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The Great Escape: Cast List Of This Star-Studded Movie From 1963

Entertainment | May 20, 2020

James Coburn, director John Sturges, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson on the set of 'The Great Escape.' Source: Amazon.com

The Great Escape (1963) and its cast list inevitably come up when discussing the best war movies and iconic '60s films. Its star was Steve McQueen, though the big names surrounding him -- James Garner, Donald Pleasence, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and others -- really make it an ensemble cast. It was one of those perfect set-ups: a group of wily Allied POWs are confined to a camp considered "escape-proof" -- and then over the course of nearly three hours we get to watch these resourceful characters plan and execute the, well, great escape. 

"The Great Escape" the Hollywood tale of a true story. (youtube)

Movies often take liberties when depicting real-life events. While “The Great Escape” added a number of creative twists to the story, many of the actors actually lived through their own harrowing tales of war. Despite the alterations to fit an American viewing audience, the credibility of the actors shined through, turning “The Great Escape” into an all-time war movie classic.

It certainly didn’t hurt that legendary filmmaker John Sturges insisted they shoot on German locations rather than sets in California. Add stars like Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, and Charles Bronson and you have the making of a Hollywood masterpiece. 

Donald Pleasence As Blythe 'The Forger'

James Garner and Donald Pleasence. Source: IMDB

While the studio made many additions to the story to fit their star-studded cast, the actors themselves were tailor-made for their roles. Donald Pleasence, who played Blythe ‘The Forger,’ had actually flown missions as a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II. Not only that but during the War, Pleasence was shot down, captured, and tortured by Germans. At the outset of the project, Pleasence tried to quietly go to the director to offer advice. Apparently, Sturges responded by telling Pleasence to keep his “opinions” to himself.

Later, one of the other stars of the movie mentioned to Sturges that Pleasence had been a RAF Officer in a World War II German POW Stalag camp. From that point forward, Sturges solicited Pleasence’s technical advice in the effort of historical accuracy. 

Richard Attenborough As Bartlett 'Big X'

Richard Attenborough. Source: IMDB

Richard Attenborough, who played Bartlett ‘Big X,’ had also been a Royal Air Force gunner and photographer for three years. Charles Bronson, who depicted Danny the ‘Tunnel King,’ worked as a coal miner before becoming an actor. Bronson gave Sturges advice on how to dig tunnels and even suffered from claustrophobia like his character! Sturges was even lucky enough to call upon Wally Floody, the real-life “Tunnel King,” as a full-time consultant for more than a year!

James Garner As Hendley 'The Scrounger'

James Garner. Source: IMDB

James Garner as “Scrounger,” drew inspiration from his military experiences during the Korean War. So while the true story of the British soldiers in German war camps got the “creative license” treatment, the men who portrayed their terrible ordeal did them justice. 

Steve McQueen As Hilts 'The Cooler King'

What's the point of learning to ride a motorcycle if you can't show it off? (telegraph.co.uk)

Steve McQueen, who starred as Hilts, ‘The Cooler King,’ agreed to take the role on the condition that he could show off his motorcycle skills. McQueen even attempted all of his own stunts. The only one he failed to pull off was the iconic 60-foot jump over a fence. But not for a lack of effort. McQueen crashed his attempt and left the heavy lifting to his friend, Bud Ekins. Ekins ended up at McQueen’s stunt man on Bullitt and CHIPS as well.

Just about everyone juggled multiple jobs during “The Great Escape.” John Leyton, cast as Willy ‘The Other Tunnel King,’ just so happened to be a popular pop singer in the UK and recorded the title song. McQueen, on the other hand, spent at least some of his idle time in a German jail.

The constables in the German town where they were shooting set up a speed trap and caught many members of the crew. McQueen just so happened to be going the fastest, which led to this rebuke from an officer, "Herr McQueen, we have caught several of your comrades today, but you have won the prize (for the highest speeding)." 

Charles Bronson As Danny 'Tunnel King'

Charles Bronson. Source: IMDB

To create the barbed wire enclosed prison, everyone from McQueen to the lowest food service worker would spend their breaks knotting thin strips of rubber. Tied together those rubber strips created the barbed coils and fencing seen throughout the movie.

Perhaps, during all that rubber knotting, Charles Bronson fell in love with the wife of David McCallum, who played Ashley-Pitt 'Dispersal’! Apparently, he even joked about stealing her from him. Four years later, McCallum and his wife divorced and she married Bronson. Sometimes the line between fact and fiction becomes rather blurry. 

Tags: Cast Lists From Popular Movies | Charles Bronson | Donald Pleasence | James Garner | Richard Attenborough | Steve McQueen | The Great Escape

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!