The Great Escape – possibly the best war film ever made – 60 years on

Image above: Steve McQueen in The Great Escape; photograph IMDb / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. 

Richard Attenborough’s son and Donald Pleasence’s nephew share their memories at a screening of the 1963 classic

I could have sworn I’d seen The Great Escape in the cinema when it first came out. I can’t have done because I would have been four years old, so it must just have been the power of the film, even on television, which imprinted it with such clarity because it stands out in remarkable detail in my memory: the plot, the humour, the tension, the breathtaking ending.

There was not a dry eye in the house when it was screened on Sunday (30 July), introduced by Michael Attenborough, son of Richard Attenborough, one of the lead actors, as part of the Richard Attenborough retrospective season at Chiswick Cinema.

The film tells the true story of Allied airmen in Stalag Luft III – prisoners who had caused the Germans trouble by repeatedly trying to escape from other camps all housed together in the same high security camp – “all the rotten eggs in one basket” as the German Commandant said. They regarded it as their mission to tie up as much German manpower as possible in guarding them, to keep them away from the front.

The film commemorates the 50 Allied prisoners who were executed by the Germans when they were caught after a mass escape.

READ ALSO: The Great Escape(1963) – Film review by Andrea Carnevali

Images above: Steven McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson; photographs IMDb / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. 

Actors who had served in the war bringing their real life experience to the screen

The Great Escape had an all-star cast: Steven McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson representing the Americans – tall, handsome, strong – and the Brits: Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, James Donald, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, John Leyton, Angus Lennie – English and Scottish character actors of assorted shapes and sizes and regional accents representing the chippy, subversive mix that were the RAF officers.

Made 60 years ago, many of the actors were of an age to have been called up to fight. Richard Attenborough served in the RAF and so did Donald Pleasence, whose nephew Christian Howgill joined Michael Attenborough to introduce the film. Christian told the audience how his uncle had been a wireless operator with No. 166 Squadron in Bomber Command and had spent time in a prisoner of war camp for real.

“He flew over 60 missions in a Lancaster bomber, many times over Berlin. He just managed to parachute out in time when his plane was downed and he spent three years in the prisoner of war camp Stalag 1.

“He was a pain in the neck for [director] John Sturges because Donald would pipe up: ‘No, that wouldn’t have happened’. They made him technical adviser and gave him a bit of extra cash and years later John Sturges admitted: ‘the only reason we did that was to get you off set and shut you the hell up.’

The Great Escape was the film he was most proud of and the one for which he got his best reviews.”

Images above: Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum; photographs IMDb / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. 

Chiswick connections

Donald Pleasence lived in Chiswick and there is a plaque on the house next to the Bull’s Head at Strand on the Green to commemorate him.

“Donald would have so loved to have been here to honour his friend” said Christian. “He loved Chiswick and would have loved this cinema. He would have been a founder member for sure.”

Best known for this film and for his role as James Bond villain Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, Donald Pleasence made some 250 films and he and Richard Attenborough were often up for the same parts.

“Richard was astonished how many he’d done. ‘Have you ever turned down a role?’ he asked him. ‘I can’t afford to be as choosy as you’ said Donald, ‘I have four wives and five children to support. I always feel when I get a script that it still has your fingerprints on’.”

Donald bonded with David McCallum (The Man from U.N.C.L.E, NCIS) on this film, said Christian, as they were both going through messy divorces.

“Donald was always going through a messy divorce.”

He was, said Christian, rather in awe of Steve McQueen at the start of the picture. McQueen was by then a huge Hollywood star, and impossibly cool. (“Heaven for a 13 year old” said Michael Attenborough, who got to hang out with him on set. “He was every bit as cool in person as he was on film”).

McQueen and Pleasence bonded, said Christian, because they found common ground in their love of fast cars. His uncle had an E-type Jaguar, of which he was inordinately proud.

McQueen had also served, after the end of the war, in the US Marine Corps, where he had spent time in a military prison for and unauthorized absence, failing to return after a weekend pass expired, but also saved the lives of five other Marines during an Arctic exercise, pulling them from a tank before it broke through ice into the sea.

I think that is what makes this film so special: not only is it a true story, but the lived experience of some of the cast matches the heroism in the film.

Image above: Gordon Jackson, Donald Pleasence, Richard Attenborough, James Garner in the tunnel waiting to escape; photograph IMDb / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. 

A lasting friendship between Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen

“I remember dad doing this film as a kid” said Michael Attenborough. “It was his first Hollywood film. He had turned down other films before because he didn’t want to work in America, so far away from his wife and family, but this one was ok because it was shot in Germany, in Bavaria.

“Dad struck up a close friendship with Steve McQueen and they stayed in touch. Dad was in LA and Steve rang him at his hotel and said: ‘so glad you’re in town, come and have a drink’.”

Walking out of the blinding LA sunshine into a downtown bar, as his eyes accustomed to the darkness he saw a figure at the far end of the bar wearing a baseball cap, and it was Steve McQueen. They spent time together drinking and chatting and eventually Richard had to go.

“As he walked out, Steve McQueen said: ‘Dickie I love you’. ‘I know you do’, dad said, ‘I love you too’.

“Four days later Steve died and that was his way of saying goodbye. It was an incredibly selfless thing to do, not to tell him he was dying, but he had cancer and the baseball cap was to hide the hair loss from the chemotherapy.

“One of my fondest memories of Steve McQueen was when they were filming The Sand Pebbles. I went to hang out with him and found him playing cards with the electricians between his scenes. He wasn’t a method actor at all but he was completely professional. Bonkers about cars, he was the Tom Cruise of his day, he did all his own stunts.”

Including the incredible scene in The Great Escape where he is pursued by German soldiers across the foothills of the Alps, riding a motorbike he has stolen from them, increasingly desperate to get across the barbed wire double fence that marks the border with Switzerland, and he makes that death defying leap.