Archive Letter: Steve McQueen’s Great Escape Annotations

A request for more ‘importance’ is just one of Steve McQueen’s scribbled demands from producers in the script that went on to seal his reputation.

  • Photography: Heritage Auctions

The Great Escape was the movie that established Steve McQueen as a Hollywood superstar. In his role as the ‘Cooler King’, USAAF Captain Virgil Hilts, some would argue he stole every scene in a cast that included Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. McQueen was already famous by the time he worked on the film for his determination to add his own special touches to every role he played.

This closely annotated script provides all the forensic evidence needed for an analysis of his keen instinct for making his mark.

Most notably he suggests that Scene 151 needs ‘rewriting’, for failing to give his character enough ‘humour or importance’. In another section he talks about wanting ‘to discuss negative reaction to Hilts causing almost disaster…’

‘The famous motorcycle scene was clearly designed to cater to his credentials as a speed-junkie.’

The famous motorcycle scene in which he escapes has no annotations, but could be considered a McQueen note-to-producer sequence in itself, since it’s clearly designed – following his request for more screen time – to cater to his credentials as a speed-junkie.

The annotated script came to light last year when it was offered in a batch of 18 similarly marked-up screenplays for auction. It was eventually sold for $50,000, a mere snip for a fascinating insight into the workings of one of Hollywood’s most mercurial anti-heroes.

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