King of Cool 2: The Great Escape

But can a TV remake of The Great Escape do justice to McQueen and co?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most celebrated prisoner-of-war films in history, The Great Escape. The 1963 classic, starring Steve McQueen, is best known for the iconic scene in which he attempts to ride his motorbike over a barbed-wire fence while being chased by Germans, and remains a Christmas television stalwart.

With apt timing, the BBC is now in the early stages of developing a remake of the wartime adventure. The remake, which is set to be a mini-series, is being developed by GK-TV in conjunction with Open Circle, a small American firm founded by ex-Lionsgate executive Craig Cegielski.

Although no casting information or release date has yet been announced, Alex Schondorf, a movie-marketing executive with a long experience in the Hollywood film industry, is a fan of the project.

He said: “I could see Brad Pitt, Jeremy Renner or Russell Crowe playing Steve McQueen’s role of Virgil Hilts. Maybe even Daniel Craig would make my top choice. Either way, those are tough shoes to fill.

The Great Escape set the mark as one of the first well-executed action films. You can’t look at a heist film and
not think of this movie. It’s absolutely relevant to audiences today, who thirst for strong filmmaking with a great narrative. And the all-star cast led by Steve McQueen doesn’t hurt. It’s the type of film that sucks you in, making it easy to watch over and over again.”

It is not only the movie professions who understand the timelessness of the film. Darren Wright, who runs a fan website dedicated to Steve McQueen, says: “It was just one of those magic films where all the elements fall together perfectly.  A perfect ensemble cast, down to the smallest roles, a perfect director in John Sturges who knew how to bring the best out of his actors – particularly McQueen, a wonderful and inspirational music score and, of course, a fantastic story of ingenuity and courage in the face of terrible dangers. Plus the motorbike scene!”

Wright, though, is concerned any remake would not live up to the original. “There are some great actors out there who could do the role justice, but I don’t think they will have that McQueen magic,” he said. “McQueen was one of a kind. I suggest anyone who takes his part should try to make the role their own, bring their own unique charisma, but don’t try to emulate the king of cool. It won’t work.”

The film, based on a non-fiction book written by the Australian PoW veteran Paul Brickhill, The Great Escape tells the tale of how 76 men escaped the Luftwaffe-run Stalag Luft III prison camp in German-occupied Poland via a 330ft tunnel, 30ft below ground. Although the escapees miscalculated the length of the tunnel, which resulted in the recapture of 73 of them, 50 of whom were subsequently shot by the Gestapo, the story lives on as one of the most courageous escape attempts of World War II.

Although the film was originally to be shot in California, Sturges couldn’t find anywhere in America he thought adequately resembled a Bavarian forest. In the end, he settled on filming in Fussen in Bavaria, five kilometres north of the Austrian border. In honour of the half-century anniversary, an exhibition celebrating the filming of The Great Escape is being held in the Fussen Town Hall, from October to January 2014.

Nina Reschovsky

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