Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Ben Mankiewicz interviews Walter Mirisch at the screening of The Great Escape (1963)

A 50th anniversary restoration of The Great Escape (1963) was premiered at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre (TCL Chinese) on Friday April 26th, 2013. Before the screening even started, I headed to the bathroom and saw a bunch of TCM staffers surrounding this older gentleman and heard one of them refer to him as "Walter". It was cool that I got to see Walter Mirisch before the event even started.

I'll do my best to transcribe the interview. It's not all word-for-word and I use a lot of paraphrasing.

Ben Mankiewicz hosted and noted that James Garner and Steve McQueen were the stars of the film but were not the stars Mirisch wanted. Walter Mirisch won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Mankiewicz introduced him as one of the best film producers in Hollywood.

Mankiewicz - Holy crap you have produced a lot of great movies. (Ben actually did say that!) . Ben starts with the biggest hit Mirisch had before The Great Escape which was The Magnificent Seven (1960). How did The Magnificent Seven getting The Great Escape done? Did it have a big impact on casting?

Mirisch - John Sturges and Mirisch had met before The Magnificent Seven and became friendly and decided they wanted to work together. Mirisch always had in mind trying to find a property they could do together. The availability of The Seven Samurai seemed to present a good opportunity. Mirisch thought it would be perfect for Sturges. They watched The Seven Samurai in a projection room and spitballed how it would work as a Western.

Mankiewicz - Mankiewicz sarcastically joked that none of us wished we'd been in that room. It sounds like a dull conversation. He then asks when Mirisch thought of Steve McQueen for that movie.

Mirisch - Steve McQueen was a star on the TV show Wanted: Dead or Alive prior to the film The Magnificent Seven. He was well received in that film but hadn't received star status yet even after the film released. After The Magnificent Seven, Mirisch and Sturges looked around for another project they could do together. The idea for The Great Escape came up. The story had been on the screen before possibly by the British. But no one could understand those accents so it didn't matter. There was a little resistance (possibly to it being previously released) but both Mirisch and Sturges eventually got very excited about doing the movie. The book written by Paul Brickhill. Brickill was a flyer in the British Airforce and a prisoner and the book is about his own experience. Unfortunately, the book is a factual one and not a novel. All the personal stories were made up for the movie and this presented a lot of writing difficulties.

Mankiewicz - Who was Mirisch looking at for those two principal characters played by James Garner and Steve McQueen?

Mirisch - A decision was made that they would tailor the film so that there were two principal characters to carry the story. A few years before, Sturges had made Gunfight at the O.K. Corrall (1957) with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster. So when Sturges and Mirisch were working on developing the script, they had Douglas and Lancaster in mind for the two title roles. It got to the point where they realized that Douglas and Lancaster would cost a lot for the picture. They were having problems getting the budget for the picture approved.

Mankiewicz - Mankiewicz mentioned that he read that the budget was $4 Million

Mirisch - Mirisch says it was somewhat more than that. Anyone who has ever made a movie has heard "you gotta cut the budget if you want to get this made". Back then, Mirisch suggested that two relatively inexpensive younger, up-and-coming actors, James Garner and Steve McQueen, might be possible for those two parts. They saved $2 million with that one decision.

Mankiewicz - Mankiewicz says , "do you realize when you say that that you are a genius?" and notes that it would have been a very different movie with Douglas and Lancaster.

Mirisch - Mirisch had gotten to know McQueen while filming The Magnificent Seven, was very fond of him and thought he had an incredible on-screen personality. He also liked the idea of a younger actor for that part. Prior to The Great Escape, Mirisch had made the film The Children's Hour (1961) with James Garner. Mirisch notes he was more comfortable with the idea of making a film with Garner and McQueen than with Douglas and Lancaster.

Mankiewicz - Mankiewicz mentions that McQueen wasn't a star yet when he made The Great Escape.

Mirisch - Mirisch says it's because he hadn't jumped over that fence with that motorcycle yet!

Mankiewicz - We all cherish McQueen because he had that fierce independence along with an enormous chip on his shoulder but was still filled with self-doubt that so many of us are plagued with. This all made him Steve McQueen the star but also made him a bit of a handful for the folks who worked with him.

Mirisch - McQueen had that quality, je ne sais quoi. I don't know what but he's got it and radiated it on screen.

Mankiewicz - McQueen left the set for sometime after some disagreements and some competition with James Garner. As a producer, how did you deal with a great but difficult star and still manage the picture?

Mirisch - McQueen always felt there were too many words. Mirisch came to trust that because he learned that McQueen was able to convey a great deal by his very expression. Mirisch was open to cutting down McQueen's dialogue and to allow him to convey things with his eyes. Sturges was also well aware of that and they both collaborated on that particular issue. McQueen had a good sense of story and when something bothered him, Mirisch took McQueen's thoughts into consideration as there might be something that was missing that could be worked on. There is a famous incident in which McQueen got upset and left the set for a while but that was overcome by re-writing. Mirisch showed McQueen the rewrites and McQueen said "I'll be back to work tomorrow."

Mankiewicz - Mankiewicz interjects and tells the audience that those rewrites include the famous motorcycle sequences and the baseball scenes.

Mirisch - McQueen conveys more about the independence of spirit and courage just by throwing that baseball against that wall than some do with long speeches. Mirisch calls McQueen brilliant and says to the audience that you'll see it all again when you watch the film in case you don't remember.

Mankiewicz - Mankiewicz throws out a trivia bit that McQueen plays one of the Nazi officers chasing McQueen during the motorcycle chase while also playing his own character.

Mirisch - Mirisch interjects and says "you know, you are not supposed to tell all the secrets!"). He also notes that the restoration will be available on Blu-Ray on May 7th. This is funny because Mankiewicz had promised to bring it up and forgot. Ha!


  1. Love this. Thank you for sharing this with us!


  2. wow what an awesome experience! and that film is like one of my Holiest of Holies since i was a kid!


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