Virgil Films has released the remarkable documentary "The Coolest Guy Movie Ever", a unique look at the 1963 WWII classic "The Great Escape". The film cemented Steve McQueen as a newly-minted superstar of the big screen and featured one of the all-time great casts: James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, David McCallum, Donald Pleasence, James Donald among them. United Artists originally intended the movie to be shot in Hollywood but director John Sturges argued that it would only be convincing if shot on location in Germany. "The Coolest Guy Movie Ever" visits those locations and presents how they look today. In some cases, the iconic locations have changed considerably while others remain instantly recognizable. The documentary was conceived, directed, photographed and edited by Christophe Espenan, a devoted fan of the film. Espenan and a team of dedicated assistants and enthusiasts of the movie painstakingly tracked down even the most minor locations. The documentary details the challenges this presented in Germany's ever-changing landscape. Most vitally, he also tracked down people whose families interacted with the film crew. Most interesting is the small hotel where key members of the cast, including Steve McQueen, stayed during production. The son of the couple who ran the hotel at the time (and who still operates it today) gives first-hand memories of what it was like to have legendary celebrities staying in the cozy venue and how polite everyone was to the family. The documentary is chock full of such wonderful anecdotes and is enhanced by ample film clips from the movie and very rare production photos.
We spoke to Joe Amodei, the President and CEO of Virgil Films, which has released the film as a region-free DVD. Here, Amodei shares his thoughts about the production.
did you first learn of the existence of “The Coolest Guy Movie Ever”
Somewhere around three years ago Steven Jay Rubin
introduced me to Chris Espenan who was directing the doc. I had previously
released Steve’s documentary “East LA Marine” about WWII hero Guy Gabaldon.
Steve knew I was a “Great Escape” fan and told me about the movie. I
immediately said “Tally Ho, I am in.”
attracted you in terms of agreeing to distribute the film through Virgil?
”The Great Escape” was the film that did it for me as a
kid going to the movies in Northeast Philadelphia. In those days I could walk
to the theatre so I went three or four times a week. I learned the meaning of “cool”
while watching the film. Steve McQueen was the definition of that word. We are
always on the lookout for film- related docs and this one really came close to
home. I also knew it was something I might be able to get my friend Michael
Meister involved in. He is a fellow “Great Escape” lover who ended up coming in
with finishing funds that allowed us to screen the film in the market at
Cannes. BTW Michael LOVES Cinema Retro!
did the rare production photos seen in the documentary originate?
A lot of them came from Walter Rimi’s son Christian who
graciously allowed us the use of his father’s photos. Walter was second unit
director of photography. Christian is in the film and gives a very emotional
talk about freedom and how important it s.
was WWII historian Steve Rubin’s role in making the documentary a reality?
He is the Producer of the film. Our very own Big X. My
Dad and I had the pleasure of seeing the film at Grauman’s Theatre (I still
call it that) in Hollywood a few years back during the Turner Classic Movies
Film Fest. Was very cool seeing it on the big screen with my father sitting
next to me. It’s not something I will ever forget.
are your personal memories of “The Great Escape”? When did you first see it?
The summer of 1963. The Merben Movie Theatre.
Philadelphia PA. I remember building a ramp for my bicycle to jump over. I was
lucky if I got the bike a foot or two off the ground. But it felt unbelievably
qualities about the movie do you feel resonate most after so many years?
The POW’s never give up. They try to escape from the
minute they get into the camp. They never give up. It is this heroism that the
real Stalag Luft 3 inhabitants had when they made the real escape in March of
1944. John Surges and crew made sure that courage was on display throughout the
is your favorite character in the film?
Simply put Virgil Hilts. But I do have a love for Charles
Bronson’s portrayal of “Tunnel King” Danny as well.
Nothing like that motorcycle jump over the fence to get
me going. There is also a scene where McQueen takes down a German soldier about
to shoot his friend, “The Mole” Ives. He
doesn’t get to save him but the gymnastic leap off the ground of McQueen’s body
into the German added to the coolness of the character. No one had done this in
movies before. We had cool actors like William Holden in “Stalag 17” or James
Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.” But no one was cool like McQueen. No one.
reflections on Elmer Bernstein’s score?
In the top two or three of all time. It is the ringer on
my phone. I got the chance to thank him at a screening of “Sweet Smell of
Success” a while back. He was a nice and gracious man.
thoughts on John Sturges as a director and other films of his that have
Sturges never gets
the credit he deserves because a lot of his films were big time audience
favorites but not necessarily critical favorites. This guy not only made “The
Great Escape” but he also brought us “The Magnificent Seven", “Bad Day at Black
Rock,” “The Old Man and the Sea” and “Gunfight at the OK Corral.” Those are