Affair would come later), he was already exhibiting the behaviour of a Hollywood big shot. A few days into shooting he was invited to view rushes of the footage and it was immediately apparent to him that his character, the insolent, fiercely independent Captain Virgil Hilts, veteran of 17 escape attempts, seemed to be spending much of his screen time in the isolation cell, the ‘‘ cooler’’.
By contrast, his acting rival Garner, playing Hendley, the ingenious ‘‘ Scrounger’’ who could procure everything from chocolates to cameras, was getting rather meatier material. McQueen — according to many of his co-stars and crew members — furiously declined to film any more of his scenes until the script was reworked to give him more to do. Hence the brilliant, though wholly fictional, motorbike chase, which had not figured in the original script.
‘‘ On another occasion,’’ Adams remembers, ‘‘ I overheard McQueen and the director in a corner. The director was saying, ‘ For God’s sake, Steve, you have to say the lines!’ McQueen didn’t want to deliver the lines, he wanted the scene to be all reaction shots. He wasn’t a big star then but he knew this was his chance to become a big star.’’
Such were the crises that McQueen’s agent had to fly over to Germany to smooth things over. ‘‘ McQueen had power for the first time in his life,’’ Adams says. ‘‘ He was jealous of James Garner, who was very handsome in character with his white sweater. McQueen was upset about that sweater.’’ So upset he demanded a costume swap, according to Adams. ‘‘ The production people said, ‘ We’ll get Garner to change into a sweatshirt and you can wear the jumper.’ ’’ Eventually, McQueen calmed down and the swap never took place.
For his part, Garner was amused by McQueen’s attempts to manoeuvre himself to the apex of the ensemble cast. Rather than feeling threatened, he had a part in trying to talk the actor round when he threw a tantrum.
‘‘ He [Steve] wanted to re-shoot everything that we’d done,’’ Garner said in an interview about 40 years later, ‘‘ and hell, we were hurting for money and time and everything. So a couple of days later, John Sturges came to me and said, ‘ Jim, you’re the star of the picture. Steve is out.’ ’’
But rather than grabbing for glory, Garner decided to open up diplomatic channels to bring McQueen back. ‘‘ I took Steve and Coburn,’’ Garner recalled, ‘‘ and we went over to my house in Munich and we went through the script. I said, ‘ Well, what’s your problem, don’t like this. I don’t like through a lot of scenes. I said, don’t like anything, Steve.’ ’’
Part of the problem, it seemed, was McQueen’s determination that his character remain cool and inscrutable. Garner said he told McQueen: ‘‘ Steve, you want to be the hero, but you don’t want to do anything heroic.’’ But he added: ‘‘ We finally figured out.’’
There was also tension between McQueen and Attenborough, who, as escape mastermind Bartlett, had a big chunk of screen time. Attenborough asked why the American was so hostile towards him. Coburn told him it was ‘‘ paranoia’’.
McQueen wasn’t the only cast member who wanted to exert influence on the script. Pleasence was keen to offer advice about the reality of life in the PoW camps to Sturges, but was impatiently shooed away for his impertinence. Pleasence had not let on to Sturges that while serving with the RAF during the war he had spent time as a PoW after his Lancaster bomber was shot down over Nazi territory. He knew his stuff rather better than the director. (When Sturges found out the truth he went to some pains to consult Pleasence properly.)
Many of the cast were delighted just to be there. Among the younger actors was the pop star John Leyton, who portrayed Willie the ‘‘ Tunnel King’’, right-hand man to Bronson’s hot-headed Danny.
Leyton, now 78, remembers fondly not only how the production opened other Hollywood doors for him, but also how it got him out of an awkward spot in England. A trained actor, he was a reluctant heart-throb to the nation’s teenage girls. ‘‘ I welcomed the film being shot in Germany because I’d just recorded another couple of singles and in England I was being followed down the street by screaming fans,’’ he recalls. ‘‘ They were becoming quite a problem. I couldn’t go out on my own, it was getting that bad.’’
