Steve McQueen’s ‘kiss of death’ on The Great Escape: ‘Poser!’

Air Commodore Charles Clarke recounts Great Escape 1944

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Tonight, episode one of ‘The Great Escape’ airs on Channel 5 at 9pm, the programme detailing the real-life events that inspired the iconic film. The three-part documentary tells the story of the audacious World War 2 prison break, which Mr McQueen and Mr Garner helped immortalise in the film. As part of a mission to cause mayhem in the heart of the Third Reich, 76 men tunnelled out of a German prisoner of war camp.

The TV show’s first episode details how the prisoners built three huge tunnels in the hope of freeing 200 men from the Stalag Luft III in Sagan.

The film, released 19 years after the event took place, presents a heavily fictionalised version of the escape.

The epic war film, which featured the likes of Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence and Richard Attenborough, emerged as one of the highest grossing films of 1963 and is now considered a classic.

The film is also noted for Mr McQueen’s performance, and the actor’s infamous motorcycle chase and jump scene, which is widely considered one of the best movie stunts ever performed.

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However Mr Garner, who played Hendley, The Scrounger, in the film, claimed that Mr McQueen could be a “pain in the ass on set” and was not “an actor”.

In his memoir ‘The Garner Files’, the legendary Hollywood star had his say on the enigmatic Mr McQueen.

He claimed: “He didn’t like anything.

“Like [Marlon] Brando, he could be a pain in the ass on the set.

“Unlike Brando, he wasn’t an actor. He was a movie star, a poser who cultivated the image of a macho man.

“Steve wasn’t a bad guy. I think he was just insecure.”

Mr Garner added: “You could always see him acting.

“That’s the kiss of death as far as I’m concerned.”

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Mr McQueen’s character, Virgil Hilts, was an American Air Force captain, who already had 17 escape attempts under his belt when he was transferred to the maximum security POW camp, where the film takes place.

The lean, leather jacketed airman, who was dubbed ‘The Cooler King’ for the time he spent in solitary confinement, made a doomed attempt to reach freedom by jumping barbed wire fences on a stolen motorbike in ‘The Great Escape’s’ most iconic scene.

Reportedly Mr McQueen, who was a bike-enthusiast, was a better driver than many of the film’s stuntmen and even put on an SS uniform for some of the scenes and ‘chased’ himself.

However, Mr Garner claimed that Mr McQueen caused no end of problems on set and even walked out after taking a dislike to the way he looked in the film’s early shoots.

The actor reportedly flew in his agent for showdown talks with director John Sturges, and the next day Mr Garner was told that Mr McQueen was out, and that he would be the star of the film.

Mr Garner said: “I didn’t see how it could work so I sat down with Steve and asked what the problem was.

“He said he didn’t like the part, because he wasn’t the hero and the stuff they’d had him do was corny.

“Steve could be a stubborn little cuss but the director added some motorcycle stunts to pacify him and changed his character to a guy who goes out to reconnoitre the countryside then unselfishly allows himself to be recaptured so he can share the information with the others.”

Mr Garner, was also critical of another ‘The Great Escape’ co-star; box-office sensation Mr Bronson.

Mr Bronson, who played Danny ‘The Tunnel King’ Velinski, in the film, was the world’s number one box office attraction in the early Seventies.

However Mr Garner claimed in his memoir that his co-star was “bitter and belligerent”.

‘The Garner Files’ was written by James Garner and published by Simon & Schuster. You can find it here.

Watch the documentary ‘The Great Escape’ on Channel 5 at 9pm.

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