This weekend marked the 69th anniversary of “The Great Escape”, the mass escape of allied airmen from the German-controlled Stalag Luft III in Lower Silesia. The escape, which involved the efforts of 600 men, achieved the goal of RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell to “make life hell for the Hun.”
In 1963, the story was filmed by the Mirisch Company as The Great Escape.
Steve McQueen as Capt. Virgil Hilts, U.S. Army Air Force pilot and escape artist
Silesia, Spring 1944
If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’ve heard of The Great Escape and have hopefully seen it roughly a hundred times in your life. Since there’s not much more for me to say about it, here’s a great bit from British comedian Eddie Izzard from Dress to Kill, about the film and McQueen’s attire in particular.
The Great Escape, now there’s a film. A lot of British actors, I’m British, so link up there. Steve McQueen, action hero; action transvestite, linkup there. The story is based on a true story about 76 British prisoners, I think, who escaped from the prisoner of war camp in Silesia, in Poland. They’re all experts at escaping; they’ve escaped from lots of other prisons, and they’re all put together, so they say, “Hey, let’s work together.”
Steve McQueen plays the American guy who is dropped into British films in order to make them sell… in America, that is, because you’d go, “Oh, I’m not gonna see it, it’s full of British guys, and what the fuck do I know about British things?”…
In The Great Escape, they say, “Look, we’re gonna do the biggest escape in the history of people escaping from things they shouldn’t. Fantastic.”
And Steve isn’t really a part of this, he’s just hanging out, playing baseball, runs with the van, does an escape, gets caught, covered in mud, and stuff like that; but the British are working away, they’re digging three tunnels – Charley, Barley and Farley. No, four tunnels, Charley, Barley, Farley and Wally; no, five tunnels, Charley, Barley, Farley and Wally… Nobody expects the Spanish tunnel king!
And they’re digging away, and there’s people in charge of shoveling it up, people putting breathing apparatus in, putting things on trolleys, lighting apparatus; people disguising the entrance of the tunnel so it looks like a kibbutz or something; people saying, “I’ve turned my uniform inside out, turned up my collar, I’ve turned my buttocks into a hat, and I now look like a German officer… but I have no buttocks.”
“Jawol, mein Herr. So habe ich linge wenige. Locherbekommen.”
“Well done, Simpkins. That’s a line from Monty Python, isn’t it?”
Donald Pleasance is doing forgeries on bits of tin can with a bit of jam. Clang! And on the day of the escape, they’re all there, and Steve McQueen has joined up in the escape, and the British have trilby hats on, overcoats, canoe, a bit of a rabbit… And Steve’s just there in jeans and a T-shirt, disguised as an American man! He romps out, jumps in a motorbike, knocks a guy off, and within 15 minutes, he’s in the borders of Switzerland. This is from Poland! And if you don’t know the geography, it goes Poland, Czechoslovakia, Holland, Venezuela, Africa, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon… and then Switzerland, where the Nazi gold comes from. I love the way you do that! Whenever I say something slightly weird, you all mutter. “I’m catching the ferry right now!”
Anyway, so yes, so Steve’s just damn cool, he jumps on the motorbike, and as soon as he gets on, the music cuts to (sings action film theme). The British are all down at the train station. “Can’t we do a motorbike? Damn!”
“Yes, a train ticket to… Ich möchte einen ticket to nach… London. No, not London! Calais! That’s nice and Nazi, isn’t it?”
“Ihre Pässe, bitte.”
“My passport? All right.”
“It’s a bit clangy and a bit jammy…”
“Yes, I’m from the steel and jam area of Stuttgart.”
The British are getting hassled, and Steve is away, and he gets to Switzerland. Remember, Jim Rockford nicks an airplane in that film, and he flies to Switzerland, and he gets about 20 miles away from it in an airplane! Steve is on a fucking motorbike and he gets there! Before him! What’s he got in the fucking motorbike, jet wings? I dunno!
So yeah, all the British are getting hassled, the Gestapo are after them, people are on rowing boats, some on bicycles, one on a rabbit, in a kangaroo, you know, in pogo stick. Steve’s motor biking away… Steve’s over the first line of bared wire, “Go, Steve, go!” Into the second line of barbed wire… Nearly makes it, doesn’t quite, but lives to tell the tale.
Meanwhile, the British are all rounded up and shot in the head! Now what signals is this giving to kids from the different countries, Britain and America? American kids watching Steve, saying, “Steve, you’re damn cool! Yeah, I’m fucking with you, man, all the way! Absolutely! Lived to tell the tale, good on you!” You know? I don’t know why he’s Australian, but anyway… “Absolutely. G’day.” But we’re just watching it and thinking, “We’re fucked! All that planning, the logistics, everything, and we get fucking blown away.”
What’d He Wear?
The A-2 Bomber Jacket Ensemble
While Eddie may have been a bit off in his “jeans and a T-shirt” disguise, his point remains. The only difference in McQueen’s wardrobe from the first part of the film to the escape is the addition of a black military-style peacoat, which we don’t see for long anyway.
