The Great Escape's Barbed Wire Jump Used The Wrong Bike For The Job

A great moment in a good war movie can stir up emotions up in even the hardest of moviegoers. Think of "The Ride of the Valkyries" in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." The ambush of the Acheron in "Master and Commander." The German U-Boat crew singing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" in "Das Boot." One of the more joyous scenes (before the Nazis regain the upper hand) in the pantheon involves a Triumph motorcycle, barbed wire, and the "King of Cool."

"The Great Escape" might be considered more of a "war is fun" film than a "war is hell" film. John Sturges' 1963 adaptation of Paul Brickhill's 1950 non-fiction book of the same name chronicles prisoners and their efforts to escape the German POW camp Stalag Luft III in 1942. The cast is stacked, the story influential, and its climactic motorcycle stunt –- much of which is done by star Steve McQueen, although the big barbed wire jump is performed by stuntman Bud Ekins –- incredible.

Speaking to The Daily Mail in March 2019 ahead of a screening of "The Great Escape with Dan Snow" (which features interviews with the film's surviving stunt performers), "The Great Escape" stuntman Tim Gibbes talked about Ekins' awesome bike stunt. As it turns out, the maneuver worked despite being performed with the wrong type of bike:

"We spent a long time finding the perfect dip in the ground to launch the motorcycle over the barbed wire. Bud and I had a few practice runs at riding up from the dip, and it wasn't an easy stunt. The Triumph wasn't really the right bike to be doing it in, it made things a lot more difficult. It was just an ordinary street bike with fancy tyres, one that you'd use to go to the shops."

Runnin' down a dream

The stunt in question comes near the end of a six-minute sequence that sees Steve McQueen's Captain Virgil Hilts (The Cooler King, if you're nasty) get within spitting distance of freedom. Stalag Luft III is touted as being an "escape-proof" prison camp in the film. In hindsight, it seems like a dare to the cosmos.

As depicted in "The Great Escape," the Germans get the bright idea to put all of their escape-artist prisoners of war into one place. Thanks to the efforts of a core group of diggers, forgers, and scroungers, 76 POWs successfully flee from the camp via an underground tunnel, including Hilts. Whether they all make it to true freedom at the German-Swiss border gets into spoilery territory, but Hilts makes a go of it with a stolen motorcycle. With German soldiers in pursuit, Hilts goes for the barbed wire double-border line, and succeeds in jumping the first one. 

In his interview with The Daily Mail, Tim Gibbes said that McQueen wanted to and nearly tried the big jump himself. However, the film's crew vetoed the decision:

"It wasn't a stunt Steve McQueen could have attempted, and the film crew wouldn't have let him do it anyway as they had to ensure a big star like him didn't get injured. Even Bud [Ekins], who eventually did the stunt, said he was only going to try it once and then I would have had to try and do it myself. He said before he did it that he didn't want to do it. But he managed to get it done."

You can watch the clip below, and marvel at the fact that McQueen's (or, rather, Ekins') leg came out from under that motorcycle intact by the end. A "Triumph" indeed.