THERE are classic films, and there are those — very few — that take on extraordinary lives of their own. One of them, the prisoner-of-war adventure The Great Escape, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, is woven deeply into the cultural tapestry, a landmark in its own right, endlessly quoted, watched, its style endlessly emulated.
The film’s most famous image — Steve McQueen on that Triumph TR6 Trophy motorbike — became an entire generation’s shorthand for cool, while Elmer Bernstein’s jauntily catchy theme music is a metonym for good-humoured masculinity.
The film was based on a book by Australian PoW Paul Brickhill, his first-hand account of the ill-fated mass escape in 1944 from Stalag Luft III in what is now Zagan, Poland. On March 24, 76 men initially escaped via a 100m tunnel, 9m below ground (Brickhill suffered claustrophobia and stayed behind), one of the most daring escapes of World War II. Seventy-three of the escapees were quickly recaptured and 50 executed by the Gestapo.
As in the film, hundreds of PoWs had been involved in the escape plot; there really were expert forgeries and dyed clothes; there really had been three painstakingly built tunnels (Tom, Dick and Harry), dug out with cutlery and supported with hundreds of wooden bed boards. And the length of the tunnel through which the prisoners escaped really had been miscalculated and came up short, so that the men didn’t emerge into the relative safety of a forest, as planned, but just ahead of the tree line, in view of the camp’s observation posts.
The director, John Sturges, who previously had been at the helm of the 1960 smash-hit western The Magnificent Seven, later said he was always drawn to ‘‘ stories of courage’’ and narratives that involved the selfless, more sacrificial side of human nature.
Given how much the film is loved now, it is surprising to learn Sturges had some initial difficulties finding a studio that would back the project. A possible reason is that for the previous few years cinema screens had been blocked solid with war films. Another possible reason is the film’s narrative featured no women, no love interest. The lack of a glamorous actress may have made it seem less bankable.
Nevertheless, the Mirisch Company and United Artists rode in. As with The Magnificent Seven, this was to be an ensemble piece and would even feature three of the Seven: James Coburn, Charles Bronson and the rapidly rising star McQueen. The other big American name was James Garner, who was famous for playing the card-sharp antihero of the hit television series Maverick. From the British side, the main role of ‘‘ Big X’’ — Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett — went to a commanding Richard Attenborough (the original Bartlett, Richard Harris, had dropped out, apparently having objected to the part being diminished in a redraft of the script).
Donald Pleasence was ‘‘ The Forger’’, Colin Blythe, crippled by failing eyesight; Gordon Jackson was the RAF intelligence officer Andy ‘‘ Mac’’ MacDonald. Today part of the pleasure of watching the film is wondering how on earth they managed to force together so many vertiginous egos and keep the cameras rolling. The truth is they didn’t always manage to do so.
The three-month shoot took place near Munich, starting in June 1962. The budget, about $4 million, would have seemed big to the British actors but perhaps rather more modest to their Hollywood counterparts. Certainly Sturges felt he had to keep the whole operation very tight and was keenly aware that time and money could not be squandered.
The initial idea had been to make the film in California, largely for logistical reasons. But Sturges and his crew couldn’t find anywhere in the US that resembled a German forest. Before long they fixed on coming to Europe because, as Sturges pointed out, ‘‘ Germany looks like Germany’’. The crew found an area of forest in which to build the main set — the vast Stalag Luft camp. To do so they stripped away hundreds of trees, with the promise they would replant two for every one that came down. The set construction was, according to the actor David McCallum, who played Flight Lieutenant Eric Ashley-Pitt, sometimes a communal affair. ‘‘ Every time we had a break,’’ he recalled a few years ago, ‘‘ we were asked to sit there and knit together these pieces of rubber tubing, which went on to be the barbed wire that ran around the camp.’’
Off-set, life was much more lively. ‘‘ Everyone drove like a maniac, including Donald Pleasence, who’d brought his Jag over,’’ McCallum said. ‘‘ But Steve [McQueen] was the guy — mirroring the film, almost — who took the most risks and had the traffic police in awe of him. When he was pulled over they’d say, ‘ Herr McQueen, good morning, we’re delighted that once again you’ve won the special prize’, and cart him off to the jail. Once I asked him what he did in a crash. He told me you should aim for the smallest trees.’’
Tom Adams, 23 at the time, had just come from doing Shakespeare in London theatres for comically modest wages. By contrast, the money he received for playing RAF officer Dai Nimmo, in charge of ‘‘ diversions’’, would enable him to buy his first car. And the expenses he received while living in Munich gave him — and all the actors — the run of the best restaurants and bars. ‘‘ It was a lovely summer. I had a hell of a time,’’ he says now. ‘‘ Steve McQueen was as mad as a hatter. He wrote off six or seven cars out there.’’
But Adams, now 74, knew instantly he was in the presence of someone special. ‘‘ Whatever it was about Steve McQueen . . . I couldn’t put my finger on it,’’ he says. ’’’ There he was, about five foot seven, skinny . . . on nights out in Munich, if he walked into the bar, the women — whoomph — would be around him. What did he have?’’
One thing McQueen certainly had was chutzpah. Though not yet a bona fide film legend ( Bullitt, Le Mans and The Thomas Crown