One day, the police in the German town where this movie was shot set up a speed trap near the set. Several members of the cast and crew were caught, including Steve McQueen. The Chief of Police told McQueen "Herr McQueen, we have caught several of your comrades today, but you have won the prize (for the highest speeding)." McQueen was arrested and briefly jailed.
During the climactic motorcycle chase, director John Sturges allowed Steve McQueen to ride (in disguise) as one of the pursuing German soldiers, so that in the final sequence, through the magic of editing, he's actually chasing himself. McQueen played the German motorcyclist who hits the wire.
Several cast members were actual POWs during World War II. Donald Pleasence was held in the German camp Stalag Luft I, Hannes Messemer in a Russian camp, and Til Kiwe and Hans Reiser were prisoners of the Americans. Pleasence said the set was a very accurate representation of a POW camp.
Charles Bronson, who portrays the chief tunneler, brought his own expertise and experiences to the set. He had been a coal miner before turning to acting, and gave director John Sturges advice on how to move the dirt. As a result of his work in the coal mines, Bronson suffered from claustrophobia, just as his character had.
During production, Charles Bronson met and fell in love with David McCallum's wife, Jill Ireland, and he jokingly told McCallum he was going to steal her away from him. In 1967, Ireland and McCallum divorced, and she married Bronson.
The real-life escape preparations involved six hundred men working for well over a year. The escape did have the desired effect of diverting German resources, including a doubling of the number of guards after the Gestapo took over the camp from the Luftwaffe.
Donald Pleasence had been a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II, who was shot down, became a prisoner of war, and was tortured by the Germans. When he kindly offered advice to director John Sturges, he was politely asked to keep his "opinions" to himself. Later, when another actor from the movie informed John Sturges that Pleasence had been a Royal Air Force officer in a World War II German POW camp, Sturges requested his technical advice and input on historical accuracy from that point forward.
Some aspects of the escape remained classified during production, and were not revealed until well afterward. The inclusion of chocolate, coffee, and cigarettes in Red Cross packages is well documented, as is their use to bribe Nazi guards. Other materials useful for escaping had to be kept secret, and were not included in the novel or screenplay. Also not revealed until many years later, was the fact that the prisoners actually built a fourth tunnel called "George".
Although Steve McQueen did his own motorcycle riding, there was one stunt he did not perform: the hair-raising sixty-foot jump over a fence. This was done by McQueen's friend Bud Ekins, who was managing a Los Angeles-area motorcycle shop when recruited for the stunt. It was the beginning of a new career for Ekins, as he later doubled for McQueen in Bullitt (1968), and did much of the motorcycle riding on CHiPs (1977).
Paul Brickhill, who wrote the book on which this movie was based, was piloting a Spitfire aircraft that was shot down over Tunisia in March 1943. He was taken to Stalag Luft III in Germany, where he assisted in the escape preparations.
In this movie, several Americans (including Hilts and Henley) were amongst the escapees. In real-life, American officers assisted with the construction of the escape tunnel, but weren't amongst the escapees, because the Germans moved them to a remote compound just before the escape.
During idle periods while this movie was in production, all cast and crew members, from Steve McQueen and James Garner to production assistants, and obscure food service workers, were asked to take thin, five-inch strings of black rubber and knot them around other thin strings of black rubber of enormous length. The finished results of all of this knotting were the coils and fences of barbed wire seen throughout the movie.
The song sung by Ives and McDonald on the fourth of July is "Wha Hae the 42nd?" Contrary to common belief, it is not in Gaelic, but a light Scots dialect of English. The 42nd Regiment of Foot was the Scottish regiment in the British Army, known as "the Black Watch".
According to David McCallum, the barbed wire, into which Hilts (Steve McQueen) crashes, near the end of the movie, which was made of rubber, was made by the cast and crew during their free time by tying small pieces of rubber around larger ones.
