Sneaky Facts About The Great Escape

Released in 1963, The Great Escape is an epic war film based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 nonfiction novel of the same name. The novel provides a firsthand account of the escape made by British Commonwealth prisoners of war from Stalag Luft III, a German prisoner of war camp. Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough, the film is based on the true events that occur in the novel, although some changes were made. It was one of the highest-grossing films when it was released and is now considered a classic. Now, go under the wire to learn some lesser-known facts about the making of this iconic film.

Steve McQueen’s Character Was Based On Several Real People

Steve McQueen with a baseball
United Artists
United Artists

Steve McQueen’s character, as the proud and cool-headed Captain Virgil, is based on an amalgamation of actual American prisoners of war during World War II. The first was Dave Jones, a flight commander during the Doolittle Raid, who was later shot down and captured in Europe.

Another soldier he was based on was Colonel Jerry Sage, an OSS agent who managed to put on a flight jacket to avoid execution for being a spy. Another potential inspiration was Squadron Leader Eric Foster, who escaped no less than seven times from German POW camps.

Donald Pleasence Actually Experienced Being A Prisoner Of War

Blythe in front of a chalk board
United Artists
United Artists

In the film, Donald Pleasence plays the bird-watching lover Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe, also known as the “Tunnel Forger.” It turns out, Pleasence was a real Royal Air Force pilot in World War II that was shot down and was tortured by the Germans while a prisoner of war.

When Pleasence first began offering his suggestions to director John Sturges, he was politely asked to keep his opinions to himself. Yet, after Sturges learned what Pleasence had actually been through, he began seeking out Pleasence’s advice from that point forward.

McQueen Was Arrested During Filming

McQueen on a motorcycle
United Artists
United Artists

While filming, the police in the German town set up a speed trap that happened to be near the set. Although several members of the crew received tickets, when McQueen came through, things became a little more serious.

When he was pulled over, the police chief stated, “Herr McQueen, we have caught several of your comrades today, but you have won the prize (for the highest speeding).” Because he was going so fast, McQueen was arrested and spent a short amount of time in jail.

Steve McQueen Used A Stunt Double, Once

Ekins jumping a motorcycle
United Artists
United Artists

While Steve McQueen did his own motorcycle riding in the film, there was one scene in which he required a stunt double, which was the five-foot jump over the fence. This feat was performed by McQueen’s friend Bud Ekins, who was managing a Los Angeles-based motorcycle shop when he was recruited for the stunt.

This also helped spark Ekins’ career as McQueen’s double, later riding in the film Bullitt, as well as the majority of the motorcycle scenes in CHiPs.

Everyone Helped Build Part Of The Set

McQueen in barbed wire
United Artists
United Artists

During downtime or in between takes, every member of the crew from the star Steve McQueen to the food service workers had a task to do. They were instructed to tie five-inch strings of black rubber together in order to create very long connected pieces.

The end result of all of this work was the fences of barbed wire that surrounded the German POW camp. They did this because it was much cheaper than using actual barbed wire, and it wouldn’t hurt the actors.

The Film Attempted To Be As Realistic As Possible

Behind the scenes at the camp
United Artists
United Artists

The movie was shot entirely on-location in Europe with the camp closely resembling Stalag Luft III built near Munich, Germany. The exterior shots of the camp were shot in the Rhine Country and other areas near the North Sea.

Furthermore, McQueen’s motorcycle scenes were filmed on the Austrian border and the Alps, with all of the interiors, bring filmed at the Bavaria Studio in Munich. The camp was even built so convincingly, that a man walking his dog stumbled across it and was extremely distressed before learning it was a movie set.

Some Of The German Actors Had Experiences Of Their Own

Hannes Messemer in uniform
United Artists
United Artists

A few of the German actors were cast out of Munich, including, Hannes Messemer and Til Kiwe. Interestingly, both men had their own experiences being prisoners of war during World War II and attempting to escape.

Messemer was captured on the Eastern Front by the Soviet Union where he eventually escaped and walked hundreds of miles back to safety behind the German border. Kiwe served time in an American prison camp in Colorado where he attempted to escape an impressive seventeen times.

Small Details From The Real Story Were Included In The Film

man with head out of the tunnel
United Artists
United Artists

In the scene when Hilts is removing bed boards to use in the tunnels, and Cavendish removes too many, causing him to fall through the bunks is a true story.

In Paul Brickhill’s book, describing the real incident in Stalag Luft III, in an attempt to use as many boards as possible, the real prisoner Roger Bushell took out all of his boards and used strings to support his mattress. However, the string was not strong enough, and Roger came crashing down on top of his bunkmate.

The Studio Wanted Women In The Film

Director and Steve McQueen on set
Denver Post via Getty Images
Denver Post via Getty Images

In the early stages of production, Director John Sturges began receiving messages from the studio United Artists requesting that women were included in the film. One of their suggestions even included having a dying Ashley-Pitt being cradled by a beautiful woman in a low-cut blouse.

The studio went so far as to suggest that the woman for this role would be selected through a Miss Prison Camp contest in Munich. Unsurprisingly, Sturges was entirely against this idea.

There Were Some Issues With Planes

GreatEscape_Bu-181_a

Director John Sturges’ assistant, Robert E. Relyea, was an amateur pilot and offered to fly the plane during the scene when Hendley and Blythe steal a plane for their escape. At one point, Relyea had to simulate the plane, losing power and flying low to the ground.