Upon his arrival to Stalag Luft III, Hilts is immediately differentiated from the rest of the POWs by his wardrobe. All of the others, primarily Englishmen, are in variations of a dress uniform or at least attire more typical of military airmen. Captain Hilts, on the other hand, has on his airman’s leather jacket over a sweatshirt and slacks. It’s believable enough that a downed U.S. airman would have these items of clothing, but it launches Hilts to the forefront, giving American audiences an anti-hero protagonist to identify with and cheer for.
McQueen’s jacket is a classic Type A-2 leather flight jacket in dark seal brown. This was the standard jacket for U.S. Army Air Force pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. Although he is the cheeky sort who would wear whatever jacket he wants whenever he wants, the jacket’s designation of “Jacket, Pilot’s (Summer)” indicates that he was shot down during the summer of 1942.
The jacket follows standard A-2 design: shirt-style snap-down collars, shoulder straps (or epaulettes), and knit cuffs and waistband. V-shaped flapped pockets on each hip fasten with a single snap. The lining is a dark red lightweight silk. The leather is likely horsehide, although some were also made from goatskin and cowhide. On his left shoulder is the blue “Hap Arnold Emblem” shoulder sleeve insignia of the U.S. Army Air Forces.
Interestingly, the A-2 jacket was one of the first articles of clothing to feature a zipper, which had slowly been developed through the early years of the century before the deciding “Battle of the Fly” in 1937, which boosted zipper sales from 139 million to over 500 million in 1941. Most of the wartime A-2 jackets featured zippers made by Talon.
Apparently, the reproduction jacket made for the film was a Rough Wear 22752. Rough Wear, a company based out of Middletown, PA, was indeed a manufacturer of A-2s during the war.
Underneath, Hilts wears an interesting shirt that explains even more of his personality. At first, it appears to be a standard T-shirt, appropriately colored in “Air Force blue”. When he removes his jacket, we see that it is more like a short-sleeve sweatshirt based on the medium weight fabric, seams, piping, and – the biggest indicator – sleeves. While I’ve never worn an item like this myself, it looks as though it would be very comfortable. Hilts is the sort of person who, given the amount of time he spends in solitary confinement, would probably embrace comfort.
Hilts wears his silver Captain rank bars on the inside of his shirt collar, concealed but easily displayed when he needs to prove to a group of MP40-wielding Nazis that he is not a spy.
Hilts’ slacks have received some unfair attention for being historically inaccurate. Apparently, the people who make these complaints either don’t realize or don’t care that his entire character is made up and no Americans were involved in the escape at all. Perhaps they should stop complaining about a pair of pants in a movie. But I digress…
The controversial pants are a pair of khaki flat front trousers with plain-hemmed bottoms. The controversy stems from the rather slim fit of the slacks, also known as “drainpipe trousers”. They have two slanted pockets on the front and two rear pockets: jetted on the left, flapped on the right. There are seven widely-spaced belt loops around the waistband, but no belt is worn.
When watching Steve McQueen in a film, expect to see lots of pairs of brown boots. In this case, he has a good reason. Hilts sports a pair of brown M-43 Type III service boots in roughout leather. (Roughout leather is the flesh side of skin. You may think this looks like suede, but suede is thinner and likely wouldn’t be found on a pair of military boots.)
These are not boondockers, the USMC name for their boots, although they look similar enough. The roughout leather is a medium brown and brown laces are tied through the eight eyelets on the ankle.
Hilts wears a thin gold necklace around his neck with a round gold-colored pendant. So far as I know, this is not explained in the film and is likely just Steve McQueen being Steve McQueen, as we see a similar necklace in Bullitt and other films. On his left ring finger is a wide silver ring, not clearly a wedding band, but in the traditional place of one. The Hilts character takes on a whole new level for me if it turns out that the hot shot engineering student who joined the war to show off his skills with planes and motorcycles was also married. Thoughts?
Hilts’ wristwatch, worn on his right wrist, has been identified as a Rolex Speedking, the watch offered to British POWs in German camps by Hans Wildorf, the Swiss director of Rolex at the time. The story behind this, with its fascinating ties to the real life escape, can be found here.
The watch itself has a silver case, black face, and brown strap.
Odds and Ends
Just prior to the 4th of July segment, Hilts is seen wearing a variant of a brown A1 engineer’s jumper, a U.S. Army Air Force garment that it is not surprising to see in his possession. However, it is strange that we only see him wearing it on a date that we know to be the middle of summer. I guess in Poland, summer would be cold.
The only difference between McQueen’s garment and the standard A1 are the buttons on his V-neck collar.
For the 4th of July itself, Hilts sports a light red henley (hey, that’s James Garner’s character‘s name) underneath a black vest. Were these possibly made as part of the Tom, Dick, and Harry operation? If so, it was ballsy of him to wear it so blatantly in front of the Germans. However, everyone was probably too hopped up on moonshine in these scenes to care. The pendant is best seen during these scenes.