Although the German airfield displays mainly North American AT-6 Texan trainers, it is feasible that this was authentic. The Germans did use the AT-6 in some numbers as advanced trainers, which they had sequestrated from the French in 1940.
The tunnel sets were were constructed of wood and skins filled with plaster and dirt and open on one side with a dolly track running the length of the set in order to shoot scenes of prisoners scooting along through them.
The medal that Colonel von Luger wears around his neck is the Pour le Merite, also known as the Blue Max. Originally a Prussian military honor, in World War I it was automatically given to fighter pilots who shot down eight planes (later raised to sixteen). The Nazis replaced it with the Knight's Cross, but it could still be worn by officers who'd received it before the Third Reich.
The real camp can be visited today in Sagan, Poland. It's a ruin now, that's mostly used for archaeological purpose. A replica of the camp is located forty kilometers (twenty-five miles) south, where you can enter a model of tunnel "Harry" yourself. In the movie, they confused the actual names of the tunnels.
Jud Taylor (Goff) said the camp set was so authentic and impressive that one day he came upon a man walking his dog who was very distressed when he came upon the site. The man was greatly relieved, Taylor said, when he learned it was just a movie set.
When celebrating the fourth of July and pouring alcohol, Hilts (Steve McQueen) is thrown off by an ad-lib by Goff (Jud Taylor). While Hilts is drinking, Goff says, "No taxation without representation." McQueen jumps out of character and gives him a look (and mouths, "What?"). Director John Sturges must have signalled to "just go with it" and the scene continued. But it is an obvious ad-lib.
This movie was shot entirely on-location in Europe, with a complete camp resembling Stalag Luft III built near Munich, Germany. Exteriors for the escape sequences were shot in the Rhine Country and areas near the North Sea, and Steve McQueen's motorcycle scenes were filmed in Fussen (on the Austrian border) and the Alps. All interiors were filmed at the Bavaria Studio in Munich.
For the train sequences, a railroad engine was rented and two condemned cars were purchased and modified to house the camera equipment. Scenes were shot on the single rail line between Munich and Hamburg, and a railroad representative was on hand to advise the filmmakers when to pull aside to avoid hitting scheduled oncoming trains.
The German characters were cast from actors out of Munich, including Hannes Messemer and Til Kiwe. Both had their own prisoner of war experiences. Messemer had been captured on the Eastern front by the Soviet Army, escaped, and walked hundreds of miles to the German border. Frick served time in an American prison camp in Arizona. He tried to escape seventeen times.
When the Bavaria Studio's backlot proved to be too small, the production team obtained permission from the German government to shoot in a national forest adjoining the studio. After the end of principal photography, the company restored (by reseeding) approximately two thousand small pine trees that had been damaged in the course of shooting.
The German National Railroad Bureau cooperated with the production to provide trains and logistics for the railway escape sequences. Platforms were fitted on passenger cars to accommodate huge arc lamps to illuminate the train interiors. On one flat car, a large Chapman crane was set up to swing out over the passenger car and film the jump from the moving train performed by two stuntmen disguised as James Garner's and Donald Pleasence's characters. The bureau attached a special radio operator to the crew to alert the train engineer to any potential traffic on the main line. The shooting schedule was squeezed in between actual runs on the rails. The bureau gave the production certain times and lengths of tracks to work on until a passenger train was scheduled to come by; the film train then had to duck onto a siding until the other passed.
The actual tunnel "Tom" was discovered in August 1943 (not on the fourth of July as shown in the movie). It was this tunnel that was being rushed to finish to allow it to be used by numerous Americans who had helped greatly with its construction and organization. The rush was due to it being known that all Americans in the compound were shortly to be moved to the new South compound a short distance away. Tunnel "Harry" was completed more slowly over the following winter, and "Dick" was used as storage for contraband items and a place to hide dirt from "Harry". There was a final rush to use the tunnel, as the winter hadn't been kind to the woodwork, particularly around the trap door entrance, and the prisoners were very concerned it would be spotted. The night chosen was the next moonless night, despite the weather and ground conditions being far from ideal (it was very cold and snow covered). It was felt that the tunnel would not have survived intact or undiscovered for another month if they had decided to wait for better conditions.
