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Great Escape (The Criterion Collection), The
Directed by John Struges in 1963, The Great Escape is rightly regarded as a classic of American action moviemaking, an epic adventure film made with a fantastic cast. Revisiting it for the first time in some years, it holds up very well, still very much deserving of its reputation.
The story is set around the inhabitants of a German Luftwaffe prisoner of war camp. Here scores of Allied military men have been locked away, Men like Bartlett "Big X" (Richard Attenborough) and Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen), nicknamed ‘The Cooler King,' work together to plot an escape. Big X gets some of his men to look into tunneling their way out of the camp while Hilts decides to go solo and try to break out on his own, only to get caught and warned that, should he try such a stunt again, he'll be put to death. Danny 'The Tunnel King' (Charles Bronson) proves to be quite handy inside the camp. As the plot to make it out continues, Bob Anthony Hendley, ‘the scrounger,' (James Garner) works his magic on some of the camp's guards to finagle some supplies while Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasance) uses his skills as a forger to create some helpful items. Bartlett's idea here isn't to get one or two men out at a time but to come up with a way to get as many of the prisoners out simultaneously as possible, knowing that should this work it'll sow chaos among the German ranks, but of course, there's a huge risk involved in trying something like this…
Based on the book by Paul Brickhill, The Great Escape may never feel particularly realistic, even when some of the good characters in the film do get killed, but it sure is an entertaining film and it's paced surprisingly well for a picture that clocks in at almost three-hours in length. There's a great sense of adventure here, and it's quite well-produced as well. The production values are excellent throughout, MGM clearly put a solid budget behind the picture, and the cinematography from Daniel L. Fapp and score are both great, some of composer Elmer Bernstein's work having gone on to become quite iconic over the years. Struges keeps the pacing tight, giving us the perfect mix of character development and action to make that the story is properly told. It would have been easy to just let the characterization in the film rest on the star power of the cast, but Sturges and screenwriters James Clavell and W.R. Burnett don't do that, they make sure that these men are properly fleshed out, letting us get to know them and, yes, to care about them. It's not a particularly complex method, but it's always more effective to approach a film like this that way so that when the action picks up in the second half of the film, the audience is properly invested in the characters that populate the film. If that sounds like an obvious statement to make, so be it, but there are countless action and adventure films out there that ignore this aspect of storytelling. Struges' film isn't one of them.
The cast is great. Steve McQueen has rarely been cooler or more charismatic than he is here, and he plays his slick, brave and calculating ‘Cooler King' character perfectly. Equally dashing are Richard Attenborough and James Garner, both men plenty charming enough to make these roles their own. Donald Pleasance is excellent as the forger and Charles Bronson manages to bring his natural ‘strong, silent type' persona to the film in a big way, full taking advantage of a part that couldn't be better suited for an actor of his particular style. On top of that we get really strong supporting work from James Donald, James Coburn, David McCallum, Jud Taylor and quite a few recognizable British and American character actors filling out the ranks of the Allied men in the camp.
The Great Escape comes back to Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection on a 50GB disc in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 2.35.1 widescreen with the feature taking up just over 40GBs of space on the disc. Taken from a new 4k transfer of the original 35mm negative, the image quality here is very strong. It looks warmer and brighter than the older MGM Blu-ray release but to this reviewers eyes, so too does it look more natural. Your mileage may vary. Either way, detail looks very strong and is often times quite impressive. There are no problems at all with any noticeable edge enhancement or noise reduction and the strong bit rate keeps compression artifacts out of view, despite the fact that this is pretty lengthy film and therefore needs more disc space than your average ninety-minute feature. Skin tones look very good, nice and lifelike, and we get really strong black levels as well. No complaints, really.
English language options are provided in a 24-bit LPCM Mono track as well as in a 24-bit DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track. Subtitles are provided in English only. The 5.1 mix is quite good, spreading out the effects rather well during the action sequences, with gunfire coming from behind you and the sound of engines roaring to life, giving the subwoofer some nice rumble. The mono track obviously can't have that range but it's obviously the more authentic of the tow options. Both tracks are clean and nicely balanced, no problems with any hiss or distortion at all. Dialogue remains very easy to understand and to follow.
Most of the extra on this disc are going to look familiar to those who have owned previous editions of the film. There are two archival audio commentary tracks provided here. The first one is from 1991 and it features director John Sturges and composer Elmer Bernstein alongside second unit director Robert E. Relyea, and stuntman Bud Ekins. The second track was recorded in 2003 and it features Sturges, Relyea and actors James Coburn, James Garner, David McCallum, Donald Pleasence, and Jud Taylor as well as production designer Fernando Carrerre, stuntman Bid Ekins and Steve McQueen's manager Hillard Elkins and is moderated by Jay Rubin. Both of these were put together from separate sources but they both prove quiet informative, with the first track focusing more on the directorial process and Bernstein's work scoring the picture and the second track obviously approaching all of this, more often than not, from an actor's point of view. Both are quite informative.
New to this release is a twenty-three-minute interview with film critic Michael Sragow. It's an interesting piece that covers the origins of the film as well as its importance in American. He provides a solid analysis of the picture and also offers quite a bit of insight into the life and career of John Sturges.
Getting back to the archival material, up next is The Great Escape: Heroes Under Ground, which is a four-part documentary from 2001 that runs forty-four-minutes. This piece details the exploits of the men who, during World War II, carried over the actual escape from the Stalag Luft III camp. The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones, another piece from 2001, runs twenty-five-minute and covers the life story of David Jones, the American Air Force whose character inspired the one that Steve McQueen plays in the picture. The twenty-four-minute Return To The Great Escape, from 1993, features a nice selection of interviews with Coburn, Garner, David McCallum and Jud Taylor.
A theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection options finish off the supplements on the disc, however, additionally, Criterion provides an insert booklet containing credits for the feature and the presentation as well as technical notes on the disc alongside an essay by Sheila O'Malley.
The Great Escape may not be the most realistic portrayal of what people went through in German camps during the Second World War, but that doesn't mean it isn't a great action film. The A-list cast all bring their best to the production while Sturges' direction keeps things moving nicely and results in some impressive moments of legitimate tension. The Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection is excellent, presenting the film in a beautiful new transfer, with excellent audio and a nice selection of extra features. Highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.