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 Forces pilot and escape artist
Sagan-Silesia (Zagan, Poland), Spring 1944
Film: The Great Escape
Release Date: July 4, 1963
Director: John Sturges
Wardrobe Credit: Bert Henrikson
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. For those who may need more of an introduction, The Great Escape dramatizes the real-life escape of dozens of Allied prisoners of war from the Stalag Luft III camp in Sagan-Silesia, now Zagan, Poland, via a series of tunnels, though 73 of the 76 escapees were captured and 50 of those 73 were murdered by the Nazis. Hoping to commercialize the story for audiences in the United States, the filmmakers emphasized the part that Americans played in the escape and cast high-profile actors like Steve McQueen and James Garner as a swaggering U.S. Army Air Forces officer and an Eagle Squadron pilot in the Royal Air Force, respectively.
There’s not much more for me to say about it, so enjoy this segment of 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?”…
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 Flight Jacket
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 dark pea coat 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 leather flight jacket over a sweatshirt and chinos. 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 wears a classic Type A-2 leather flight jacket in dark brown horsehide with a maroon satin lining. This was the standard jacket for U.S. Army Air Forces pilots, navigators, and bombardiers. Although Captain Hilts 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 likely shot down during the summer of 1942 before it was transitioned out of service in favor of the B-10 and B-15 the following year.
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.
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.
The jacket follows standard A-2 design: shirt-style snap-down collar, shoulder straps (or epaulettes), and ribbed-knit cuffs and waistband. Center-pointed flapped pockets on each hip fasten with a single snap. On his left shoulder is the blue “Hap Arnold Emblem” shoulder sleeve insignia of the U.S. Army Air Forces. Stitched over the left breast is a tan leather strip with “V. HILTS” stamped on, though the jacket’s wear-and-tear has faded his name so it is only faintly seen by the time he strides into Stalag Luft III.
As Hilts carries the rank of Captain in the U.S. Army Air Force, he wears the standard OF-2 rank insignia of two silver bars. However, he wears them on the underside of his left jacket collar, which he flips over to emphasize his rank when confronted by Von Luger shortly after his arrival at camp.
Hilts’ shirt embodies even more of his—and McQueen’s—personality. At first, it appears to be a standard T-shirt, appropriately colored in “Air Force blue”, a shade of slate-blue that echoes the RAF uniforms worn by “Big X”, Hendley, Ramsey “the SBO”, and other British fliers. When he removes his jacket, we see that it is more like a short-sleeve sweatshirt based on the medium weight cotton fabric, seams, piping, and raglan sleeves. The actual shirt—offered to the production by Western Costume Co. and worn both by McQueen and his stuntman Bud Ekins—can be seen at this auction listing.
Since writing about The Great Escape, I’ve been on the search for a Hilts-like slate blue short-sleeved raglan sweatshirt, and I believe I found a solid contender buried among the well-priced offerings of the western Pennsylvania-based outfitter Blair: the Scandia Woods short-sleeve sweatshirt in “mineral blue” blend of 60% cotton and 40% polyester, which I ordered for only $14.99 in March 2020 and, with its fleecy lining and banded sleeves and hem, is comfortable whether doing yardwork or enjoying a well-deserved beer after it’s finished.
Following the escape, 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. Showing military insignia also saved the bacon of one of the real-life officers who may have inspired Hilts’ character, Colonel Jerry Sage of the OSS. The American officer was captured in the North African desert but “was able to don a flight jacket and pass as a flier, otherwise he would have been executed as a spy,” according to IMDB.
Hilts wears a pair of light khaki chino cloth trousers that some have criticized for their anachronistically slim fit—more consistent with the “drainpipe trousers” of the early ’60s—as opposed to the looser-fitting trousers of the World War II era. (Think the officers’ “pinks” that inspired Indiana Jones‘ pants.)
The flat front trousers worn by McQueen have seven belt loops around the waist, though he doesn’t wear a belt, with slanted side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms.
When watching Steve McQueen in a film, one can always expect to see some stylish brown suede boots. In this case, he has good reason, sporting a pair of the M-43 Type III service boots in tan roughout, roughout meaning the untreated side of leather with a suede-like texture and appearance. The boots have eight lace eyelets.
Strapped via mil-spec olive band to his right wrist, Hilts wears a steel Rolex Speedking, the watch offered by Rolex director Hans Wildorf to Allied POWs interned in German camps. The story behind this, with its fascinating ties to the real-life escape, can be found here.
As he would throughout his career, McQueen wears several of his own personal accessories as Captain Hilts, including a thin gold necklace with a St. Christopher pendant and a ring engraved with his initials, the “S” overlaying the “M”.
You can see a closer shot of the ring in the Steve McQueen Online discussion forum.
Odds and Ends
Just prior to the 4th of July segment, Hilts is seen wearing a variant of a drab olive brown A1 engineer’s jumper, a U.S. Army Air Forces 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.
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 coral red henley underneath a black waistcoat (vest), more a piece of a civilian wardrobe than military.
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 heavy melton wool peacoat while pulling guys out through the tunnel and escaping the following morning. The black coat has a six-button double-breasted front with two additional buttons at the neck, slanted chest pockets and flapped hip pockets, and a double-buttoned belt on the back.
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
As an American airman in a German POW camp surrounded by Brits, Captain Hilts embraces his Americanism via the three great American past times: 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, so at least Hilts’ fascination with baseball has purpose, unlike the football-tossing cronies in The Room.
Secondly, Hilts, Hendley, 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.
After stealing the German infantryman’s uniform and motorcycle—in fact, an anachronistic 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 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, one of the most commonly found semi-automatic pistol cartridges around to this day.
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.
How to Get the Look
Perhaps on Steve McQueen’s insistence to avoid his character looking dated or inaccessible, Captain Hilts’ timeless casual ensemble would be just as stylish—and certainly comfortable—today.
- Dark brown leather Type A-2 flight jacket with zip front, epaulettes, flapped hip pockets, ribbed-knit cuffs and waist hem, and military sleeve patch
- Slate blue heavy-duty cotton sweatshirt with cut-off raglan sleeves
- Light khaki flat front trousers with belt loops, slanted side pockets, flapped right rear pocket, jetted left rear pocket, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- Tan roughout leather M-43 lace-up service boots
- Light gray ribbed socks
- Thick silver ring, worn on left ring finger
- Rolex Speedking wristwatch with a stainless steel case, black dial, and khaki strap
- Thin gold necklace with round St. Christopher medallion
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
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-up shirt… I guess they felt a button-up shirt is more heroic than a T-shirt.
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!