Supposedly, a farmer saw the plane with the Nazi symbol and threw his rake at it. In another instance, Relyea was arrested when he landed the plane in a field that belonged to a German aviation officer. However, these were the worst of his worries as he once crashed the plane, knocking himself unconscious.

They Had To make James Coburn Sound Australian

James Coburn as Sedgewick
United Artists
United Artists

Because James Coburn had no Australian accent, the production team had to come up with strategies to emphasize that his character Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick was Australian.

One example of this is when entering the workshop, Sedgewick comments, “Bluey, where the hell is the air pump?” Bluey is a slang term for a person with red hair. Unfortunately, while this was done in order to support his character, the word went over most audiences’ heads.

There Are Numerous Languages Spoken In The Film

Fourth of July scene
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

In total, there are six different languages that are either spoken or sung in the film which include, English, German, French, Russian and one word in Spanish. Furthermore, there are two words in Latin (“Lanius Nubicus”) Flight Lieutenant Blythe is describing the masked shrike or butcher bird in the forgery scene.

On top of that, there is also a song in light Scots dialect when Ives and MacDonald are singing “Wha Hae the 42nd” in the Fourth of July scene.

Claustrophobia Is A Common Theme

Charles Bronson as the Tunnel King
United Artists
United Artists

In the film, Flight Lieutenant Danny Velinski the “Tunnel King” suffering from claustrophobia was no coincidence. Paul Brickhill, the author from which the book is based on also had the condition.

In the real escape, Brickhill was originally supposed to be toward the front of the line. However, when his condition became known to the rest of the men, he was considered to be a risk and was dropped to the bottom of the list. He attributes this with saving his life.

Some Aspects Of The Escape Were Kept A Secret

McQueen setting a trap
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

During production, some aspects of the original escape were classified, and not revealed to the public until much later. This included using items such as coffee, cigarettes, chocolate, and Red Cross packages to bribe Nazi guards.

Other materials used to escape were also kept secret and weren’t revealed in either the book or the movie. Many years later, it was also revealed that the escapees had also built a fourth tunnel to escape named “George.”

McQueen Plays Hilts And A German Soldier

McQueen dressed as a German
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

During the climactic motorcycle chase, Steve McQueen managed to convince John Sturges to ride in disguise as one of the Pursuing German soldiers. So, with a little bit of movie magic, not only is McQueen playing Hilts riding a motorcycle but also one of the soldiers chasing him.

Although most people wouldn’t be able to tell, McQueen plays the German soldier that hit the wire Hilts constructs and can no longer continue the chase. Clearly, McQueen would do anything to get on a bike!

The German National Railroad Bureau Lent A Hand

Actors waiting at the train station
United Artists
United Artists

In order to successfully film the train railway escape sequences, the German National Railroad Bureau helped production. They allowed for platforms to be fitted in passenger cars to install the correct lighting as well as build a Chapman crane on the top of one.

The bureau provided a special radio operator to alert the train engineer to any potential traffic on the rails. The bureau also arranged certain times for production to work in between regularly scheduled trains.

McQueen Breaks Character In A Scene

McQueen with bags
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

In the scene when McQueen and his other fellow Americans are pouring homemade moonshine for the rest of the prisoners in the camp, Hilts is thrown off by an ad-lib by Goff, played by Jud Taylor.

While drinking straight from the bottle, Goff mutters “no taxation without representation.” This causes McQueen to break character and mouths “what?” since it wasn’t in the script. However, the director must have instructed him to keep going and it made it into the finished film.

There Was Romance On Set

Men looking at their work
United Artists/Getty Images
United Artists/Getty Images

During production, Charles Bronson was already very close to David McCallum and his pregnant wife, Jill Ireland. On one occasion, McCallum had to leave set for a few days, and Bronson made sure to keep an eye on Ireland while her husband was away. However, during that time, Bronson fell in love with Ireland.

Director John Sturges was not happy about this because he didn’t want drama on the set, so Bronson backed off. When McCallum returned, Bronson joking told him that he was going to steal Ireland. Then, after Ireland and McCallum divorced in 1967, she ended up marrying Bronson.

United Artists Wanted To Shorten The Film

Steve McQueen walking outside of the gate
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

With the hopes of increasing ticket sales, United Artists wanted to shorten the film, which John Sturges saw as an outrage. However, United Artists were also asking for a large interest of one million dollars to keep the film at its length. So, Sturges and a United Artist executive went to Pacific National Bank for a loan.

The bank board agreed on the condition that they could see the film first, which they did. However, the shortened version didn’t show how the escapees got their civilian clothes, and the bank’s loan helped keep the explanatory scene in the film.

They Used Motorcycles That Were Ahead Of Their Time

McQueen on a Triumph motorcycle
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The motorcycle that Steve McQueen’s character rides is a cosmetically modified Triumph TR6 Trophy. Bud Ekins, who performed the motorcycle jump in the film, was a Triumph dealer, and the motorcycle happened to be McQueen’s favorite to ride.

Furthermore, the motorcycle with the sidecar that crashes into a ditch is a Triumph too. However, these British-made motorcycles were not in existence during World War II, so having them in the film wasn’t exactly historically accurate.