Welcome to a new weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film available on streaming. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
The early 1960s were a time of unrest and change. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum across the country. Large-scale strife grew in Vietnam between the government and communist factions. As citizens sought peace and equality, they turned to movies as a form of entertainment and escape. Rugged heroes and stylish, grandiose epics thrilled audiences around the world while giving them temporary break from daily pressures.
Before flashy CGI and superhero blockbusters, Hollywood action films were a different kind of breed. Westerns, fast cars, and James Bond flicks dominated the box office. Actors John Wayne and Clint Eastwood were arguably some of the biggest superstars in cinema. As slick, lavish thrillers rose in popularity, a new kind of action star emerged: the ultra-cool leading man.
In contrast to the tough, western heroes, the “ultra-cool” types were smooth and suave. Actors like Sean Connery and Marlon Brando battled evil villains or raced fast cars without breaking a sweat. They were good-looking, a little rebellious, and a little sensitive at the same time. Out of all the leading men in the 1960s, no one embodied the hip and cool like Steve McQueen. Still an enduring pop-culture icon to this day, McQueen exploded as an action superstar with the release of the WWII film, The Great Escape.
Clocking in at nearly three hours long, The Great Escape is the tale of British and other Allied prisoners of war attempting to escape from a German POW camp during World War II. The film is based on real events, but with many elements enhanced or exaggerated for commercial appeal. A few main characters in the film are composites based on several real-life people. Out of the 1,800 prisoners in the German camp, an estimated 600 of them were involved with preparing for the escape. Ex-POWs involved in the escape asked the filmmakers to eliminate details about any help they received from their home countries including maps, tools, and papers. They complied, leaving this information vague.
Large, real-life details of the event are crucial plot points in the film’s narrative. The length of the tunnel (dug out with cutlery) that the prisoners dug actually did come up short as the result of a miscalculation. The men did not come up above ground in the safety of the forest, but instead just before the tree line — still in view from the camp’s observation posts. The tragic ending of the movie is also sadly real. Of the 73 escaped men that were quickly recaptured, 50 were swiftly executed by the gestapo. Only three prisoners actually escaped to freedom, two Norwegian (Jens Müller & Per Bergsland) and one Dutch (Bram van der Stok).
One of the most iconic scenes in the movie was not in fact a real life event. The motorcycle sequence was done at the request of Steve McQueen. An avid motorcyclist, he performed the stunt scenes himself except for the final big jump (done by Bud Ekins, also famous for his stunt work in Bullitt.) Actor David McCallum, who appeared in the film, remarked, “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.’” Over the years, the image of McQueen on a Triumph TR6 Trophy motorbike has become a universal symbol of cool.
Besides McQueen, the film boasts a large ensemble cast with many well-known actors who went on to substantial fame. Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Donald Pleasance, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn are just some of the notable names in the cast who portrayed famous roles in film and TV such as Jurassic Park, The Rockford Files, Halloween, Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Muppet Movie. The Great Escape became a model example for movie studios on how to create an epic film without compromising in quality.
One of the most famous aspects of The Great Escape is the film’s score. The famous theme has been featured prominently in several commercials, and has become an unofficial anthem for the England national soccer team.
The movie itself was filmed at the Bavaria Film Studio in a suburb near Munich, Germany. Alfred Hitchcock shot his first film, The Pleasure Garden, here as well. In addition, the location is famous for being the filming site for The Neverending Story. Today, visitors can tour the studio to see props and sets from the film.
The Great Escape has been referenced or parodied many times in pop culture. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Red Dwarf, Chicken Run, Reservoir Dogs, and even the 1998 remake of The Parent Trap all contain homages or references to the film.
The Great Escape is currently available to stream on Netflix Instant.
Who’s your favorite action film star? What other classic movies would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!