The Great Escape Blu-ray Review
In 1943, the Germans established Stalag Luft III, built for the sole purpose of housing the finest escapees any POW camp has ever known. There was really only one problem for the German captors: it housed the finest escapees any POW camp has ever known.
And so it’s not long before one of the prisoners, Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) lays out his plan: do the menial tasks the Germans ask for while they’re watching and dig when they’re not, allowing 250 fellow POWs to flee. He assembles a team of likeminded men, each of whom is in charge of a certain aspect of the plot. The men include: Captain Virgil Hilt (Steve McQueen), Flight Lieutenant Bob Hendley (James Garner), Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), Flight Lieutenant Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson), Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence), Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick (James Coburn), and Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald).
At just shy of three hours, it’s easy for some to complain that the picture runs too long. But it really isn’t, just as the 14-month timeline of the real escape wasn’t too long. It panned out how it did, just as the film pans out how it should. (That THE GREAT ESCAPE’s sole Oscar nomination was for Ferris Webster’s editing lends to this.) Some may be tempted to jump ahead to the escape itself, which gets into gear with just under an hour left. But skipping past the planning would rob viewers of many of the film’s joys. It’s necessary to show (and see) how such an elaborate plot came together, how these men used only what they had in front of (and below) them to their benefit. We’re rooting for them all, hoping the choir sings loud enough to cover any work noise and that the guards don’t see the men dropping dug-up dirt out of their pant legs in the courtyard.
THE GREAT ESCAPE is based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book, itself based on the 1944 event. Under the clean direction of John Sturges (1957’s GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL; 1960’s THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), THE GREAT ESCAPE remains, 50 years on, one of the finest adventure films ever and the single best prison escape film (besting Frank Darabont’s THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and Billy Wilder’s STALAG 17). This is a thrilling, must-see epic, guided by one of cinema’s most recognizable scores (by Elmer Bernstein) and some of the manliest star power ever assembled for one picture.
All movie fans have a certain image of Steve McQueen whenever they think of him. For some, it’s him in a ’68 Mustang maneuvering San Francisco streets. For others, it’s him on the set in cool shades with a cigarette dangling from his lips. For myself, it’s him on a motorcycle hopping barbed wire fences. To me, Richard Attenborough will always be John Hammond, just as Charles Bronson will always be Paul Kersey and Donald Pleasence will always be Sam Loomis. McQueen will always be best personified in THE GREAT ESCAPE as Hilt, a loner of sorts who gets by on his pure skill, sly humor and rebellious nature.
Video: 2.35:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. While the video presentation of THE GREAT ESCAPE on this Blu-ray is certainly better than the initial DVD, it is still a tremendous disappointment, as the overall picture is soft and not as detailed as it should be. There has been some controversy surrounding this release, as there were initially claims to the video transfer being the result of a 4K scan—this, it turns out, is clearly not the case. Hopefully MGM gets around to giving this cinema classic the proper high-definition transfer it deserves sometime before the 60th anniversary.
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1; Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0; French DTS 5.1. Subtitles in English, Spanish and French. The audio is a bit better than the video, as Elmer Bernstein’s iconic score comes through very nicely. However, the transfer doesn’t offer the full-on detail and presence that it should.
Audio commentary by director John Sturges, Cast & Crew: Edited together from a wealth of archival interviews, this commentary features remarks from Sturges, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence, art director Fernando Carrere, stuntman Bud Ekins, and more.
Bringing Fact to Fiction (12:21): This featurette looks at how the true story was adapted for Hollywood.
Preparations for Freedom (19:50) further explores the escape, as well as nothing the filmmakers’ inclusion of more American POWs than were actually involved.
The Flight to Freedom (9:22): This piece compares the film’s dramatization of the escape itself to the actual events.
A Standing Ovation (5:58) touches on THE GREAT ESCAPE’s reception upon release.
The Untold Story (50:46): This longer documentary observes many elements left out of THE GREAT ESCAPE, including the prosecution of a number of Gestapo members. Additional Interviews (9:35) accompany.
The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones (25:01): Here, the inspiration for Hilts (played by Steve McQueen), David Jones, is profiled
Return to THE GREAT ESCAPE (24:09): Produced in 1993 for Showtime, this documentary includes a handful of interviews to paint a portrait of the film’s production.
Original Theatrical Trailer