Bronson was a brooding presence on set and although Leyton recalls his screen buddy with some fondness, he acknowledges others were not so enamoured. ‘‘ Charlie Bronson didn’t get on too well with James Garner,’’ he says. ‘‘ Charlie could be quite abrupt. He could come out with some outrageous remarks. He was introduced one night to a German woman and instantly said to her, ‘ Why don’t you shave under your goddam arms?’ ’’
Leyton recalls one eventful evening at the house Garner was renting in Munich. ‘‘ We started playing cards,’’ he says. ‘‘ And I was winning. But then Garner accused Bronson of not playing his hand properly. Bronson said, ‘ You accusing me?’ And suddenly they were squaring off. It was handbags at dawn.’’
There was also the delicate matter off-set of Steve?’ ‘ Well, I that.’ We went ‘ This is silly. You Bronson making eyes at McCallum’s actress wife Jill Ireland — and Ireland reciprocating. Tom Adams recalls the excruciating awkwardness of nights out in Munich when Bronson and Ireland would be spotted together in restaurants. ‘‘ Charlie Bronson was a monster,’’ Adams says with some feeling. ‘‘ He should have been in horror films.’’ Ireland clearly didn’t think so — four years later she divorced McCallum and married Bronson (the two men somehow remained friends).
Possibly the film’s most totemic moment, and its biggest diversion from the real-life escape — McQueen’s doomed motorcycle leap over the Swiss border fences — was carried out by stuntman Bud Ekins. Which is not to say McQueen couldn’t have pulled it off. He was an accomplished biker, just as able as many of the stunt riders working on the film. While Ekins played McQueen’s character, Hilts, McQueen appeared in the same sequence, playing a German rider giving chase. Keen to show off his prowess, he also played a German soldier who is knocked off his bike after Hilts strings wire across the road. The film’s insurers, however, refused to allow McQueen to tackle the final leap.
But when the cameras stopped rolling, it was a very different story, Leyton recalls. ‘‘ The stupid thing,’’ he says, ‘‘ was that Steve and me and James Coburn and Charlie Bronson all did the jump when the crew went home after shooting. We took the bikes out, rode them round and did the jump.’’
It was, he adds with a laugh, ‘‘ actually quite easy’’. ‘‘ Well, Coburn nearly came off. But obviously it was not proper barbed wire, it was simply rubber. Also, when you rode into that dip behind the hillock, there was a hidden ramp. So you automatically went into the air. And Bud Ekins was there to show us how to do it.’’
When the shoot ended, there were wrap parties and everyone went his own way. Leyton heard little more about the film until its release the following summer, when he went to the London premiere. Aside from some newspaper advertising, there was little of the intense hype that we take for granted with today’s blockbusters, although the premiere attracted the A-list of the day.
Leyton recalls: ‘‘ Terence Stamp came up to me in the interval and congratulated me on my screen relationship with Charles Bronson.’’
Not everyone was impressed. Penelope Gilliatt, one of the foremost film critics of the time, wrote: ‘‘ The cocky music doesn’t help, nor does the fact that the German who runs the camp is 10 times more sympathetic than his charges, like a weary schoolmaster in charge of a maddening class.’’ She concluded that the film had ‘‘ a script ready-made for the Goons’’. Time magazine also had concerns, partly about the use of colour in what it felt ought to have been a stark, monochrome film, but at least it observed that The Great Escape was ‘‘ the greatest escapism’’.
Audiences agreed: in its first year the film pulled in about $12 million, making it one of the biggest financial successes of 1963. Its reputation thereafter grew and grew.
Significantly, the film was also appreciated by the men who had been in the PoW camps. McQueen’s jump may have been pure Hollywood (to appeal to US audiences, American involvement in the filmed escape was exaggerated), but Leyton and Adams fondly recall how the film afforded them the chance to meet real veterans, on the shoot and then years later at military reunions. There was one at the Imperial War Museum in 2003 at which, Adams remembers with a rueful laugh, ‘‘ there were more real veterans than there were surviving actors from the film. Real live wires. And when you think about it now, what a story, and all true. The tunnel bellows, the dyeing of the uniforms, and above all, the courage.’’
The film is now enthralling a new generation. ‘‘ Little boys come up to me saying it’s their favourite film,’’ Leyton says. ‘‘ It’s pure Boy’s Own. But the real PoW veterans were very happy. They were impressed at how the film caught the reality of it all.’’