Winter Project: More Steve McQueen


The annual winter project is underway. I’ve assigned to myself, actor Steve McQueen, because I knew little about him or his filmography. Catch the first post HERE. Biographer, Marshall Terrill, who wrote Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon provided the interesting backstories to the actor combined with the psychological explanations of what made this complex man tick.

Nothing came easily to Steve McQueen as a child. Both parents abandoned him. Adults administered physical and verbal abuse frequently in the fog of alcoholism. He had learning disabilities that kept him targeted and punished at school. Jostled from one faithless home after another, these circumstances created one tough juvenile delinquent, a rebel without a cause with deep trust issues. Two factors kept him on the fringe of acceptability. Uncle Claude’s farm where Steve learned how to ride horses and complete the exhausting chores of maintaining a farm, and the Boys Republic, a boarding school where he learned to lead with ethical consequences in a penitentiary type setting. Steve McQueen characters were on the backs of horses, busting out of prison, and seemingly detached but intense leaders; he was always a step away from the ensemble cast, and that was how he cultivated his screen power. 

1956 photo by Roy Schatt
1956 photo by Roy Schatt

Steve McQueen’s fearless, inquisitive nature made him a jack-of-all-trades. He ran away and joined the circus. He enlisted in the Marines at seventeen. He hitch-hiked to Greenwich Village in the early fifties, staying for a time with his mother’s friend who worked in the world of the theater. Acting offered exposure to beautiful women, and Steve McQueen exercised his insatiable sexual appetite. After acting lessons, a play, and the help of his accomplished first wife Neile Adams, he got his break as the star of a hit television Western series called Wanted Dead or Alive. Director John Sturges should take credit for advocating McQueen in essential roles that transitioned him from television and secured his superstar status (The Magnificent Seven & The Great Escape). 

The Magnificent Seven (1960) 

An American Western directed by John Sturges and starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buchholz, Brad Dexter, and Elie Wallach. The film was a remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s 1954 Japanese classic Seven Samurai. They are seven gunfighters hired to protect a small village in Mexico from a group of bandits and their leader (Wallach). Elmer Bernstein composed the famous score.

Most lovers of Westerns know the story about McQueen and Brynner jostling for screen time. Although McQueen had only seven dialogue exchanges in the film, his presence was felt throughout. Sturges granted McQueen generous close-ups and downstage placement. Steve did his best to make you watch his character, Vin. He flipped up his bandanna like an erection when señoritas sat near. Contemplating their next move, McQueen twirls his hat or sits higher on his horse to grab attention away from stoic Yul Brynner, the star of the picture. Steve’s physical prowess with a gun and a horse stole the limelight from the others. Having said that, it was Charles Bronson’s role as a tender father-figure to the children of the village and James Coburn’s silent knife-throwing cowboy who stayed in my mind long after the film was over. 5/5

The Great Escape (1963)

Following up on the success of The Magnificent Seven, director John Sturges brings back Elmer Bernstein for another iconic score and Charles Bronson and James Coburn. Add James Garner, Richard Attenborough, and Donald Pleasance to form an exciting male ensemble. Based on the true story of a Nazi POW camp built for uncooperative Allied soldiers, the tunnel escape and the relationships between the key characters make the film engaging 54 years later. Charles Bronson gave his character claustrophobia, James Garner and Donald Pleasance stole a plane to fly away, and Richard Attenborough’s RAF “Big X” masterminded the escape. Steve Mcqueen’s natural ability with the motorcycle and that classic jump over the barbed fence — it was fourteen feet high, and while McQueen loved racing cars and motorcycles and generally performed his own stunts, this jump was done by his loyal stunt double, Bud Ekins. Everyone has a buddy in the film, but McQueen stands aside. He enters the prison last, he is locked up with his baseball in solitary confinement, and he escapes alone.  4.5/5

Accepted into the Actor’s Studio, he infused his personality into his acting style, that is, saying little but commanding a central presence. Which stars today emulate that kind of Steve McQueen cool? Daniel Craig? Ryan Gosling?

Bullitt (1968) 

This highly popular Steve McQueen film featured all the components that made Steve the “King of Cool” in the 1960s: the sexy car (green, 1968 Ford Mustang GT), the sexy girl (Jacqueline Bisset) and the great chase scene shot in San Francisco. Why is it great? The camera is put in the car and the audience becomes a passenger. Bouncing up and down the streets of San Francisco, the Ford Mustang vs. the Dodge Charger eventually hit the highway and race at speeds over 100 mph. Nine minutes of film time is a thrilling ride. In addition to the adrenaline rush, the plot is interesting. As an emotionally detached police detective, Steve McQueen plays the lone hero effortlessly. With him again is co-star and friend, Robert Vaughn from The Magnificent Seven as the suspicious official. It’s a good thriller/mystery and a solid blind spot choice for anyone. 4/5.

51 Comments on “Winter Project: More Steve McQueen

    • Hi fellow Steve McQueen fan. I promise I’ll watch ‘The Hunter’ and ‘The Getaway’ and report back within the next couple weeks. 😉

      • What makes “The Getaway” so interesting is that he was having an affair with MacGraw during filming – her husband was the studio chief! Oh, and as for the film, great character Actors throughout, vintage Sam Peckinpah slo-mo action scenes, and an interesting 70’s style mood…

  1. I like Gosling, the kid has range. He plays silently cool and hysterical stupid in different roles. There’s something real there too and vulnerable in his alpha male characters. But there’s only one Steve McQueen baby.

      • I’m yet to see the relevant films but I believe Craig is just a first rate actor capable of all kinds of characters. I really enjoy his Bond but I enjoy them all I did a ranking of Bond flicks once and everybody got one of theirs in the Top 6.

