It is possible to pinpoint precisely the moment that Steve McQueen became a movie star.
It comes in the last 20 minutes of The Great Escape when his character, Capt. Virgil Hilts, an escapee from a Nazi P.O.W. camp, commandeers an enemy motorcycle and leads the Germans on a thrilling cross-country chase that culminates with Hilts and his bike jumping a six-foot-tall barbed wire fence.
No one who saw The Great Escape when it was first released can forget that moment. It was so exciting you could taste it. And you left the theater knowing that the cocky, handsome, volatile Steve McQueen was a bona fide movie star.
Not an overnight star, though.
He had impressed fans and critics with his performance in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, playing one of the out-of-work gunfighters hired to protect a Mexican village from banditos. But there McQueen was one of a large ensemble cast. To the extent that the Western had a star, it was Yul Brynner, whose dominant character leads the crew of killers.
So when Magnificent Seven director John Sturges called and asked McQueen to appear in his latest film, a fact-based story of Allied prisoners of war staging a mass escape from a German stalag, the actor was dubious.
“I just did two World War II flicks and they both died in the stretch,” McQueen fretted.
There were other reasons to think that The Great Escape was an iffy proposition. It was an all-male affair with not one woman character. And it was a downer – most of the 70 or so Allied officers who escaped were captured and executed by the Germans. Only three made it all the way to freedom.
But Sturges had been scheming for 13 years to get the movie made, and now that he had studio backing (even though the budget was a fraction of what was required) he was intent on putting together an impressive international cast.
He succeeded, hiring Americans like James Garner, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson (the last two veterans of The Magnificent Seven) and British thesps like Richard Attenborough, David McCallum, Donald Pleasence, and James Donald.
McQueen had put his reservations aside and signed on for two reasons. First, the character of Hilts seemed perfectly tailored to the McQueen persona. He’s cocky and self-confident. He defies his German captors at every opportunity and is always looking for a way to cause trouble or escape. He spends so much time in the solitary confinement barracks – the “cooler” – that he earns the nickname “Cooler King.”
The second reason McQueen said yes was because the screenplay allowed Hilts to outrun his German pursuers on a motorcycle.
McQueen was a cycle-riding fool who used speed to reduce stress. “I have to have some kind of machine or I’ll go out of my mind,” he said.
Indeed, he racked upwards of 40 speeding tickets while making the film in Germany. On weekends he would take his Mercedes out on the autobahn (where there was no speed limit) and accept challenges from any and all drivers, on one occasion turning back only when the race threatened to cross into Italy.
Before leaving to go on location, McQueen visited Bud Ekins, who ran a motorcycle shop in the San Fernando Valley where McQueen had his bikes repaired. Ekins, who had taught McQueen to ride professionally, was hired to be the star’s stunt rider.
Once on location in Germany, though, McQueen’s long-festering insecurities came to the fore. He was alarmed that James Garner’s performance as “The Scrounger,” a charming con artist who procures whatever equipment is required for the big escape, was stealing the movie.
Then there was the problem that with his character spending so much time in the cooler, McQueen wouldn’t be on screen for nearly 30 uninterrupted minutes.
As they would at various times in his career, these insecurities would lead to some bad behavior.
McQueen demanded that the on-set screenwriter, W.R. Burnett, create more scenes for his character.
“McQueen was impossible ... a third of the way through the picture he took charge,” Burnett recalled. “Ohhh, he drove you crazy.”
McQueen would be late in arriving for his scenes, leaving his fellow actors and crew members to stew. At one point Sturges was so fed up that he wired McQueen’s stateside agent that “Your boy is out.”
It was a bluff, but it worked. McQueen behaved himself, more or less.
Fellow actor Coburn said this was less a case of conscious manipulation than a natural extension of who McQueen really was.
“It didn’t cause other people happiness,” Coburn said, “but it did cause him to be a star, so you can’t fault that.”
In fact, McQueen’s sense of isolation, his loner persona, helped him stand apart in The Great Escape’s big ensemble. When all the other characters were pulling together, McQueen’s Cooler King stood out. He was a rebel.
McQueen was in his element when filming the motorcycle chase. He was so good that the German stunt men hired to pursue him couldn’t keep up. In fact, McQueen put on a Nazi uniform and goggles and played both the pursuers and the pursued ... he chased himself.
“He could have played the entire German motorcycle corps,” Sturges recalled.
Ironically, though, the one stunt that everyone remembers from The Great Escape was so dangerous that Sturges wouldn’t allow McQueen to get near it. The leap over the barbed wire was executed by Ekins. He and McQueen personally moved tons of dirt to create a hidden ramp that would allow Ekins’ speeding bike to go airborne.
Steve McQueen was the first television star to make it big in the movies. (It’s hard to believe now, but in the ’50 and ‘60s it was thought that nobody would pay to see you in a movie theater if they could watch you for free on the tube.)
The critics went nuts for his performance.
“The most provocative single impression is made by Steve McQueen,” raved Variety. “He has a style, an individuality, that is rare in the contemporary scene.”
Life declared him “the next big movie star.”
And a movie star he would remain until his death from cancer in 1980 at age 50.
Other films in the series “50 Years Ago at the Movies”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- January 5: Lilies of the Field (1963) Not Rated
- January 12: Hud (1963) Not Rated
- January 19: Tom Jones (1963) Not Rated
- January 26: Captain Newman M.D. (1963) Not Rated
- February 2: Charade (1963) Not Rated
- February 9: Bye Bye Birdie (1963) Not Rated
- February 16: The Birds (1963) Not Rated
- February 23: The Great Escape (1963) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.