THE GREAT ESCAPE

(1963)

Directed by:  John Sturges

Written by:  James Clavell and W.R. Burnett

Cast
Capt. Virgil Hilts (The Cooler King) Steve McQueen
Lt. Bob Hendley (The Scrounger) James Garner
Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Big X) Richard Attenborough
Group Captain Rupert Ramsey (The SBO) James Donald
Lt. Danny Velinski (Tunnel King) Charles Bronson
Colin Blythe (The Forger) Donald Pleasence
Louis Sedgwick (The Manufacturer) James Coburn
Von Luger (The Kommandant) Hannes Messemer
Eric Ashley-Pitt (Dispersal) David McCallum
Flight Ltd. Sandy MacDonald (Intelligence) Gordon Jackson
Lt. William Dix (Tunnel King) John Leyton
Flying Officer Archibald Ives (The Mole) Angus Lennie
Dennis Cavendish (The Surveyor) Nigel Stock
Werner (The Ferret) Robert Graf
Goff Judd Taylor
Kuhn Hans Reiser
Strachwitz Harry Riebauer
Soren (Security) William Russell
Posen Robert Freitag
Preissen Ulrich Beiger
Dietrich George Mikell
Haynes Lawrence Montaigne
Griff (The Taylor) Robert Desmond
Frick Til Kiwe
Kramer Heinz Weiss
Nimmo Tom Adams
Steinach Karl-Otto Alberty
Capt. Felson (Von Luger's Adjutant)
Herr Gundt (Gestapo)

The following information is compiled from the DVD liner notes and the 23-minute documentary on the DVD.

Paul Brickhill, who wrote the book from which the film is based, was piloting a Spitfire aircraft that was shot down over Tunisia in March 1943.  He was taken to Stalag Luft III in Germany, where he assisted in the escape preparations.

P.O.W.s received many seemingly useless items from a charitable group called American Ladies for the Support of Our Prisoners of War.  Soon, however, the prisoners realized that the objects contained radio parts and German currency -- vital to the escape attempts.

Red Cross packages often provided prisoners with chocolate and other delicacies that their German captors did  not have, giving the prisoners valuable currency to trade for tools needed in their escape.

Approximately five million Germans were assigned to search for the escaped P.O.W.'s, and many thousands were on the job full time for weeks, redirecting valuable manpower from the Nazi war effort, especially important as D-Day approached.

Director John Sturges read Brickhill's book in 1950 and saw the possibilities for an epic film adventure.  Not everyone shared his enthusiasm, however.  Sturges, under contract to MGM, tried to interest studio chief Louis B. Mayer in the property, but was quickly turned down.

"What's so great about an escape where only three people get away" was a common refrain.  The lack of a female romantic interest was also seen as a drawback, and only after Sturges scored a major success with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN did he have the power to get his dream project produced.  But a major challenge still lay ahead:  finding a leading man.

Sturges had helped make Steve McQueen a star with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, but the actor was reluctant to take the role of "Cooler King" Hilts.  McQueen's two previous films had been World War II stories, and both had generated disappointing returns at the box office.  Sturges persisted, and after McQueen read an early script draft, the actor agreed to join the cast with one stipulation:  McQueen, a motorcycle enthusiast, wanted his character to escape by motorbike at the end of the film.  Sturges relented and had the script rewritten to include what would be THE GREAT ESCAPE'S most famous sequence.  Six writers worked on the script which went through 11 versions.

After principal photography concluded, Elmer Bernstein composed a memorable score that ranks among his best.  THE GREAT ESCAPE was released by United Artists on July 4, 1963 to enthusiastic critical reviews, and box office receipts soared as audiences came to witness what is generally acknowledged as one of the best war pictures ever made, and a thrilling testament to the indomitable human spirit.

The film was shot entirely on location in Europe, with a complete camp resembling Stalag Luft III built near Munich, Germany.  Exteriors for the escape sequences were shot in the Rhine Country and areas near the North Sea, and McQueen's motorcycle scenes were filmed in Fussen (on the Austrian border) and in the Alps.  All interiors were filmed at the Bavaria Studio in Munich.

Hundreds of extras were recruited from a university in Munich, but to save time in the casting schedule, Sturges gave bit parts to grips, wardrobe personnel and his script clerk.

During the climactic motorcycle chase, Sturges allowed McQueen to ride (in disguise) as one of the pursuing German soldiers, so that in the final sequence, through the magic of editing, he's actually chasing himself.

Several cast members had been actual P.O.W.s during World War II.  Donald Pleasence was held in a German camp (Stalag Luft I), Hannes Messemer in a Russian camp and Til Kiwe and Hans Reiser were prisoners of the Americans.  James Clavell who co-wrote the screenplay, had been imprisoned in a Japanese P.O.W. camp during World War II, where his experiences formed the basis of his novel KING RAT.

Wallace Floody, a former prisoner-of-war at Stalag Luft III, was hired as the film's technical director.  He gave his unqualified approval to the detailed sets, saying that Sturges and the crew achieved an "authenticity that was too real for comfort".

Charles Bronson, who portrayed the chief tunneller, brought his own expertise to the set; he had been a coal miner before turning to acting and gave director Sturges advice on how to move the earth.  Although McQueen did his own motorcycle riding, there was one stunt he did not perform for insurance reasons:  the hair-raising 60-foot jump over a fence.  This was done by McQueen's friend Bud Ekins, who was managing a Los Angeles-area motorcycle shop when recruited for the stunt.  McCallum remembered that during their spare time, everyone worked on making the fake barbed wire into which McQueen's character would crash his motorcycle.

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