Hilts (Steve McQueen) was based on amalgamation of several characters, including Major Dave Jones, a flight commander during Doolittle's Raid who made it to Europe, and was shot down and captured, and Colonel Jerry Sage, who was an O.S.S. Agent in the North African desert when he was captured. Colonel Sage was able to don a flight jacket and pass as a flier, otherwise he would have been executed as a spy. Another inspiration was probably Squadron Leader Eric Foster, who escaped seven times from German prisoner-of-war camps.
Sir Richard Attenborough said many years later working with Steve McQueen on this movie was one of the toughest challenges he had ever faced, and their on-set relationship was not peaceful. McQueen was not combative, but he wouldn't hesitate to let anyone know if things were not as he would wish them to be, or believed that they ought to be.
The motorcycle that Hilts (Steve McQueen) rides is a cosmetically modified Triumph TR6 Trophy. Bud Ekins, who performed the stunt, was a Triumph dealer. Triumph was McQueen's favorite motorcycle brand. The motorcycle sidecar combination that crashes into a ditch is revealed to be a Triumph motorcycle, too. These British motorcycle models were not in existence during World War II, and their appearance is anachronistic.
MacDonald (Intelligence) was based on George Harsh, a very good friend of Wally Floody (the real Tunnel King). They were transferred to Belaria before the escape. Harsh was a very interesting character who was from the American south, and had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force as a tail-gunner. In the 1920s Harsh had committed murder and was sentenced to life. A medical student, Harsh performed an appendectomy on a dying prisoner and saved his life. The Governor of Georgia granted him a pardon and he was set free. After the war, he had personal problems as he was plagued by guilt over the crime he committed as a youth. On top of adjusting to life after fifteen years in captivity (twelve years on the Georgia chain gang, followed by three years as a P.O.W.). On Christmas Eve 1974, he shot himself, but survived. A stroke soon left him partially paralyzed. When that happened, Wally Floody and his wife brought him up to their Toronto house and looked after him. He eventually went to live, at his own urging, at the Veteran's Wing at the Sunnybrook Medical Centre. He died in January 1980.
The newspaper that Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum) reads on the train is the "Völkischer Beobachter", a real newspaper produced for twenty-five years by the National Socialist German Workers Party. It served as a propaganda sheet for the Nazis, and helped bring Adolf Hitler to power. At its height, it had a circulation of approximately 1.4 million. The headline for the issue seen in this movie translates roughly to "Day after day, the Soviets have high, bloody losses." Given that the escape in this movie occurs in the summer of 1944, this too can be viewed as propaganda. The Nazis had transferred hundreds of thousands of troops to Normandy to stop the Allied advances after D-Day, allowing for the Soviets to launch Operation Bagration on June 22, which pushed the Nazis back into Poland by the beginning of July 13 and sparked the Warsaw uprising. In all, the Soviet advance caused German losses of approximately six hundred seventy thousand dead, missing, wounded, and sick, including one hundred sixty thousand captured. Although the date of the escape is unclear, given the green pastures around the Alps that the escapees encounter, one can easily surmise that the newspaper was putting a positive spin on the battles in the east.
According to director John Sturges, the screenplay went through six writers and eleven versions, and was still a work in progress during filming. "I'm not proposing that's a good way to make a picture, but it was the right way to make this one", he later said.
No American POWs participated in the actual "great escape" as suggested in the movie. Some American POWs helped with the digging of tunnel "Tom", but they were moved to another camp seven months earlier, as the Germans had suspicions something was going on.
Sir Richard Attenborough was a Royal Air Force gunner and photographer who served for three years, unlike his character, based on Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, who was a Spitfire Pilot in 92 Squadron in the early years of World War II.
