Steve McQueen did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Captain Virgil Hilts USAAF "The Cooler King" in The Great Escape.
The last time I reviewed a McQueen performance it was probably his most character driven work in Papillon. His performance here though is probably one of his most star style ones. His character is fairly simple in this case. He is a hot shot pilot who now is a hot shot escape artist. A man who will keep trying to escape no matter how many times the guards throw him into solitary confinement "the cooler" for his repeated tries to allude them. There is not much more to him besides that except maybe that Hilts has a very small little conflict in himself over his own want to escape and the needs of all of the prisoners inside of the prisoner of war prison.
McQueen clearly knows that his part is not all that complex so why bother making assumptions that it is. This performance is all about his moniker which is the "King of Cool" of course and well that is exactly what he is gonna be here cool. McQueen pretty much shows off just how cool he can be here and this time is all about his screen presence which is just fine. It technically works perfectly for his character since McQueen's style is definitely fitting for the hot shot pilot and the constant escapee. He has an incredible confidence in his performance that just fits the confidence of the Cooler King. McQueen is able to go all the why as the King of cool since that's how Hilts should be.
Since Hilts fits the part this can pretty easily be just a no holds barred Steve McQueen doing what he does best. McQueen with his sly smile and how casual manner does something quite special here. McQueen seems absolutely at ease with his portrayal as Hilts yet he never seems uncaring either. He makes it breezy and almost relaxed at times yet McQueen somehow is able to convey a certain passion as well. It definitely is a great trick that McQueen pulls in that it is pretty obvious that he is having a great time in the role all the time yet he is never out of place in the situation too. Although everything he would seem like a man who does not care, but McQueen never once comes off that way.
McQueen honestly is just great to watch here. His fun never is kept to himself and we can have the fun right along with him. Whether he is playing catch with the wall of the cooler, smartly talking himself in and out of various situations with the Nazis, or just the way he rides his motorcycle at the end there is just something so compelling about what he does. The way he is able to be just as entertaining and well cool well never seeming out of place either. There never is any disconnection here as McQueen can just go all the way with his charm and particular attitude that is all his own.
This performance is not an overly complex one just like the role, but I suppose I should mention the more dramatic meat of his performance. This is mainly in just a few brief moments most of them consisting with his interactions with another escapist who is rather to crack, and the other being when he has to sacrifice his own plans for the greater good of the men as a whole. There is not a lot to either of these scenes really and they are fairly simplistic still, but McQueen still handles them well. They are not that important to his character in the long run but McQueen still gives every line the right conviction and does exactly what he needs to.
Of course those moments are not what you come for when watching this performance. You come to see McQueen being McQueen. That is exactly what this performance is not much more than that but certainly not less. It is a performance though that could have only ever been delivered by Steve McQueen of course and it is a great show case for what exactly made him such a star. It is only made better that McQueen signature style never feels out of place with his character. This is definitely not the powerhouse performance of his in Papillon but nor was it meant to be. This is just a case of an exceptionally entertaining performance that adds to the film just like a star performance should.