The Great Escape appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Though the image wasn’t a disaster, it offered a distinct disappointment.
Most of the issues related to sharpness, as much of the movie lacked much definition. Occasional shots looked pretty good, but those remained in the minority, so one should expect a generally dull, soft look to the film. No issues with jaggies or shimmering resulted, and I witnessed no edge haloes. Print flaws were absent, but the film lacked much grain and came with a flat, processed feel.
Colors were similarly bland. Granted, I didn’t expect a dynamic palette from a POW flick, but I felt the tones tended to be too brown and muddy. Blacks were acceptably deep but without much intensity, while shadows showed reasonable visibility. This could’ve been a worse presentation, but it could have looked much better than this lifeless affair.
Since the Blu-ray hit the shelves, some controversy has greeted it. Some claim it accurately represents the original photography while others disagree. As for me, I plead Great Escape agnosticism. In this instance, I simply discussed and graded the image as I saw it. Was this as good as the picture could get? Maybe – I doubt it, but it’s possible. Whatever the case, I didn’t think it looked too hot.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of The Great Escape worked better, especially given its age. The soundfield didn’t go nuts, but it opened up matters to a decent degree – albeit erratically. Some scenes used the side and rear speakers to good advantage, while others seemed essentially monaural.
These variations occurred without obvious rhyme or reason. For instance, sometimes the score would spread across the front and back, while other times it remained constricted. Effects occasionally broadened to the side and rear channels but they also could seem limited at times. Erratic as it may’ve been, the track showed moderate ambition and used the various channels in a satisfying way at times.
Quality seemed a little more questionable but was usually good. Dialogue sounded iffiest, with a fair amount of variation. Although speech always appeared fairly intelligible, it displayed inconsistent quality. Some lines were natural and relatively warm, while others came across as somewhat stiff and thick. All lines remained within the realm of acceptability for such an old movie, however.
Effects also sounded a bit flat and thin but they appeared reasonably clear, and the music was similar. In general, the audio was somewhat dense and a little heavy on low-end. Bass response occasionally came across as moderately heavy and boomy, though the low-end remained pretty decent for its age. Overall, the audio of Escape appeared good for something from 1963.
How did the Blu-ray compare to the last DVD from 2004? The quality of the audio seemed pretty similar, but I thought the DTS-HD track opened up the material better; it used the various channels in a more involving manner.
Visuals were tougher to judge. While I thought the Blu-ray upgraded the DVD, I felt this was a less obvious improvement than expected. At its best, the Blu-ray was clearly more detailed, but it often seemed so soft that any improvements were negligible, and colors lacked extra pop.
The Blu-ray duplicates most of the 2004 DVD’s extras, and we start with an audio commentary from director John Sturges, assistant director Robert Relyea, actors Donald Pleasence, James Garner, James Coburn, Jud Taylor and David McCallum, production designer Fernando Carrere, Steve McQueen’s manager Hilly Elkins, and motorcycle stuntman Bud Ekins. Author Steven Jay Rubin narrates the piece, which consists of his remarks plus many separate interviews edited into this whole.
While some may dislike the non-screen-specific format, it doesn’t bother me, and this track presents a good breadth of material. We learn about the book’s path to the screen, Sturges’ interest in it and how he got onto the project, casting and the actors’ work together and relationships, locations, and various challenges. We get a lot of interesting anecdotes and encounter a nice feel for the production and the creation of the film.
Rubin does a great job as master of ceremonies; he connects the various snippets well and provides plenty of facts of his own. In fact, his material really dominates, as the other comments pop up somewhat sporadically. The track moves briskly and presents a fine examination of matters.
Next we find eight separate featurettes. The first four really act as one larger program, and all of them come narrated by Burt Reynolds. These include Bringing Fact to Fiction (12 minutes, 21 seconds), Preparations for Freedom (19:50), The Flight to Freedom (9:22), and A Standing Ovation (5:58).
The featurettes use the standard combination of movie snippets, archival materials, and interviews. We hear from Stalag Luft III ex-POWs John Weir, Alex Cassie, Albert Wallace, and James J. Cullen, wife of ex-POW Betty Floody, authors Jonathan Vance and Arthur Durand, and assistant director Robert Relyea. We learn about the origins of the tale and its path to the screen, adapting the historical tale and characters, the sets and locations, the realities of the actual prison camp and the escape, the elements of the individual flights and liberties taken, the prosecution of those responsible for some of the story’s atrocities, and the film’s reception. While the featurettes give us a decent look at some parts of the filmmaking process, the elements connected to the real story offer the best elements. We get a good look at what actually happened and the change made for the movie. The featurettes could use a little more depth, but they provide a pretty concise and efficient look at the material.
Next we find a documentary entitled The Great Escape: The Untold Story. It runs 50 minutes and 47 seconds as it uses dramatic re-enactments along with interviews. We discover comments from former prisoners Jimmy James, Alex Cassie, Jack Lyon, and Les Brodrick, and former prisoner relatives Beryl Fitch and Colin Kirby-Green. The program focuses on the actual escape and skips the preparations that led to it. We get to know a little about some of the men and learn of many details related to the escape, the individual attempts to get out of Germany, and the aftermath. The re-enactments seem a little silly at times and don’t add much, but the material itself offers a lot of good information. The former prisoners provide nice notes and give us a fine examination of the specifics.
We follow this with additional interviews shot for “The Untold Story”. This compilation fills nine minutes, 35 seconds, and includes remarks from Cassie and James. We learn about some specifics of their personal tales, the story of one of the three escapees to succeed, and what happened to the survivors after the war. We also get a list of the 50 murdered escapees. This is a minor program but one with a few interesting details.
After this we discover a program called The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones. It uses 25 minutes, one second to combine historical materials, movie clips and interviews as it lets us know about David Jones, the inspiration for the Hilts character. After a short intro from James Coburn, we hear exclusively from Jones himself, as he tells us about his early life, actions in WWII, the escape and his role, his remaining time in the War and his post-War experiences. Jones offers a relentless barrage of interesting stories, as he proves to be a lively and entertaining speaker. This featurette gives us an informative look at the person behind one of the film’s key characters, and it’s a solid extra for this disc.
Finally, the featurettes end with the 24-minute, nine-second Return to The Great Escape. In this piece, we find movie snippets, a few archival pieces, and interviews. The latter include David McCallum, John Sturges, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence, James Garner, Jud Taylor, Robert Relyea, art director Fernando Carrere, Steve McQueen’s ex-wife Neile McQueen Toffel and son Chad, and motorcycle stuntman Bud Ekins.
”Return” offers a basic examination of the production. We learn a little about its path to the screen as well as casting, locations, sets, and the shoot. Much of this information appears elsewhere, and not a lot of unique notes pop up here. We do find a better than average look at McQueen’s work on the film, though. “Return” is a decent program, but it feels somewhat redundant after all the prior pieces.
The Blu-ray ends with the film’s trailer. From the CE DVD, we lose some additional ads, a photo gallery, a trivia track and a booklet.
A very entertaining movie, The Great Escape doesn’t come without flaws, but its problems seem greatly outweighed by its positives. The film tells an intriguing story in a lively and involving manner. The Blu-ray offers good audio and bonus materials but picture quality seems spotty at best. If you don’t own Escape, you might as well get the Blu-ray, but it’s a disappointment due to the erratic visuals.
To rate this film, visit the Special Edition review of THE GREAT ESCAPE