After viewing the rushes, Steve McQueen decided his part was minor and undeveloped. He was particularly upset that his character virtually disappears from the movie for about thirty minutes in the middle, so he walked out demanding re-writes. John Sturges admitted the half-hour gap was likely a problem, but with the production already behind schedule due to the heavy rain, he felt he couldn't take time out to do re-writes and rescheduling. James Garner said he and James Coburn got together with McQueen to determine what his specific gripes were. Garner later said it was apparent McQueen wanted to be the hero, but didn't want to be seen doing anything overtly heroic that contradicted his character's cool detachment and sardonic demeanor. At the same time, McQueen never really liked his character's calm acquiescence to his time in the cooler, or the famous bit with the catcher's mitt and ball. Sturges considered writing the character out of the story altogether, but United Artists informed him they considered McQueen indispensable to the movie's success, and would spring for the extra money to hire another writer, Ivan J. Moffitt, to deal with the star's demands. McQueen returned to work.
The hooch-making scene in the movie, where the Americans celebrated Independence Day, is believed to be based on the British creating an alcohol distillery for Christmas Day celebrations in 1943. Captain Guy Griffiths, a Royal Marine pilot in Stalag Luft III, who produced forged documents for the escape, also produced a comical illustration of the scene which survives to this day. This painting, along with many others, forms the basis for a Special Exhibition on "Griff" at the Royal Marines Museum (Southsea, England) running from Easter 2010.
This movie was shot on-location in a German forest. To make room for the camp set, several trees had to be bulldozed. Director John Sturges had to show the West German Minister of the Interior his plans and, to get permission to bulldoze, had to promise to plant two seeds for every tree felled when production was over.
One of the masterminds for the real "great escape" was Wing Commander Harry Day. He isn't directly portrayed in this movie, however the book, on which this movie was based, by Paul Brickhill, correctly tells his story. Arguably, his story is the most impressive of the lot, having participated in at least four other mass breakouts and two solo attempts prior to the "great escape" (twice getting free from the camp before recapture). He was one of the first out of the tunnel, but was recaptured in Stettin trying to get help to gain passage out of Germany. He was spared execution and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp with three other escapees. There they dug another tunnel and escaped with another British officer. It's widely believed they were the only people ever to survive an escape from that camp. All were recaptured and held in solitary confinement until being used as hostages at the end of the war. Escaping from his captives, he reached allied lines and was instrumental in securing the safe release of the other hostages.
After two months shooting in the camp, the production moved to the town of Fussen near the Austrian border for post-escape scenes. Because he was already running out of money, director John Sturges decided to cut back on his original plan to film in several locations. Fussen had all of the elements he needed to simulate the various places where the escapees run, including nearby meadowlands to shoot the required motorcycle sequence.
Early on in the production, director John Sturges began receiving memos from United Artists requesting female roles in this movie. One even suggested having the dying Ashley-Pitt cradled in the lap of a beautiful girl in a low-cut blouse. The studio wanted to cast this bit by having a Miss Prison Camp contest in Munich. Sturges would have none of it.
The three real POWs to escape were Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Muller (who escaped by ship to Sweden after taking a train from Sagan to Stettin via Berlin) and Dutchman Bram van der Stok (who travelled across Europe to Spain).
The uniforms of the camp guards represent a mixture of Luftwaffe branches. The officers and half the guards wear gold-yellow collar patches of air crews, including pilots and ground personnel. Strachwitz, the senior N.C.O., and the other enlisted guards wear the red collar patches of the anti-aircraft artillery.
The scene where Hilts is removing bed boards for tunnel use and Cavendish, not realizing too many boards were removed, comes crashing down through the bunks, is reminiscent of a real incident in Stalag Luft III as described in Paul Brickhill's book. During a drive to scrounge as many bed boards as possible, Roger Bushell (the real-life prisoner who was portrayed by Sir Richard Attenborough as Roger Bartlett) wanted to set an example and donated all of his boards and convinced his bunk-mate to do likewise. A string system was rigged to keep the mattresses in place, but on the first attempt, the strings gave way and Roger came crashing down through the bed on top of his bunk-mate.
