APISM

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - ©Tele­graph Me­dia Group Limited 2013

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.’’

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