Steve McQueen: Virgil Hilts vs. Frank Bullitt

Steve McQueen

One actor. Two film roles. You tell us which portrayal was the best. The most memorable. Or iconic. Or simply your favorite.

But before you pass judgment, a few words defending the “character” of each…

The case for Virgil Hilts

Before he was The King of Cool Steve McQueen was The Cooler King, Captain Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape. Hilts’ multiple escapes and riveting motorcycle escapades are legendary. And who can forget his recurring game of wall-ball in the brig? This master of escape got caught on purpose by the German SS to help the Allies’ cause. That’s what we call character, people!

The case for Frank Bullitt

What’s cooler than escaping the Nazis while riding a TT Special 650 Triumph motorcycle? How about eluding hit men in an epic chase scene driving a 1968 Mustang GT 390 Fastback? Since his passing Ford has sold two separate Mustang “Bullitt” editions as well as created two commercials using the likeness of McQueen’s Bullitt to sell their cars. Forget character, Bullitt’s an icon!


Now that you’ve heard the arguments for both it’s time to render your verdict!


More Steve McQueen: Steve McQueen: Non-Expressionism The Gift of Steve McQueen

  • RVoss

    I don’t have to give it a moment. Mention Steve McQueen and instantly the image of Frank Bullitt flashes before my eyes. It’s a role and a movie that is timeless.

  • Marty

    Every time I see Steve McQueen in Bullitt, I see a film that flies with excitement with each scene. The supporting cast, Simon Oakland et al are just great. Peter Yates direction was amazing.

    • rogerscorpion

      The great Don Gordon played his partner.

  • Wayne P.

    Thats it…a tie as theyre both too good, and distinctively different enough, to choose a favorite between them!

  • Cara

    Frank Bullitt. McQueen made that movie. He was the movie. With a nod to the well crafted villain Robert Vaughn.

  • Bobby Joe Myhan

    Steve McQueen IS Frank Bullitt and always will be.

  • Butch Knouse

    In the 1980s I read in TV Guide that Showtime was going to make a sequel to Bullitt, with Chad McQueen as Bullitt’s son, hunting for his father’s killer. Too bad it never got made.

  • Geoff.

    I like Bullitt because he’s chasing, not eluding the hit men. The VW getting in the way is also fun

  • Charles Lee

    Well I disagree with you all. When I hear Steve McQueen I think of Ben in the “Magnificent Seven”. They just don’t come any cooler. When ask how things were going he said “I’m like the man who jumped from the 10 story building, each time he passed a floor he told the people looking ‘so far so good”. When asked why he joined up with the seven he said “It’s like the man who dove naked into a cactus bush, when they asked him why he did it, he said it seemed like a good idea at the time”. It just doesn’t get any cooler than that.

    • rogerscorpion

      It was ‘Vin’.

  • Gary

    For me, McQueen may have been at his best in a role he took on in an attempt to break out of his more conventional counter-culture characters: he took the lead role in “The Thomas Crown Affair” to portray multi-millionaire Tommy Crown, who was so bored with wealth (Rolls-Royce and polo matches) that he orchestrated two armed bank robberies just to amuse himself and prove that he could beat ‘the system’. In it, he was cool, suave, debonair, and a sexy counterpoint to an equally-alluring Faye Dunaway. The remake 3 decades later with Pierce Brosnan and Renee Russo was a disappointment by comparison, even though they borrowed much of the same dialogue. In the latter, the repartee between the two characters seemed contrived and phony, whereas in the original it seemed natural and spontaneous. Every time the original airs on TV now, though, I can’t understand why it is labeled (in the Guide notes) as a comedy. There were a few light-hearted moments, and at least one semi-humorous bit character (the driver of the getaway car), but the story is in every way a drama, rife with action, romance, and at least a little suspense.

    • rogerscorpion

      The Chess match sizzled.

  • victor0630

    No one has mentioned the Get Away which was a great movie. I also loved him the the TV series Wanted Dead Or Alive.

    • Dana Thompson

      The Get Away ruined Ali McGraws life, she left her husband at the time for Steve McQueen and things didn’t go so well for them in later years, oh well

  • Joy NIcholas

    I love the laid back he played Virgil in Escape but I am afraid my favourite McQueen movie will always be The Getaway. That takes you on a rollercoaster of emotion that the other two lack a bit.

  • awaywrdsn

    I loved The Great Escape but it’s alway’s been Bullitt hands down after seeing that movie when I was a kid made Mustang my alltime favorite car.And I agree with NIcholas The Getaway is one bada— movie from beginning to end, also if I’m looking for cool McQueen I recommend The Thomas Crown Affair him & Faye Dunnaway are great .

  • Kokr Spanielesko

    Don’t forget two of his early gems: “The War Lover” and “Hell is for Heroes”.

