In 1963, World War II was a mere 18 years ago. This was the golden age, if you will, of War movies — WWII was close enough to resonate profoundly, yet with enough distance to allow Hollywood to exercise poetic license. Such was the case for The Great Escape.
On the one hand, much of the film, adpated from the 1950 non-fiction book by Paul Brickhill, was indeed fictionalized. This included the involvement of Americans — only one U.S. fighter was present at the real escape from the German POW camp Stalag Luft III.
But on the other hand, it is still extraordinary to know that such an escape did occur. Tom, Dick and Harry were real tunnels and more than 50 men escaped through them, albeit temporarily.
The film was a smash, and its status as a cinema classic has risen inexorably. Today, it is the film British men most wish to see on Christmas Day, according to polls.
The Great Escape also established Steve McQueen as a superstar, due in no small way to the spectacular stunt scenes involving a motorbike. Alas, these scenes were fiction — McQueen, a very keen motorcyclist, asked for their inclusion.
McQueen did not perform the major leap. The studio lacked the insurance and his friend Bud Ekins took over the saddle of the Triumph TR6 Trophy. But so skilled was McQueen on a motorbike that he played other riders in the film too. Due to editing, at one point McQueen is to be seen dressed in a German uniform chasing himself on another bike.
Nonetheless, the stunt has come to be regarded as amongst the very best ever committed to celluloid. It paid off for McQueen too, by 1974, he had become the highest paid movie star in the world. After his death in 1980, he was elected to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
And the Great Escape bike itself? You’ll find it on display at Triumph HQ, near London.