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Remind Me

The Big Idea Behind THE GREAT ESCAPE

In March 1943, Canadian RAF officer Paul Brickhill was shot down over the Tunisian Desert in North Africa and captured by troops from German Field Marshall Rommel's Afrika Korps. He ended up in a prison camp southeast of Berlin near Sagan, Germany, called Stalag Luft III, carved out of a forest and secured with the latest precautions, including two nine-foot barbed wire fences, machine gun towers, and a fully armed German garrison. The camp was considered escape-proof by the Nazis, but Brickhill soon joined about 700 other Allied prisoners of war in executing a vast plan by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell to get 250 men out of the prison. Brickhill's job was to lead a group that guarded the forgers as they covertly reproduced the identity papers the escapees needed to make their way across Germany to safety; however, he was finally excluded from the breakout roster and forced to stay behind because of his claustrophobia.

On the night of March 24, 1944, Bushell and 75 other officers, supplied with forged identity papers and civilian clothes, broke out of the camp through an elaborate tunnel. Bushell and 49 others were recaptured and murdered by the Gestapo. The rest, except for three officers who made it back to England, were returned to prison.

After the war Brickhill returned to a fledgling writing career and spent four and a half years working on a novel based closely on his prison camp experiences. He returned to Germany twice for research, including reading thousands of pages of unpublished Gestapo reports and visiting the scene of the murder of the 50 officers with the permission of the Soviet occupation forces. He also conducted interviews with many of the survivors.

Brickhill's novel was published by W.W. Norton & Company in August 1950 and became a hit, but satisfied that he had done his best to tell the story of his fallen comrades, he adamantly refused to sell the screen rights. He claimed it was not his story to sell and that the families of those slain during the escape attempt would prefer the wartime tragedy be forgotten.

Brickhill's book was read with keen interest by John Sturges, a young director with a handful of minor feature films to his credit. A film editor at RKO Studios before the war, Sturges was assigned to an Air Corps photo unit shortly before D-Day to accompany director William Wyler to Corsica where they would create a documentary on a P-47 fighter bomber squadron in Northern Italy which was given a general theatrical release as Thunderbolt in 1947.

After the war, Sturges returned to film work, eventually signing on with MGM as a contract director. In the summer of 1950, he picked up a copy of Reader's Digest and began reading the serialization of Brickhill's book, The Great Escape. He was immediately fascinated. "It was the perfect embodiment of why our side won," he later said. "Here was the German military machine, the sparkling uniforms and the absolute obedience to orders. On the other side of the wire, there were men from every country, every background, makeup and language, doing everything they pleased. With no arbitrary rules, they formulated an organization which eventually clobbered the German machine."

Convinced the story would make a great film, Sturges dogged MGM head Louis B. Mayer, finally getting an appointment to sell him on the idea. Mayer and studio executives quickly rejected the project, insisting the ending was too tragic and downbeat. They also felt the story was too big, with too many characters and plot details that would run the production costs sky high.

After several successful, high-profile action-oriented films, including Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), and two Spencer Tracy vehicles, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and The Old Man and the Sea (1958), Sturges at last had the clout to strike out on his own. He left MGM in 1959 and partnered with successful independent producers Walter, Marvin and Harold Mirisch. With their policy of extending creative freedom to directors while maintaining all responsibility for financing and distribution through United Artists, the brothers had secured deals with the likes of William Wyler, John Ford, and Robert Wise. Sturges's first project for them was a Western with star Yul Brynner and several up-and-coming actors (Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson) based on Akira Kurosawa's classic adventure The Seven Samurai (1954). Thanks to the box office success of The Magnificent Seven (1960), which proved his ability to create a compelling ensemble action film with well-drawn characters, Sturges was given the front money to purchase Brickhill's book and hire a screenwriter to adapt it. The director wrote to Brickhill, who was now living in Australia, and despite years of refusal to discuss a film adaptation, he agreed to a meeting with Sturges in Hollywood.

Brickhill responded well to Sturges's enthusiasm and sincere promises not to take liberties with the story. He agreed to sell Sturges the novel and become a partner in the venture.

With Brickhill's help, Sturges located Wally Floody, the "Tunnel King" of Stalag Luft III (whose character in the story is Polish flyer Danny Velinski, the tunnel mastermind who suffers from crippling claustrophobia as Brickhill did). Floody was hired as the film's technical adviser.

