Steve McQueen’s talent at the wheel of an automobile or aboard a motorcycle expanded his acting career and, eventually, gave him the power to influence movie scripts.
McQueen’s Machines (Motorbooks, 2007) by Matt Stone celebrates major motorhead and famous actor Steve McQueen and his passion as a car enthusiast, racer, and motorcyclist. Get a close-up look at the automobiles and motorcycles in McQueen’s garage, those he drove in movies and others he raced. The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, “McQueen on Screen.”
Steve McQueen’s talent at the wheel of an automobile or aboard a motorcycle was considerable. He was ultra competitive at anything he did, and mastering cars and bikes became an early passion. By the time he was able to influence the content of the films he appeared in and create opportunities for his characters to drive or ride interesting machinery, he had already done a considerable amount of racing at amateur and semi-professional levels.
Even in early films, where McQueen wasn’t in a position to weigh in on the script, he was often seen at the wheel—a place that came naturally to him. He drove a Ford in The Blob (1958) and was Frank Sinatra’s chauffeur in the war movie Never So Few (1959), piloting a military jeep, of course. But the first opportunity for movie-goers to get a real look at McQueen’s love for all things motorized happened to be in the film that most consider his breakthrough role.
As you’ll read about in the next chapter, Steve McQueen’s amateur racing career was in full bloom by the spring of 1962. He’d enjoyed success in the production classes running his Porsche Speedster and later moved up to a Lotus XI sports racer, then a Cooper Formula Junior open-wheeled machine. He was offered a factory ride and was seriously toying with the notion of turning pro. But his acting career was bursting at the seams as well. McQueen was on the glide path to stardom.
His performance in 1960’s The Magnificent Seven was a standout, and he was lauded for his work in The War Lover. His days of small parts and secondary billing were over, and it was inevitable that his involvement in racing would get in the way sooner or later. It came to a boil when the studio sent an attorney to McQueen’s doorstep with what was tantamount to a restraining order, written to keep him off the track or risk his contract. It was racing or the movies.
“They gave me twenty-four hours to make up my mind. I took most of those twenty-four hours thinking about whether I wanted to go on racing, earning my money on the track, or whether I wanted to continue being an actor on the studio’s terms. It was a very tough decision for me to reach. Still, I had Neile and our two young children to consider, and that made the difference. I signed their paper.” It’s a good thing too; otherwise, he may never have made The Great Escape.
Chad McQueen recalls: “My old man wasn’t stupid. He probably looked at what he could make as a race driver, even under the best conditions, and what he could earn as an actor, and it was pretty clear.” As demonstrated throughout the 1960s and especially in 1969 and 1970, McQueen would find other ways to feed his high-speed addiction, even if he had to form his own production company and build an entire film around motorsport.
The Magnificent Seven’s ensemble male cast framework was a hit, so more than a little of its makeup carried over into The Great Escape. John Sturges directed both and would figure in later McQueen films. Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and McQueen all appeared in Seven and were signed for Escape. But Seven’s principal star, Yul Brynner, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Steve McQueen was the headliner. The film is based on the true story of a group of Allied officers, primarily British, who escape a Nazi prison camp.
“John and I worked a hairy motorcycle chase into the script,” said McQueen. His character, Captain Virgil Hilts, was not unlike himself. Hilts was a bit of a loner and on the mischievous side, yet a man of character with a good heart, who ultimately helps save the day. He spent a lot of time in solitary confinement, known as the “cooler,” hence his nickname “The Cooler King.” “The idea was this Cooler King character makes good his escape by stealing a cycle, gets chased cross-country by German cyclists and loses them by jumping this big barbed-wire fence with this bike.”
Biographer Nolan summarizes what McQueen accomplished strategically with this film. “By inserting this cycle sequence into The Great Escape, Steve had out-foxed the studio; now the executives had no choice. Steve would race. On film, and at their risk.” Production took place in Germany, near Munich, and in the countryside surrounding the Rhine. It was just a few years earlier that McQueen had discovered off-road cycle riding, so the scenario was a natural for him.
WWII-era BMW motorcycles never could have taken the punishment the stunt crew had planned for them, so special bikes were built for the job. “We had four bikes for this film. I was running a forty-cubic inch Triumph TT special. We painted it olive drab and put on a luggage rack and an old seat to make it look like a wartime BMW. The first time we tried out the bikes at full chat, the Bavarians just gaped, openmouthed. They didn’t believe a bike could go that fast over this kind of uphill-downhill terrain.”
