its box-office success, and even those critics who were not enthusiastic, such as Bosley Crowther of New York Times, still finding its story engrossing. Most reviews agreed with Time, which called the picture "simply great escapism," and Arthur Knight in Saturday Review (of Literature), who called it "the most exhilarating and sobering adventure of the year."
The Great Escape remains one of the most popular World War II films of all time, marked not only by McQueen's motorcycle sequence, but Elmer Bernstein's distinctive, rousing score. The picture was selected as #19 on AFI's 2001 list of the one hundred most thrilling American pictures of all time. In 1988, NBC broadcast a two-part movie, The Great Escape II: The Untold Story, which starred Christopher Reeve and was co-directed by Jud Taylor, who made his last feature-film appearance as "Goff" in The Great Escape before quitting acting to become a prolific television director.