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Great Escape 4K UHD, 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 novel 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 UHD from Kino Lorber on a 100GB disc in HVEC encoded 2160p ultra high definition framed at 2.35.1 widescreen. There's no HDR or Dolby Vision encoding here (though the back of the packaging does have a Dolby Vision logo on it), but regardless, the enhanced resolution does result in a stronger transfer. There's considerably more noticeable detail present throughout the film and better depth and texture as well. You'll notice this in the close up shots for sure, but pay attention in some of those medium and long shots too and you'll make out a lot more in the image. Fine grain resolves very nicely here too, never looking overly processed. With the feature given a nice, strong bit-rate there aren't any noticeable compression issues to complain about and the image seems free of any obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement. Color and contrast are very strong here, things look quite natural and not at all boosted. All in all, the picture quality is very strong here, with the increase in noticeable detail being the main selling point for this transfer.
English language options are provided in a 24-bit DTS-HD 2.0 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, though you might pick up on some minor sibilance in a few spots. Dialogue remains very easy to understand and to follow.
As far as the extra features on the UHD disc are concerned, we get two commentary tracks. The first one, new to this release, is from filmmaker/historian Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin, the author of Combat Films: American Realism. It's a fun track, very informative and clearly they have done their research. There's lots of detail here on the different cast members from the picture as well as on Sturges' career, discussion of McQueen's primadonna behavior at times, the stunt work in the film, the sets, the real life events that worked their way into the film and plenty more. These two have a good rapport together and make a good team.
The second track 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.
The rest of the extras are found on the second disc, which is a standard Blu-ray disc. All of this material has been ported over from the special edition DVD release from some years back, so it will be familiar to most fans of the film. 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. 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. Bringing Fact To Fiction is a twelve minute piece narrated by Burt Reynolds that details the real life events and escape attempts that inspired the film. Preparations For Freedom, again narrated by Reynolds, spend twenty minutes going over yet more details of the real live events that took place as well as changes that were made to make things work for the movie, including adding additional Americans to the cast to round things out a bit. The Flight To Freedom, a nine minute piece again narrated by Burt Reynolds, compares what happened to the escapees once they made it out of the prison camp in real life versus how things were portrayed in the film. A Standing Ovation, the last of the featurettes narrated by Reynolds, is a six minute segment that looks at the commercial and critical success that the film enjoyed upon release and which it still enjoys today.
The Great Escape: The Untold Story is an extensive fifty-one minute documentary by Steven Clarke. It also goes over a lot of the real life exploits of the various soldiers whose lives and actions inspired the movie but it also explores what happened to some of the German characters in the story as well. It's nicely put together and very interesting. The Great Escape: The Untold Story Additional Interviews is roughly ten minutes of unused interviews from Clark's documentary that didn't make it into the final feature.
A theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection options finish off the supplements on the disc, and this release also comes packaged with a slipcover. Note that the extra features that were created by The Criterion Collection for their Blu-ray edition remain exclusive to that disc.
The Great Escape may not be the most realistic portrayal of what people went through in German concentration 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. Kino's UHD release doesn't add anything new to the film's already long list of supplements but it does carry over everything from the older MGM Special Edition release and offer up the film in what is really a very nice presentation. 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.