The Facts on The Great Escape

The Great Escape is one of my favourite movies, and I have since become a serious motorcyclist. I have heard different stories about Steve McQueen having done his own stunts while riding in this movie. Did he or did he not? And since the movie is based on fact, who was the real motorcycle rider who was in the big chase?
- R.T., via e-mail

One of the greatest movies of 1963, and one that holds up well to this day, The Great Escape, told the mostly true story of Paul Brickhill, a British Spitfire pilot who was shot down over Tunisia, and incarcerated in Stalag Luft III in Germany where he helped engineer the escape.

In the movie his character is actually a composite, a device used by screenwriter James Clavell, to make the story more dramatic. Brickhill’s book about the event was the original source, however. There was actually no motorcycle action in The Great Escape as it occurred in real life.

Steve McQueen suggested that they add a couple of scenes on bikes to make the film more exciting. He wanted to do the stunt in which a 60-foot-jump is completed, but both the producers and the insurance company were against it because of the danger. Instead, McQueen recruited his friend Bud Ekins, a Los Angeles motorcycle shop owner to do the stunt.  McQueen himself was one of the German soldiers in pursuit.

Incidentally, since you like bikes R.T., there’s a factual error in that scene. The bike Hilts is riding is a 1960s vintage Triumph 650, obviously an impossibility in 1943. The Great Escape is readily available on DVD at most major retailers.