William Roberts was hired to develop a treatment of the story. Roberts had worked on The Magnificent Seven script with Walter Newman. Because security precautions in the stalag required that only 12 officers know the full escape plan, Sturges advised Roberts to reduce the principals to the same number, flesh them out as distinct characters, and tell the story entirely through their eyes. The writer structured his treatment much as the script for The Magnificent Seven had been built, with a central authority figure (such as Yul Brynner's character Chris) who dominated the plot while being able to introduce other characters working with him.

Roberts was also given a scrapbook in which Sturges had pasted sections of the book, cut apart and arranged by separate aspects of the story and escape plan: tunnels, traps, camp, Big X (the character based on Bushell), tailors, forgers, Gestapo, etc.

While The Great Escape screenplay was still taking shape, Sturges began his next picture, a big budget Lana Turner soap opera based on the James Gould Cozzens novel By Love Possessed (1961), and needed Roberts for some serious script doctoring. The Great Escape's script was then turned over to Walter Newman, with whom Sturges had had a contentious relationship on The Magnificent Seven. Newman spent much of his time making the complicated escape events dramatically feasible with the plan to go back and flesh out the characters later. He didn't remain on the job long enough for that. "It was extremely difficult to work with John," he later said. "He was working on so many projects. And even when we did work together, he failed to concentrate his ideas and present them in usable form."

Satisfied with an initial script draft, the Mirisch brothers made the necessary arrangements to secure the services of James Garner, a popular young actor who had recently made the transition to movies from his successful Western TV series Maverick, and Steve McQueen, himself a former TV star of the Western series Wanted: Dead or Alive. He had become a hot movie property, thanks largely to his work on two previous Sturges films Never So Few (1959) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). They were cast, respectively, as two of the three American characters in the movie, Hendley aka "The Scrounger" and Hilts, "The Cooler King" (nicknamed for the amount of time he spent in the isolation cell).

McQueen jumped at the chance to earn $100,000 playing an action hero. In addition, he was to receive first-class air transportation for his wife, two children, and their nurse and $750 per week in living expenses, all of which was tax-free due to the European location. His screen credits called for his name to lead the cast and appear above the film's title in equal-size type. He also made a major script demand, that his role feature an extended and exciting motorcycle chase. Even though this meant changing the story, Sturges agreed.

Two other actors from The Magnificent Seven were cast as Allied officers, Charles Bronson and James Coburn.

Sturges had by this point moved on to other projects but still needed someone to tighten Newman's script and eliminate the numerous subplots he had created. He turned to W.R. Burnett, the writer for Sturges's latest Western, Sergeants Three (1962), a comedic adventure featuring Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack pals. Burnett was perfect for the job, having created a complicated crime plot with multiple characters in his novel The Asphalt Jungle (filmed by John Huston in 1950). Burnett ripped the existing script apart and developed a narrative that followed the straight line of the complex tunnel operation. When Sturges completed filming on Sergeants Three, he joined the writer in creating humorous interplay between the three American characters and their British comrades.

Burnett's screenplay opened differently from the completed film, with scenes of the various flyers being shot down and captured.

Sturges sent a copy of Burnett's draft to John Mills and Richard Harris, his first choices for the role of Big X, the leader of the escape plan. Harris loved the role and agreed on the condition that he be able to complete filming on This Sporting Life (1963). He also pointed out that Burnett's script had lost the essentially English feel of Brickhill's book which was addressed in future script rewrites.

Based on Harris's feedback, Sturges hired British writer James Clavell, who had been a Japanese prisoner during the war. In this phase of development beginning in early 1962, Sturges decided to reduce the importance of Big X and give him equal status with the two Americans.

Sturges's production plan for The Great Escape followed a process he used on his previous film, A Girl Named Tamiko (1962). He and his second unit directors Robert Relyea and Jack Reddish and art director Fernando Carrere would scout Europe to photograph locations that would be recreated in America. The camp itself would be built in the San Gabriel Mountains, a couple hours from Los Angeles, and only about 10 percent of the picture would actually be shot on location. The team hoped to visit the site of the infamous camp, but the area was now part of Poland, and they were not permitted behind the "Iron Curtain."

Despite Sturges' initial intention to film most of the The Great Escape in the U.S., several factors forced him to rethink that decision. According to Steven Jay Rubin in his book Combat Films: American Realism 1945-1970 (Jefferson: McFarland, 1981), the U.S. military, after huge demands placed on it during production of The Longest Day (1962), decided not to cooperate or work with Sturges' production. This meant potentially prohibitive costs for union-mandated professional extras in the States, so Sturges reluctantly chose to film in Europe instead. Relyea, however, in the documentary Return to the Great Escape (1993), said that after touring Germany he reported back to Sturges that California would simply not work as a location substitute.

by Rob Nixon

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