Steve McQueen: The Great Escape
Wes D. Gehrig
Indiana Historical Society Press, $19.95
Tribute to the King of Cool
Dalton Warson Fine Books, $55.00
People joke about running away and joining the circus – Steve McQueen did it. He also worked in brothels and enlisted in the Marines, where he did an undistinguished tour of duty. Eventually he wound up in New York City, where he turned to acting because, he claimed, he liked the hours. He was admitted into the prestigious Actors' Studio, not so much for his ability, as for his presence, a certain something that no one could deny. That presence made McQueen a screen icon that still resonates today, 30 years after his death from mesothelioma in a Mexican clinic. McQueen's Indianapolis connection (he was born in Beech Grove and spent part of his boyhood here), while tenuous and ambivalent, is nevertheless real enough for us to have a claim. You can see it in his face. The kid who works on your car, paves your driveway or paints your house. We may not have mountains or a seashore, but, blown to Mt. Rushmore proportions and projected on screens around the world, we know that face. Two new books keep McQueen's story in front of anyone who cares to explore it. The first is Steve McQueen: The Great Escape, By Ball State film studies professor Wes D. Gehrig. Gehrig's book takes its title not just from the John Sturges film that helped make McQueen a major star, but from remarks McQueen made throughout his life about how his career enabled him to get free of his dead-end past. Almost. What Gehrig makes clear is that McQueen never really escaped his troubled upbringing; he was haunted by demons that manifested themselves through outrageously paranoid behavior, including the abuse of women in his life. But this is a well-trod path. Gehrig, in cut-and-paste prose, brings very little that's new to the McQueen story, either by way of new information or, apart from an outlying appreciation for The Reivers, critical insight. More satisfying, especially for fans, is Marshall Terrill's coffeetable book, Steve McQueen: A Tribute to the King of Cool. Terrill has established himself as McQueen's official biographer and this lavishly illustrated history is a warmer treatment of its subject's notoriously prickly character. Terrill has collected brief remembrances from a panoply of people in McQueen's life, many of whom were just glancing acquaintances. Thus, in addition to the stories of McQueen being difficult, there are also numerous anecdotes from everyday folks who encountered McQueen in various circumstances (usually involving cars, motorcycles, airplanes or beer) and found him to be gracious and generous. It's especially revealing regarding McQueen's "lost" years, when, for much of the '70s, he dropped out of the business. Terrill's book amounts to a vicarious reunion that McQueen aficionados will want to keep alongside their DVDs.