McQueen’s off-road motorcycle muse and stunt double, Bud Ekins—a name you’ll read often in this book—was there. How did the two become connected? Ekins explains, “He bought a motorcycle from me in about 1960 or ’61. I was a Triumph dealer. Actor Dick Powell’s son, Norman, had bought a Triumph Bonneville from me, and his wife said he couldn’t have it. So he sold it to McQueen. They came in together to check and see that if McQueen bought the bike, would the warranty still be valid. I said sure, no problem. Movie stars don’t work all year around, and Steve started hanging around the shop. He saw all these bikes around there that didn’t have lights on them and they had number plates and all that kinda crap. He wanted to know what that was all about, so I told him about desert racing. I asked him to come out with us; he came out one time, and that was it.”
How did Ekins get from the deserts of Southern California to Bavaria? “He just asked one day. He said, ‘I’m going to Germany and I’m going to make a movie. Do you want to come over and double me? There’s some motorcycle work in it.’ I said, ‘sure,’ and that was about it. That was all I heard for a month or two, then he called up and asked if I had a suit? I said, ‘Yeah. Why?’ He said, ‘Well put it on. I’m going to pick you up and introduce you to the director.’ He showed up—in Levis and a T-shirt, of course—and here I am in a suit. We drove to the studio in that Jag of his. We met John Sturges, and he kinda looked at me and nodded his head, and then I went to Germany about three weeks later. I was there for three months. That was the first movie I ever worked on.”
The audience got a hint that there may be motorcycle madness later in the film when Hilts was speaking with another soldier while the two were neighbors in solitary confinement. Hilts said he’d done some racing. His cellblock mate asked, “Horse racing?” Hilts replied, “Motorcycles. Flat tracks. County fairs. Picked up a buck here and there. Helped pay my tuition.”
The bike play takes place late in the movie. Hilts had already cleared the prison camp fences, heading for the freedom of Switzerland. He figured the quickest way there was on two wheels, so he strung some wire across the road, into which rode a hapless German soldier (the stunt was performed by Ekins), taking quite a tumble. Hilts stole the bike, the rider’s uniform, and weapon. The escapee was soon discovered at a border security station, and the chase was on.
“Steve did a helluva lot of that riding himself,” says Ekins. “I really didn’t do much of it. Anything where he may get hurt, that’s what I did. But all the other stuff, when you see him riding by, he did all that himself and was enjoying it very much. There’s a chase sequence in there where the Germans were after him, and he was so much a better rider than they were, that he just ran away from them. And you weren’t going to slow him down. So, they put a German uniform on him, and he chased himself! I rode as a German soldier too, but he chased himself several times in the movie.”
There was one scene in which McQueen didn’t ride, and it is the one for which The Great Escape is best known. Hemmed in on all sides by several German soldiers on motorcycles, barbed-wire fencing, and obstacles, Hilts knew there’s only one way out—one that the others wouldn’t dare follow. By now, he’d shed the German uniform and wore just khakis and a T-shirt. He surveyed the barrier, grit his teeth, and gunned the faux-BMW toward the fence. Bike and rider dropped down into a dip, climbed the grassy bank at great speed, and sailed over the fence to a perfect landing.
There was no computer animation in those days, and the only way to make the 60-foot jump look right was to do it. Recall that McQueen had only just begun riding off-road bikes and wasn’t quite up to the task. He tried a few times and couldn’t get it right. “I always felt a little guilty about that,” he said a decade later. “A lot of people thought it was me making that jump, but I’ve never tried to hide the truth about it. I could handle the jump now, I’m sure. Back in ’62, I just didn’t quite have the savvy.” In spite of the fact that the image of McQueen flying through the air over a barbed-wire fence is among those he is most often identified with, it was Ekins aboard that flying Triumph.
The shot took a lot of measuring, estimating, and practice beforehand. The stunt crew kept massaging the contours of the hill that would be Ekins’ launching pad, and the barbed wire was replaced with string, to minimize risk to the rider should something go wrong. Fortunately, nothing did. Ekins nailed the iconic stunt on the first take. Movie history made.
What of that now legendary motorcycle? “I sold it to a stuntman,” recalls Ekins. Last time they had contact, the buyer said he didn’t own the bike anymore. “He didn’t know what he had. I didn’t tell him it was the bike from The Great Escape.” Movie history lost. Not only was The Great Escape the first film that showed the world—in a big way—that Steve McQueen loved bikes and was a spectacular rider, Escape was also a box office smash and vaulted him from the level of rising star to major star.
The motorhead actor had arrived.
More from McQueen's Machines
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from McQueen's Machines: The Cars and Bikes of a Hollywood Icon, published by Motorbooks, 2007.