Great Escape, The (1963): Steve McQueen at his Coolest

A highly enjoyable WWII action-adventure, The Great Escape is now mostly known as a star vehicle for Steve McQueen, then at his coolest and most handsome.  But the movie offers much more than a good (really tailor-made) part for McQueen.

Produced and directed with great panache by John Sturges, the showcases a terrific ensemble, which includes Charles Bronson, James Garner, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, David McCallum, and Donald Pleasance.  (Several of these featured actors went on to become stars, on the big as well as on the small screen).  All of the cast members bring likable bravado to their roles.

An event movie, before the term was even invented, “Great Escape” blends effectively elements of suspense, action, humor, and derring-do.  It also claims epic running time of 168 minutes, which is indulgent, but the fun that the movie offers compensates for that.

Loosely based on historical facts, “Great Escape” relates one of the largest Allied escapes from a German POW camp during WWII.   Based on a script from James Clavell and W. R. Burnett, the plot concerns the scheme of several Allied prisoners to escape out of a security-tight camp in Hitler’s Germany.

The mastermind is British (Richard Attenborough, who later became a famous director), who ambitiously and courageously plots to free no less than 250 prisoners

McQueen plays the sole American loner, “Cooler King” Virgil Hilts, a man whose escapades result in placement in solitary-confinement cell.   The main players in the ingeniously engineered jailbreak are a wily procurer (James Garner), a Polish tunneler (Charles Bronson), the ace forger (Donald Pleasance), and an Aussie (James Coburn).

“The Great Escape” offers many pleasures, both thematic and visual. The adventure gets into high gear once the break begins, as the escapees use every means of transportation–trains, planes, boats, and even a motorcycle–to slip out of occupied Europe with the Gestapo on their tail.

John Sturges directed the film in his customary unpretentious way, right after he made the equally popular adventure, “The Magnificent Seven.”  In this film, he reunites with the former feature’s stars, McQueen, Bronson, and Coburn.

Though deviating from the true story in several significant aspects, the ending is largely faithful, offering the kind of closure which is not characteristic of mainstream Hollywood movies.

The energetic movie is well crafted and highly entertaining, propagating macho, gung-ho heroism. Elmer Bernstein’s exhilarating dynamic score adds considerably to the overall impact of the film.

Despite mixed reviews upon initial release, “Great Escape” has become a favorite war picture, a cult item that celebrates movie heroism—and movie stars.



Cooler King Hilts (Steve McQueen)

The Scrounger Hendley (James Garner)

Big X Bartlett (Richard Attenborough)

Senior Officer Ramsey (James Donald)

Danny Velinksi (Charles Bronson)

The Forger Blythe (Donald Pleasance)

The Manfucaturer Sedgwick (James Coburn)

Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum)

MacDonald (Gordon Jackson)

Willie (John Leyton)



UA (Mirisch Production)

Produced and directed by John Sturges

Screenplay: James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, based on the book by Paul Brickhill

Camera: Daniel Fapp

Editor: Ferris Webster

Music: Elmer Bernstein

Art direction: Fernando Carrere

Costumes: Bert Henrikson

Running Time: 168 Minutes

Oscar Nominations: 1

Film Editing: Ferris Webster

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Edition Oscar was Harold F. Kress for the anthology, How the West Was Won, which also was nominated for Best Picture