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Star of the Month: Steve McQueen
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The Great Escape

The Great Escape

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