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Looking Back April 14 2013

History column

Each week Albany Herald researcher Mary Braswell looks for interesting events, places and people from the past. You can contact her at (229) 888-9371 or mary.braswell@albanyherald.com.

What was playing at the movies 50 years ago? Here is a look back at just a few of the popular films from 1963.

‘The Great Escape’

• Based on a true story, a group of allied escape artist type prisoners of war are all put in an “escape proof” camp.

• Paul Brickhill, who wrote the book on which the film is based, was piloting a Spitfire aircraft that was shot down over Tunisia in March 1943. He was taken to Stalag Luft III in Germany, where he assisted in the escape preparations

• Starring roles were held by Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence and James Coburn and David McCallum.

• Charles Bronson, who portrays the chief tunneler, brought his own expertise and experiences to the set. He had been a coal miner before turning to acting and gave director John Sturges advice on how to move the earth.

• The motorcycle scenes were not based on real life but were added at Steve McQueen’s suggestion.

• Most of the planes in the airfield were actually American AT-6 Texan trainers painted with a German paint scheme, but the one actually flown is an authentic German plane, a Bucker Bu 181 ‘Bestmann.’

• Donald Pleasence had actually been a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II, was shot down, became a prisoner of war and was tortured by the Germans.

• The actual escape from Stalag Luft III occurred on March 24, 1944. Steve McQueen was born on March 24, 1930.

• The film was shot entirely in Europe. When the Bavaria Studio’s back lot proved to be too small, the production team obtained permission from the German government to shoot in a national forest adjoining the studio. The company restored (by reseeding) some 2,000 small pine trees that had been damaged in the course of shooting.

• During production, Charles Bronson met and fell in love with David McCallum’s wife, Jill Ireland, and he jokingly told McCallum he was going to steal her away from him. In 1967, Ireland and McCallum divorced, and she married Bronson.

‘From Russia with Love’

• James Bond 007 (Sean Connery) searches for a Russian decoding machine, known as Lektor. Bond needed to find this machine, before the evil SPECTRE organization discovered it first. While romantically linked with a Russian girl, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), Bond sneaks his way around Istanbul.

• With the advent of the Cold War, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman didn’t want James Bond’s main enemy to be Russian, so for the film version his nemesis is the criminal organization SPECTRE.

• The collapsing rifle given to Bond wasn’t a gimmick, but was an Armalite AR-7 survival rifle which actually does disassemble and fit into its stock, one of only a few firearms that will float.

• The chess tournament set appearing at the beginning of the film cost $150,000.

• When then President John F. Kennedy listed Ian Fleming’s book among his top 10 favorite novels of all time, a list published in Life Magazine, March 17, 1961, the producers decided to make this the second James Bond movie. “From Russia with Love” was the last motion picture John F. Kennedy ever saw, at a private screening in the White House on Nov. 20, 1963.

‘Lilies of the Field’

• Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier), an unemployed construction worker , heading out west, stopped at a remote farm in the desert to get water for his overheated car. The farm was being worked by a group of Catholic nuns, headed by the strict Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), who believed that Homer was sent by God to build a much needed church.

• Filmed on location in Tucson, the church doors were borrowed from a chapel in Sasabe, Arizona.

• The film’s shooting lasted only 14 days. Since the story’s action was tied to the chapel’s construction, crews had to work through the night to keep up with it “progress” in the film. The actual building was real and could have stood for decades, but because it was built on rented property (from Linda Ronstadt’s father), it had to be demolished immediately after the filming was completed.

• Director Ralph Nelson had to put up his house as collateral to finance the film. Sidney Poitier gave up his usual salary and agreed to do the film for a smaller amount and a percentage of the profits. He won the Best Actor Oscar for his efforts.

‘PT 109’

• This is the dramatization of President John F. Kennedy’s wartime experiences during which he captained a PT boat.

• Cliff Robertson starred as Kennedy, with co-stars Ty Hardin, James Gregory, Robert Culp, Robert Blake and Norman Fell.

• The White House had full approval of casting and other aspects of the film. President Kennedy set three conditions on the film: that it be historically accurate, that profits go to the survivors of PT 109 and their families and that he had the final choice of lead actor. Kennedy chose Robertson. The first lady preferred Warren Beatty.

• When President Kennedy saw early footage of parts of the film, his only complaint was that Cliff Robertson parted his hair on the right, while JFK’s hair parted on the left. Robertson dutifully parted his hair on the left for the film.

• The exteriors for the movie were filmed at Little Palm Island (formerly Little Munson Island), now a resort in the Florida Keys. Power and fresh water were run out to the island for the movie, allowing the resort to be built years later.

• The real PT 109 had been engaged in continual combat for five months when JFK took command, but was not the derelict, inoperative hulk depicted in the movie.

• Several American flags seen in the film are 50-star flags ... there were only 48 in 1943.