I was fortunate to be raised in an era when strong male role models were in plentiful supply. Of course there was my dad–who I considered the strongest of all and isn’t that how it should be?–but the Silver Screen and Boob Tube had more than enough. The men in those days were what would be considered the strong, silent type (Dad was surely strong, but silent wasn’t one of his positive attributes). On television, there was Chuck Connors as The Rifleman, Fess Parker as Daniel Boone, and James Arness as Matt Dillon. On the big screen were Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey in the Death Wish series, and John Wayne as, well, John Wayne. There were plenty of others, but what they all represented were men who wouldn’t take any crap off the bad guy, or anyone else for that matter, and who always came to the defense of those unable to defend themselves. They weren’t what one might call sentimental; occasionally showing affection to their mates or maybe their horse. They were often misunderstood and preferred to be alone. Men of few words, when they did speak, they had something important to say and people listened.
One of these strong, silent types I found myself drawn to and wanting to emulate was Steve McQueen. Too young to see him in his television role as The Bounty Hunter, I was able to see plenty of his movie roles. Actually, I didn’t really watch many of his movies, but the ones I did watch, I was impressed. The Thomas Crown Affair and Cincinnati Kid were both good movies, but when I saw him as Papillion, I was forever a fan. I was so impressed with the character as portrayed by McQueen that I read both of the books and for Christmas my dad bought me a belt with the emblem of a butterfly etched in the leather (Papillon is French for butterfly). As much as I liked his Papillon character, he played another role in a movie that came out a few years earlier; Virgil Hilts.
The movie was The Great Escape, and McQueen played Virgil Hilts, an American Allied prisoner of war in a German prison camp. While most of the camp prisoners were involved in an all out, night and day effort to make a mass prison escape via a series of tunnels named Tom, Dick, and Harry, Hilts decided that he would work on his own escape plans and proceeded to do so. Successful as an escape artist, he was unfortunately not successful at staying escaped and after every capture, he was thrown into solitary confinement in what were dubbed “coolers”. Thus the nickname, Cooler King. While in the cooler, he was allowed to bring along his baseball and glove and he would while away his confinement by bouncing a baseball onto the wall and catching the ricochet in his glove; all the while thinking of his next escape plan. What wasn’t there to like about this guy? We had so much in common. He was an American, I was an American; he was a loner, I was a loner; he was a non-conformist, I was a non-conformist; he loved baseball, I loved baseball; he was cool, I loved baseball.
In one of many exciting scenes in the movie, Hilts again escapes on his own and seems to be getting away. At one point he steals a German soldier’s military motorcycle and begins making his way across the German countryside. With each passing moment, it is obvious that the Nazi’s are after him in full force and they eventually begin to surround him. He desperately looks for an escape route and starts across a series of rolling, green hills and ends up crashing into a wall of barbed wire fence; only to be captured and taken back to prison once again. The scenery is gorgeous and watching McQueen on the Triumph T6 makes you want to go out and buy a bike. And the music soundtrack is the best for a military film ever. Yes, I’m aware of Bridge on the River Kwai; I’ll stand with my assessment. If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s a clip of the famous motorcycle escape for your enjoyment.
By the way, Hilts did later escape with 250 others, only via the conventional route; out through the tunnels. A true story, a great movie, and a great role for Steve McQueen.