John Sturges' The Great Escape is regarded as one of the most exciting dramas ever filmed. The movie is a favorite of critics and casual fans alike for good reason, as it remains a thrilling, intelligent retelling of the prison break at Germany's Stalag Luft III in March 1944. Nearly fifty years after its original theatrical release, The Great Escape makes it high-definition debut for modern audiences. The film's three hours fly by thanks to the gripping screenplay by James Clavell and W. R. Burnett, and Sturges' direction is assured. Steve McQueen leads the cast as American Air Force Captain Virgil Hilts, a witty, Nazi-baiting prisoner and escape artist locked up with the trickiest bunch of POWs in Germany. The prisoners - played by James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson and Donald Pleasence, among others - dig elaborate tunnels under the prison and attempt a daring escape from captivity. The Great Escape is grand, thrilling drama, rife with richly developed characters and authentic human interaction, and deserves its designation as "a classic."
Grounded in reality but without fear of taking some dramatic liberties, The Great Escape is the best kind of war film. It celebrates the heroics of the Allied Forces imprisoned in Stalag Luft III without turning them into anti-German caricatures, and it uses the war as an effective backbone for a story about human resilience and ingenuity. The Nazis grew tired of wasting troops and resources tracking down Allied prisoners of war, and in 1942 created a prison to house the men who had escaped other German military jails. In The Great Escape, Hilts is recruited by British Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Attenborough) to help 250 men break out of the prison. The plan involves tunneling under the yard and into the nearby woods, but also includes an elaborate operation to furnish the men with fake papers, transportation and living supplies. The men begin digging three tunnels - "Tom," "Dick," and "Harry" - while running constant interference against prying Nazi guards.
Full of suspense and humor, The Great Escape is perhaps most memorable for its motley crew of protagonists. McQueen, ceaselessly icy cool and rebellious, pushes the guards to the brink of violence and gains valuable information about prison security at the cost of weeks and weeks of solitary confinement in "the cooler." RAF Flight Lieutenant Bob Hendley (James Garner), known as "the Scrounger," procures the prisoners all manner of tools needed to enact the plan, and RAF Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe (Pleasence) goes blind from forging so many documents. Other key players include RAF Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald) and Bronson's "tunnel king" RAF Flight Lieutenant Danny Velinski. Each man has a personality, fears and talents, and The Great Escape shows that it is possible for an audience to care deeply for an ensemble cast.
When the escape does not go as planned many are left behind, but it is the men who briefly taste freedom that suffer the most. The German command orders their capture, but enraged officers go further. McQueen's triumphant flight from German soldiers on a motorcycle is the film's most memorable scene, and Hilts must shoulder the losses of his friends and fellow soldiers after his journey ends. The Great Escape truly is a flawless drama, and few films can capture an audience's attention for three hours as this film does. A great tribute to The Great Escape's authenticity is the praise and acknowledgment from actual Allied troops who commended the film's historical accuracy despite its dramatic embellishments. The remarkable cast, Sturges' direction, the Elmer Bernstein score, Ferris Webster's editing, and its inspiring real-life inspiration make The Great Escape a five-star film.
High-definition aficionados have been clamoring for The Great Escape to receive a Blu-ray release for some time, and MGM finally has released this high-definition disc to American audiences via distributor Twentieth Century Fox. The Internet has been ablaze of late with divergent opinions about the quality of this 2.35:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, which I find warrants a mark slightly north of average on DVD Talk's rating scale. A quick Google search yields interesting discussion about whether or not this Blu-ray was created from a source that received a new 4k restoration or a source restored for an earlier DVD release. MGM hasn't commented, but I suspect it's the latter. That is not necessarily a fatal flaw, and I have no information about the existence of a superior source that could have been used. That said, The Great Escape is a substantial improvement over all standard-definition predecessors, and the Blu-ray looks quite a bit better than the HD broadcast version that I've sampled a few times. Detail is often very good for a 50-year-old film. Of course, detail and sharpness expectedly vary, and there is quite a bit of softness due to the era's filmmaking tricks that were used for the effects and editing. Black levels are often very good - inky but not so dark that detail is completely crushed - and there are no real compression problems to report despite the moderate bitrate. The print used is nearly flawless, and dirt, splices and grime are all but absent from the image. Colors are interesting here, and vary somewhat from what I have seen in the past. Simply, this Blu-ray appears slightly washed out; with colors either toned back or appearing slightly more blue/grey than my older DVD. I'm not sure if that's how Sturges shot The Great Escape or if it's the result of some digital tinkering. There is a layer of grain (natural, I think), and the image has thankfully not been DNR'd to death. At times The Great Escape looks very good but it still feels like a missed opportunity. I will admit to being ignorant of the exact science of restoring the original negative of a film. I've been spoiled by superior restorations like Jaws and The Wizard of Oz, but every film is visually unique - restored or not. So, The Great Escape is on Blu-ray and, flawed or not, provides the best image available for home theater viewing.
The Blu-ray does not offer the original mono mix, but the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack provided likely replicates the film's other original mix, which was 4-Track Stereo. Those expecting a modern surround mix may be disappointed, but The Great Escape sounds quite good for being over half a decade old. Dialogue is crisp and clean, and no hiss or distortion is present. Surround effects, both ambient and action, sound full and fairly deep. These effects do creep toward the rear speakers and retain their clarity as to avoid overwhelming the dialogue. Range is also good, and quiet conversations are audible and well balanced with louder elements. I have little to complain about with this mix. The disc includes a ton of alternate soundtrack mixes (Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0; French DTS 5.1; Italian DTS 5.1; German DTS 5.1; Castellano DTS 5.1; and Polish Dolby Digital 5.1) and subtitle options (English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Castellano, Cantonese, Dutch, Czech, Greek, Korean, Thai and Mandarin).
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release is packed in a Blu-ray eco-case. I really hate the menu design, which was also used on Fox's release of Blue Velvet. There is no main menu, and the disc instead offers a Java-based menu that pops up only while the movie is playing. This is especially annoying when viewing the extra features, and feels like the cheapest way out of authoring a disc. Most of the extras from the 2004 Collector's Edition DVD are carried over:
The Great Escape is a true classic, and fifty years on still thrills and excites as it did when originally released. Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence and others join Director John Sturges for this dramatic retelling of the 1944 prison break at Stalag Luft III by Allied prisoners of war. The Great Escape is a perfect mix of suspense, human drama and intricate plotting, and deserves to hold its place as one of film's finest dramas. The long-awaited Blu-ray release of The Great Escape is imperfect, with somewhat underwhelming picture quality and only standard-definition carry-over extras. But, based on the film alone, this Blu-ray is Highly Recommended.