IT’S ONE of the best-known stunts in cinema: having broken out of a prisoner of war camp during World War II, USAAF Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) attempts to evade recapture by jumping two barbed wire fences with a motorcycle, and escape into Switzerland.
Now modern-day action hero Guy Martin has attempted to recreate the famous silver screen leap for a new TV show, and Driving.co.uk has got its hands on exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of the daredevil doing his thing, ahead of the programme’s air date next weekend.
Speaking to The Sunday Times Driving editor Nick Rufford, Martin, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, says he isn’t concerned about the stunt, despite the fences being 5ft and 8ft high.
To get it right, Martin must soar 3ft higher than McQueen’s stunt double Bud Ekins managed, and sail 60ft forward, which is why he’s chosen to do it with a modern Triumph Scrambler 1200 motorcycle, adapted with reinforced shock absorbers, instead of the Triumph TR6 Trophy used in The Great Escape.
He admits it’s being possibly the trickiest stunt he’s ever attempted but asks Rufford, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Martin’s need for speed has seen him claim 17 podiums at the infamous Isle of Man TT, world speed records for a gravity-powered snow sled (83.4mph), a soapbox racer (85.6mph), a hovercraft (75.2mph) and a tractor (135mph), and he’s clocked the fastest time for a commercial vehicle around the Nürburgring Nordschliefe with a modified Transit van. And in June this year, to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, he parachuted onto Normandy in tribute to allied forces.
Completing The Great Escape stunt would (spoiler alert) actually outdo what Ekins managed back in 1963. In the movie, Hilts makes it over the first fence only to get caught in the wire of the second.
Writing in today’s Sunday Times Magazine, Rufford notes that Martin is no stranger to injury: the motorcycle racer has broken his back twice, once in a near-fatal 170mph bike crash after which he resumed racing with a back brace (“Worse things happen at sea,” he declared).
In the video, Martin’s points out that his right ankle is “full of nuts and bolts”, and his body is held together with metal pins.
Asked if he has a bit of speed-junky Steve McQueen’s spirit in him, Martin says, “We’re maybe singing off the same sheet, but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that. We’re very different people from a very different time. If we had been about at the same time, would we have got on? I don’t know … But we both like engines, power, going fast.”
Our behind-the-scenes video also shows Martin recreating the scene in which McQueen rides behind a barn while hiding from a passing German patrol, before riding off towards the fences. Aside from the stunt climax, Guy Martin’s Great Escape will explain the history of the war epic and why it became a movie classic (and British viewers’ favourite Christmas Day film).
Does the motorcyclist make it? You can find out in today’s Sunday Times Magazine, or wait for Guy Martin’s Great Escape to air on Channel 4 at 9pm on Sunday, December 8.
Photographs by Frank Bauer & Jakob Schmitt