Steve McQueen reportedly rarely mingled with others away from the set, preferring to stay in the chalet he rented for himself and his family and travelling to the set each day in a chauffeur-driven limousine.
Director John Sturges' assistant Robert E. Relyea was an amateur pilot and offered to fly the plane for the sequence in which Hendley and Blythe commandeer a plane for their escape. In one segment, he had to simulate the plane losing power and descending over a line of trees. According to Relyea, a farmer in his field saw the plane with its Nazi insignia coming in low over his head and threw his rake at it. Another time, Relyea was arrested when he had to put the plane down in a field that happened to belong to a German aviation official. He also piloted the plane in the crash shot, knocking himself unconscious and being taken to the hospital where he woke up later feeling a sharp pain down his back.
James Coburn's Australian accent was non-existent, so the movie used other devices to emphasise his nationality. For example, on entering the workshop, Roger's exasperation with Sedgewick follows with: "Bluey, where the hell is the air pump?" "Bluey" is an affectionate term for a person with red hair, found in Australian slang in the first half of the twentieth century. The consequence of Roger's use of the term, though made in support of the character, was too subtle for wider audiences, and the credit of "Louis" appears for Sedgewick on many lists.
Group Captain Ramsey, is largely based on the real Senior British Officer Herbert Massey. Massey was injured when shot down and walked with a pronounced limp which prevented him from the escape attempt. James Donald walks with a limp and uses a walking stick in the movie in honor of Massey.
Richard Harris was originally cast as Roger Bartlett, but dropped out because filming This Sporting Life (1963) was behind schedule, and he was displeased with the diminished role of "Big X" after script changes had been made.
The character of von Luger was based on Friedrich von Lindeiner-Wildau. As with von Luger, the real commandant was an Oberst (Colonel), a general staff officer, and a holder of the "Blue Max" (Pour le Merite) medal. However, while the pictures on the wall of von Luger's office are of World War I flying units, von Lindeiner-Wildau earned his Blue Max in the East Africa campaigns in 1905 to 1907 and served as an infantry officer before and during World War I. He retired from the Army in 1919 and only joined the Luftwaffe in 1937 at Hermann Goring's personal invitation.
In the scene following Hilts' theft of a German motorcycle, he rolls into a nearby town, and stopped by a police officer. He tells Hilts something in German, to which Hilts kicks him away and rides off. The officer asked Hilts for identification papers Hilts doesn't have.
The was another earlier mass escape attempt from the same compound as the "great escape". Masterminded by the same "X organisation", in June 1943 a large party of twenty-six prisoners escaped while being escorted by fake guards (prisoners disguised as Germans) being taken to another compound for delousing. All got clear of the camp, but were all recaptured. Several were also participants of the later "great escape". Two POWs, Lorne Welch and Walter Morison, attempted to steal an aircraft, but were caught before they could start the engine. It was this real event that gave inspiration to certain events in this movie. The two real officers were sent to Colditz castle and survived the war.
Director John Sturges shopped this movie for eight years, but couldn't get a major studio to bite until United Artists stepped in. Sturges credited the success of The Magnificent Seven (1960) with the eventual funding of this movie.
There are six different languages spoken or sung in the movie: English, German, French, Russian, and one word in Spanish, as well as two words of Latin "Lanius Nubicus" when Flight Lieutenant Blythe is describing the masked shrike or butcher bird in the forgery scene. There is also a song in a light Scots dialect where Ives and MacDonald are singing "Wha Hae the 42nd" in the fourth of July scene just before "Tom" is discovered.
