The film was produced and directed by John Sturges. Steve McQueen stars in one of his most popular roles as American pilot Virgil Hilts aka ‘The Cooler King,’ named after the amount of time he spends in the ‘cooler’ after repeated escape attempts and run ins with the camp commandant.
Steve McQueen performed all of his own motorcycle stunts in The Great Escape with the exception of his characters final jump over a 6ft (1.8m) barbed wire fence. The final jump was performed by his stunt double, Bud Etkins.
As for the chase sequences, the three racers – Tim Gibbes (the Australian moto-cross champion), Bud Etkins, and Steve McQueen – took turns chasing one another as German soldiers. The special effects manager worked out the final scene, where Steve has to get through the fence to escape to Switzerland. Bud, Tim, and Steve were left to figure out how to do the jump.
“When I took off, I throttled right back and it was silent,” Bud said. “You know, everything was just silent- the whole crew and everything was just silent. And then when I landed they cheered like crazy. They did just onetake and afterwards the assistant director came to me and said, ‘Well, that’s a $1,000.00 jump if I ever saw one.’ I knew nothing about negotiating fees so I said ‘okay’ and that was that. Two days’ work, one jump, and we were finished.”
Not only did McQueen perform his own stunts during filming, but he also performed stunts for the films stuntmen themselves.
Before moving to California to pursue a career as an actor, McQueen got his start in the 1950s as a professional motorcycle racer in Long Island, NY. Due to his skill on a bike, during filming he kept outrunning the less skilled stuntmen who were supposed to be chasing him. As a result, McQueen did his own riding as Virgil and then dressed as a German soldier and shot separate chase scenes. Thusly, all of the motorcycle scenes in The Great Escape effectively show McQueen chasing himself.