The Great Escape may not be a motorcycle movie, strictly speaking, but it contains what is arguably the most famous motorcycle scene in history. Steve McQueen solidified his place as an top Hollywood actor after appearing in The Great Escape as well as his place as the king of cool with his famous motorcycle chase for freedom.
The Great Escape
Of course, there's a lot more to The Great Escape than just a motorcycle chase. The film, which centers around a group of Allied prisoners trying to escape a German POW camp during World War II, features some of the greatest actors of the era. Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn all lend their acting talents to this great war film.
Even more impressive is that the movie is based on a book which is, in turn, a non-fiction account of a real mass escape. The book The Great Escape was written by Paul Brickhill, an Australian Spitfire pilot who was a prisoner of Stalag Luft III in Sagan, Germany. Brickhill himself did not participate in either the escape or the tunneling because of his claustrophobia — a condition brought to the screen by Charles Bronson, one of the few on-screen prisoners to successfully reach freedom.
The Great Escape was a huge box office hit and it remains just as popular today. The movie has been referenced in several films, from Reservoir Dogs to The Parent Trap to Charlie's Angels and it is ranked at #19 by the American Film Institute as one of America's Most Thrilling Movies.
The Great Motorcycle Jump
You know the stunt. The one where McQueen's character, Capt. Hilts "The Cooler King," tries to jump to freedom in Switzerland. Triumph practically built an industry around this scene and currently sells Steve McQueen clothes, merchandise, and are releasing a limited edition Steve McQueen TR6 in 2012. Triumph was McQueen's favorite motorcycle and the bike he used in the film was a refurbished 1962 Thunderbird.
Steve McQueen was an avid rider and a professional racer — that's why this scene is in the film at all. Nothing like his ride across the southern German countryside occurred during the real escape from Stalag Luft III, but McQueen personally asked that it be included as one of many fictional elements added to the final production. Indeed, he only agreed to do the movie if he was given a chance to show off his motorcycle skills.
Steve McQueen & Great Motorcycle Stunts
The king of cool did most of his own motorcycle stunts in The Great Escape and he even attempted the final jump in the movie, but McQueen crashed and his attempt didn't make it into the final cut. The jump you see on screen was actually performed by a friend of McQueen, Bud Ekins, who owned a motorcycle shop in California. This launched a new career for Ekins in movies and television. It was Ekins, for example, who did much of the motorcycle riding in the ChiPs television series.
Steve McQueen wasn't far away, though. While Ekins is pretending to be McQueen jumping over 60 feet of fencing, McQueen is actually in the background dressed as a German chasing himself! McQueen also plays the German who is taken off his motorcycle by McQueen (the escaped POW) using wire strung across the road. McQueen wanted to use this movie to showcase his motorcycle riding skills and he certainly accomplished that!