A Western movie starring Yul Brynner
The screenwriters increased the importance of the roles of American POWs; their role was minor and the escape was a largely British affair. While Americans in the POW camp helped build the tunnels and worked on the early escape plans, they were separated from the Europeans before the tunnels could be completed. Fictional elements were added, such as Hilts's dash for the border by motorcycle. This was done at the request of McQueen, who did the stunt riding himself except for the final jump.
Ex-POWs asked filmmakers to exclude details about the help the POWs received from their home countries, such as maps, papers, and tools hidden in gift packages, lest it jeopardize future POW escapes. The filmmakers complied.
Steve McQueen's Virgil Hilts, "remains one of the film's most enduring characters, his cooler king having become an icon of cool who continues to inform popular culture." Critic Leonard Maltin wrote that "the large, international cast is superb, but the standout is McQueen; it's easy to see why this cemented his status as a superstar."
Richard Attenborough was cast as Sq Ldr Roger Bartlett RAF ("Big X"), a character based on Roger Bushell, the South Africa-born British POW who was the mastermind of the real Great Escape. Flt Lt Colin Blythe RAF ("The Forger") was based on Tim Walenn and played by Donald Pleasence. Pleasence himself had served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He was shot down and spent a year in German prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft 1.