  2. Great post Cindy with a focus on the fact that his big break outs were ensemble pictures. Man the amount literature devoted to whether McQueen did that jump or not in The Great Escape is massive. Now we know for sure thanks to your post. 🙂 I saw Bullitt a few years ago and watched the making of special that was on the DVD. I don’t if it’s dated well, it seemed like a gritty police drama of the day that wanted to show authentic touches of police work despite the ambition of the action sequences. As a time capsule it’s fascinating, the look of McQueen as an icon has never aged or stop being cool and that car chase just phenomenal

    • Lloyd, I’m glad we are in agreement. I love watching the bonus features on a film to see how they made it. It can be more interesting than the film itself! Time capsule is right. The music, the clothes, the technology –it is a valid way to experience the culture of the time. It’s a huge reason why I like the classics.

  3. I’m enjoying this series Cindy. I can’t think of any current actor who can emulate Steve. A black and white photograph of Hilts, The Cooler King adorns my bedroom wall to this day.

    • Ha, Paul! I read in one of the chapters of Terrill’s biography where he attests the British loved Steve McQueen. The Great Escape, for example, is it still slotted every year on television on Christmas Day? He was the crass American and trashed some hotel rooms, but he dressed with British style and his love for racing, his friendship with British legend Derek Bell, put him in a cool, elite class of his own.

  4. Those are just great films. It was James Coburn who ‘did it’ for me in the magnificent 7, but McQueen was boss in The Great Escape, every time I watch it I will him over that barbed wire fence, and am devastated when he doesn’t make the 2nd jump! Bullit didn’t appeal to me somehow but the sound of that Mustang was glorious 🙂

    • Hi Fraggle. I hadn’t seen Bullit before. I love his green Mustang and cringed when it crashed. I was engaged. The Great Escape, I loved the tunnel scene and the rush to the woods. One I could watch

  5. Now you have got around to ‘Bullitt’, I can add another suggestion. Steve wasn’t know for that many military roles, but he gave a great turn in this one.
    It is short, sharp, and to the point. And the rest of the cast are very good too.
    As for Daniel Craig, he will never be as cool as McQueen, but he did his best in this.
    I can recommend it, as a gangster/caper film.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  6. I totally agree with you in saying Bronson and Coburn impressed me much more in Magnificent 7 than McQueen. Bronson was my favorite in Escape. Maybe I could enjoy McQueen’s work more if I hadn’t read the back stories of making both these movies.

    • The more films I see with Bronson, the more I like him! Remember him in ‘The Dirty Dozen’? Loved him there, too.
      Alpha dogs in the 60s were ruthless, weren’t they?

      • I love Bronson too. He was great alongside Coburn and Strother Martin in Walter Hill’s Hard Times. Charlie lets his fists do the talking in that film, but like McQueen he always could say more with one look than other actors could say with a hundred words.

  7. Normally when we think of Acting, we think of Players who can portray great (or good) emotional range. This means a lot in Shakespeare, but NOTHING in Hollywood. And many very good Actors had little Star Power. Meanwhile, McQueen and Brynner – who rarely displayed much range of emotion – yet were huge Movie Stars with great Star Power. And somehow they got the Acting job done very well too.

    • The strong, silent types that stand there–Brynner doesn’t do much for me. McQueen was strong and silent, but he had a lot of interplay with his surroundings and the camera. He somehow managed to create complicated characters and make them believable. The other type of actor, the emotional, fiery type –like Al Pacino and Leonardo DiCaprio –were outwardly expressive and that’s fine. Scene chewing results, but I like fiery characters, too. I think about your friend, John Wayne. He managed to encompass both styles hence his magnetic, prolific career.

      • John could act. If he was forced to. Once he became JOHN WAYNE however, he usually never bothered. But few people – except the critics – cared. In the final chapter of his career his Star started to fall. Here he masterfully re-invented himself as Rooster Cogburn. Then finally took a bow in the Shootist.
        We won’t see the like of him again.

  8. Phenomenal work here Cindy, it feels as though I have just watched these films myself (and I have seen precisely none of them). Steve McQueen to me is the epitome of ‘cool.’ But there’s always such a price to be paid up front for someone to get into such a position. I tend to jump immediately to James Dean when I think of strong, suave and enigmatic personalities that have been shaped by unhappy childhoods. It’s a real shame that it almost seems like a requisite for you to have to suffer first before finding success. This makes success stories of the likes of Tom Hanks even more unlikely. As to my knowledge, Tom Hanks (one of THE coolest guys we have working today) grew up fairly normal and “had everything.” He certainly didn’t have both parents abandon him.

  9. Hi Cindy! Well I haven’t got much time to blog, either write or comment. But just want to say hi and hope you’re well.

    • Hi Ruth. We all have days and weeks that are so full it is a wonder we find the time to sit long enough to watch a movie let alone write about it. I am glad you stopped by. I just bought a townhouse and will be busy moving. 😉

  10. I watched a documentary recently that said McQueen only reluctantly allowed the stunt double to make the jump in the Great Escape and to prove that he could make it he secretly did it one early morning before filming commenced. Might be true but then again might not!

  11. I didn’t know about his learning disability. So many people in the film industry suffer from some form of learning disability and I wonder if that’s the price one has to pay in order to be entrusted with greatness! Anyhow, you picked some great films — I love all three!

  12. I grew up watching “The Great Escape” on TV (and still do on DVD). This was my choice for G film on Pete Johnson’s “Film Challenge.” I never tire of Steve McQueen, and the great Elmer Bernstein score that accompanies him when he goes to the cooler for the last time. I’ve seen many of McQueen’s films, and even have one of his last ones, “Tom Horn” (1980), on DVD. I can’t think of an actor today I like as much.

    • Welcome back! I had a lot of fun getting to know him and matching the bio with the back stories to the film. What a charismatic man!

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