GREAT ESCA

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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