In this film, POWs from several Allied forces work together to attempt an escape from an “escape-proof” German camp. Aided by various experts like The Scrounger, played by James Garner, and The Tunnel King, played by Charles Bronson, the men stubbornly persist in their plans. They require some to work on the tunnel system and some to work on distracting the Germans so they won’t be found out. With help from The Forger, played by Donald Pleasance, and The Manufacturer, played by James Coburn, many were able to leave the camp. The Cooler King, played by Steve McQueen, was able to steal a motorcycle and lead the Germans on a chase that includes a famous leap over a barbed wire barrier.
This film was based on the book by Paul Brickhill, who participated in the most famous WWII POW escape, the escape from Stalag Luft III. It took the real POWs over a year to prepare for the event. Having built a camp similar to Stalag Luft III near Munich, Germany, the crew did what was necessary to recreate the setting and film the entire movie in Europe. The cast members even helped build set pieces by tying rubber strings together to make the barbed wire.
Several cast members brought their experience to the film. Donald Pleasence, among others of the cast, was actually held in real POW camps during the war. Playing a chief tunneler was easy for Charles Bronson, who had been a coal miner before working as an actor.
Even Steve McQueen brought his motorcycle experience to the film. He not only did most of his own stunts, but he also played one of the German motorcyclists in his chase scene. According to imdb.com, the real escape actually occurred on Steve McQueen’s 14th birthday.