  • Mike in Oz (down under)

    Between the above two performances I’d vote for THE GREAT ESCAPE (as McQueen achieves the difficult job of stealing the movie away from some expert actors). My personal favourite McQueen performance is the only one he received a Best Actor nomination for: Holman in Robert Wise’s THE SAND PEBBLES (which I als0 believe has the best score by the hugely talented Jerry Goldsmith)

    • Nicolas

      Your comment that McQueen achieves the difficult job of stealing the movie away from some expert actors is not exactly fair to those actors. McQueen to my understanding made the producers allow him to steal that movie. He was going to walk off the set, if he did not get his own way, their was an emergency meeting I believe with McQueen. Perhaps McQueen was correct in what he wanted, as it might have made the film more famous than it might otherwise be.

  • Bill Heyer

    Neither. Steve McQueen as Thomas Crown, in “The Thomas Crown Affair.” The coolest cat on the planet! Don’t think so? Ask Faye Dunaway!

    • rogerscorpion

      Yes. Yes. Yes.

  • Bruce Reber

    No, question – “Bullitt” IMO is both Steve McQueen’s definitive performance and my favorite of all his movies. Bullitt tearing up, down and through the streets of San Francisco in his green Mustang after two syndicate killers, in THE greatest movie car chase of all time! Does anyone know what happened to the HIghland Green ’68 Mustang Fastback McQueen drove in the movie? That car should be located, restored and put on display in the Hollywood Movie and TV Car Museum (I think that’s the name of it.) I also heard that McQueen himself tried to buy it, but the owner refused to sell!

    • Johnny V

      I asked that question a few times, myself.
      According to a few websites I visited, there were 3 Mustangs built (if memory serves), each specifically modified as to the driving stunts. Sadly, two of them have gone missing, never to be seen again.
      The third, the main one he drove, went through a series of hand-offs before “resurfacing” about 15-20 years ago.
      Unfortunately, no one can verify it’s authenticity because there were no specifications (VIN and the like) kept by the studio.

      Try a web search, Bruce.

  • Frank Braio

    I’ll never forget McQueen’s role in ‘Sand Pebbles.’ And the day never will come when I won’t enjoy seeing that movie over again. Now there is an expanded version that restores several important deleted scenes—which sharpen the anti-war, anti-imperialist meaning of the movie.
    McQueen and all the movie’s elements–script, musical score, direction, photography, co-star and supporting actors work brilliantly together; to produce a movie that not only in the 1960s but, unfortunately, for the foreseeable future, always will have relevance to our experience here in the U.S.
    Sincerely, Frank Braio

  • rapalmi

    What I love about McQueen’s work, what makes him one of the greats, is that he is the master of gesture. He does not need dialogue because he is so inventive with subtle gestures and physical movement. (THE GETAWAY: fanning his hand just above his gun barrel to protect against blood splatter; silently taking apart a police car with a shotgun–both moments invented by McQueen on set.) If he had worked during the silent era, there would have been no question that he was the greatest screen actor of the time. I love his work with my favorite director, Sam Peckinpah (don’t forget his superb performance in JUNIOR BONNER!), but if I had to choose his greatest performance, it would be a tossup between BULLITT and THE SAND PEBBLES, and I would probably come down on the side of BULLITT–maybe because the (excellent) script gave him less to work with. Near the beginning of the movie, the script probably just says, “Bullitt wakes up”–but we get what is probably the greatest portrayal of a man waking up in the morning. How about the ten-minute car chase? No dialogue–but a terrific performance. Then there’s that blistering scene in the hospital with Robert Vaughn, where short bits of dialogue are thrown back and forth like razor-sharp daggers (“Who else knew where he was?” “In your parlance, you blew it.”). McQueen’s performances are movie acting par excellence. And yes, he was the master of cool too.

  • Movie Joe

    Actually my favorite Steve McQueen film was PAPILLON. I loved the scene where he is so determined to escape that he smokes the cigar handed to him by the leader of the leper colony. Dustin Hoffman is also great in it. However, I don’t think McQueen ever made a bad movie. No one who has seen it ever forgets the motorcycle jump scene in THE GREAT ESCAPE!

  • John Patterson

    Definitely”Virgil Hilts”in”The Great Escape”!!!
    And”Vin”in”The Magnificient Seven”!!

  • david hartzog

    Bullitt, cool with a conscience.

  • laustcawz

    Love his first film “The Blob”.
    What’s the deal with the current guy who goes by the name “Steve McQueen”??
    Has no one else noticed this?

    • rogerscorpion

      It’s his name. He’s a director. Guess his parents were fans—like Matt Dillon’s.

  • Dana Thompson

    HOw About “Love With the Proper Stranger” or “Baby the Rain Must Fall”
    out of the above choices it would have to be Virgil, yeah boy

  • Dana Thompson

    Steve McQueen, the King of Cool

  • rogerscorpion

    The original ‘Thomas Crown Affair’. That chess match was the hottest scene in film.