Given how much the film is loved now, it is surprising to learn that 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 – a genre that the British understandably took to with relish, but of which the big studios were growing weary. Another possible reason is that the film’s narrative featured no women, no love interest. The lack of a glamorous actress in the cast may have made it seem very much less bankable.
McQueen wasjealous of James Garner’s white sweater (REX FEATURES)
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 Steve McQueen. The other big American name was James Garner, who was famous for playing the card-sharp anti-hero of the hit television series Maverick.
From the British side, the main role of ‘Big X’ – Sqd Ldr Roger Bartlett – went to a commanding Richard Attenborough (the original Bartlett, Richard Harris, had dropped out, having apparently objected to the part being diminished in a script re-draft). 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 actually keep the cameras rolling. The truth was that they didn’t always manage to do so.
The three-month shoot took place near Munich, starting in June 1962. The budget, at about $ 4 million, would have seemed big to the British actors, but perhaps rather more modest to their Hollywood counterparts. Certainly Sturges felt that 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 America that resembled a Bavarian 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 that they would replant two for every one that came down.
The set construction was, according to the actor David McCallum, who played Flt Lt Eric Ashley-Pitt, in charge of ‘dispersal’, 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. McCallum said, ‘Everyone drove like a maniac, including Donald Pleasence, who’d brought his Jag over. 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.
McQueen has his make-up touched up in one of the tunnels (REX FEATURES)
‘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.’ Adams knew instantly that he was in the presence of someone special. ‘Whatever it was about Steve McQueen… I couldn’t put my finger on it,’ Adams, 74, says. ‘There he was, about five foot seven, skinny… But 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 Affair would come much later), he was already exhibiting the behaviour of a great Hollywood diva.
A few days into shooting he was invited to view rushes of the footage that had been shot so far, and it was immediately apparent to him that his character, the insolent, fiercely independent Capt 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 James 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, that 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, James 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 some 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.”’ 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, Steve?” “Well, I don’t like this. I don’t like that.” We went through a lot of scenes. I said, “This is silly. You don’t like anything, Steve.”’ Part of the problem, it seemed, was McQueen’s determination that his character remain cool and inscrutable. ‘We finally figured out,’ Garner said, ‘“Steve, you want to be the hero, but you don’t want to do anything heroic.”’
Donald Pleasence as Colin Blythe, the ‘Forger’ (REX FEATURES)
There was also tension between McQueen and Richard Attenborough, who, as escape mastermind Bartlett, had a big chunk of screen time, which rattled McQueen. Attenborough asked why the American was so hostile towards him. James Coburn told him that it was ‘paranoia’.
McQueen wasn’t the only cast member who wanted to exert his influence on the script. Donald 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 had recorded the number-one hit Johnny Remember Me for the producer Joe Meek in 1961). In the film he portrayed Willie the ‘Tunnel King’, right-hand man to Charles 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.’
Charles Bronson was a brooding presence on set, and although Leyton recalls his screen buddy with some fondness, he acknowledges that 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 Bronson making eyes at David McCallum’s wife, the actress 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.’ Jill 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 – Steve McQueen’s doomed motorcycle leap over the Swiss border fences – was carried out by the stuntman Bud Ekins. Which is not to say that 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.
The stuntman Bud Ekins performs the jump over the wires (REX FEATURES)
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, John 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. And,’ he adds, laughing, ‘it was 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 their own ways – 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 it at least observed that The Great Escape was ‘the greatest escapism’. Audiences agreed with gusto – 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. Millions of people introduced to the film via television would probably argue that Christmas and Bank Holidays are not quite complete without it.
Importantly, the film was also appreciated by the men who had actually been in the PoW camps. Steve McQueen’s jump may have been pure Hollywood (to appeal to US audiences, American involvement in the filmed escape was exaggerated), but John Leyton and Tom Adams fondly recall how the film afforded them the chance to meet real veterans, both 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.’
The Great Escape is broadcast on December 25 at 2.50pm (5USA)