Donald Pleasence's character was based partly on London-born John Cordwell, later a Chicago architect and then proprietor of the Red Lion Pub on the city's N. Lincoln Avenue. Cordwell died in 1999. Stories about him and the Red Lion are told from various points of view in the collection "Tales from the Red Lion" (Chicago: Twilight Tales, 2007, ISBN 0977985623).
The escape plan was so secretive that all of the POWs were to refer to the tunnels by their code names; Roger Bushell took this so seriously that he threatened to court martial anyone who even uttered "tunnel" aloud.
Danny the tunnel king is shown to suffer from claustrophobia. Paul Brickhill, who wrote the book on which the film is based, was also a claustrophobe. He was originally allotted an early place in line for the escape, but when his condition became known, he was dropped to the bottom of the list, and he credits this for probably saving his life.
William Russell starred as security chief Sorren in this movie. It was released on July 4, 1963, just a few weeks before he signed on for Doctor Who (1963) as the first male companion. Angus Lennie and Nigel Stock also appeared in the series, but not with Russell.
An urban legend persists that Harrison Ford turns up in this movie as an uncredited non-speaking extra, four years before his first credited appearance in a movie or on television. The scene, from where where this theory came, is where Bartlett and MacDonald are on-board the train and find themselves sat down opposite two uniformed German officers and are then asked for their travel passes by an undercover Gestapo man. As the camera changes angles, In the foreground there is a Nazi youth with a brown shirt, tie, and a swastika band on his left arm. This youth does indeed bear a striking resemblance to a youthful Harrison Ford, who would have been nineteen or twenty-years-old when this scene was filmed in 1962, however there are two facts that indicate this is almost certainly not Ford. Firstly, this movie was shot completely in southern Germany, so it is more than likely a local person who was hired as an extra. The second fact is that on close examination of the person in question he seems to have a Kirk Douglas type dimple chin, which Ford does not have.
Bartlett, referring to the S.S.'s decision to imprison him with so many other escapees, remarks "There's madness in their method." This is a reversal of "Though this be madness, yet there is method in it", from Shakespeare's Hamlet. Sir Richard Attenborough appeared in Hamlet (1996). The line is spoken by Polonius, who many scholars believe to have been modelled after Sir William Cecil, the character Attenborough played in Elizabeth (1998).
The coaches of the train have the logo of the "Deutsche Bundesbahn", the national railway of the Federal Republic of Germany. In the Third Reich they should have had the logo of the "Deutsche Reichsbahn".
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Roger Bartlett was modelled after Roger Bushell, a British officer who was involved in the real escape and, like Bartlett, was executed for his role therein. The scarring around Sir Richard Attenborough's eyes is a tribute to Bushell, who received such scarring from a competitive skiing accident.
There is a superstition that whenever a prisoner attempting escape is told "good luck" by a fellow prisoner, the escape will fail. Ironically, these are the same words that the German officer uses to capture Bartlett and MacDonald near the end of the movie.
The individual incidents in this movie are mostly true, but were rearranged as to both the timing and the people involved. (A note at the start acknowledges this.) For instance, of the seventy-six who escaped, there were three who got away, and fifty who were murdered in reprisal, but the murders occurred in small groups, not all at once. (Fourteen Germans were executed after the war for their parts in them.)
The compound where the real escape occurred from (North compound of Stalag Luft III) was opened in late March 1943. Prisoners being transferred from other compounds of this camp as well as other camps around occupied Europe. The escape occurred on the night of March 24/25, 1944, and the last of the executions was believed to have happened on April 12, 1944. Therefore, the time frame for this movie is a little over a year.
As of December 2015: David McCallum (Ashley-Pitt) is the sole surviving cast member, and Robert Vaughn is the sole survivor of The Magnificent Seven (1960). Vaughn and McCallum were the co-stars of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964). John Leyton (Willie, Tunnel King) is still living as of February 2016, in which he will be seventy-seven. He is the only surviving cast member whose character successfully escaped.