As mentioned above, Hilts also opts for a black military peacoat while pulling guys out through the tunnel and escaping the following morning. The coat is a pretty typical 10-button double-breasted peacoat with open slash chest pockets on each side and flapped hip pockets below them. The rear of the peacoat has a decorative belt attached to two buttons. Hilts wears his buttoned up to the neck.
Finally, during his escape, Hilts commandeers a Nazi uniform from a sloppy Heer infantryman. He takes the soldier’s tunic, trousers, and helmet. After making it near the Swiss border, Hilts ditches the uniform and – luckily for him – still has his own pants on underneath. Those Polish summers must be really cold!
Go Big or Go Home
We’ve had some American-emphasized lifestyles covered here at BAMF Style before (see: Dirty Harry), but The Great Escape has reason to do so; its hero is an American airman in a German POW camp surrounded by Brits. Of course he will want to embrace his Americanism! How does he do this? The three great American pasttimes: baseball, whiskey, and pissing people off.
Hilts is hardly ever seen without his baseball and accompanying glove. There are few things more American than baseball and a good ol’ American boy like Hilts sticks to his roots. Also, it provides him some opportunities to test the camp’s security…
At least Hilts’ fascination with baseball has purpose, unlike the football-tossing cronies in The Room. Which please tell me you’ve seen.
Secondly, Hilts, Henley, and Other American Guy honor their country’s history by making up a batch of “Wow!”-worthy moonshine on the 4th of July. Then they serve it to the British to celebrate over 160 years of not being under their rule. BAMF move, isn’t it?
The third is easy to figure out; Hilts’ attitude is very devil-may-care and he even gets under the skin of some of his own confederates before he decides to help them out.
How to Get the Look
Before any of you hop into your time machines and go back in time to join the Army Air Force, you should know that it’s pretty easy to put a great Hilts-based look together today!
- Dark seal brown Type A-2 leather zip-up aviator’s jacket with flapped hip pockets and military insignia
- Black military-style peacoat with open side chest pockets and flapped hip pockets
- Blue short-sleeve heavy duty sweatshirt (basically a standard crew neck sweatshirt with the sleeves removed at the elbows)
- Light khaki flat front “drainpipe trousers” with plain-hemmed bottoms belt loops, flapped right rear pocket, jetted left rear pocket, and slash side pockets
- Brown M-43 service roughout leather 8-eyelet combat boots
- Rolex Speedking wristwatch with a silver case, black face, and brown strap
- Off-white ribbed socks
- Wide silver ring, worn on left ring finger
- Thin gold necklace with round medallion
After stealing the German infantryman’s uniform and motorcycle, a British-made Triumph (but we’re not getting into that), Hilts is lucky enough to find a loaded Luger P08 in the holster. Now, wouldn’t this be a welcome gift for a POW on the run?
The Luger has been ubiquitous in films since the 1930s due to its distinctive and somewhat villainous (because it’s GERMAN) appearance. Even Jerry Seinfeld referred to the Luger on his show… although he was misidentifying a Walther P38, a similar-looking German WWII weapon.
The Luger itself has been around since 1900, initially developed by the Germans with the proprietary 7.65×21 mm Parabellum cartridge, also sold as .30 Luger. Eight years after the introduction of this Luger, the Germans said, “Ach! Let us make it better with a larger bullet!” and the Luger P08 (for 1908) was developed alongside the 9×19 mm Parabellum cartridge. The 9×19 mm today is probably the most common semi-automatic pistol cartridge, but I don’t have any evidence on hand to back that up so just assume I’m right.
The Luger P08 was the standard sidearm of the German military in both World Wars and was gradually phased out over the course of the second by the similar Walther P38. Both pistols were chambered in 9 mm Luger and carried eight rounds, but the difference was primarily in the operating system. Whereas the P38 was traditional double action, the Luger had a distinctive toggle-locked short-recoil action, using a jointed arm rather than the slides seen in most modern semi-automatics.
The Luger was produced from 1900 until 1945, at a price ranging from 13 to 32 Deutschmarks. Now, in 2013, it’s difficult to even find a Luger for sale, let alone one for less than $2,000.
Do Yourself A Favor And…
I feel compelled to comment, as this is a sartorial blog, that the cover of the 2-disc “Collector’s Set” DVD strangely has Hilts sporting a blue button-down. I guess they felt a button-down shirt is more heroic than a T-shirt. Whatever.
Hilts engages in a verbal duel with the camp commandant, Von Luger (no relation to the gun), after his first escape attempt. While the exchange leads to Hilts being locked away for nearly three weeks, he still manages to come out ahead.
Von Luger: Are all American officers so ill-mannered?
Hilts: Yeah, about 99 percent.
Von Luger: THen perhaps while you are with us you will have a chance to learn some. Ten days isolation, Hilts.
Hilts: Captain Hilts.
Von Luger: Twenty days.
Hilts: Right. Oh, uh, you’ll still be here when I get out?
Von Luger: Cooler!
My apologies on the small screencaps used. My version of the DVD is the older widescreen release that, even when fully expanded on my computer, doesn’t look too big. I would recommend purchasing the newer version (found in the link above).