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John Sturges
Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough
Writing Credits:
James Clavell, WR Burnett

Set in WWII, prisoners at a German camp plot their freedom.

Rated NR

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
English DTS-HD MA 5.1
English PCM Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 172 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 5/12/2020

• Audio Commentary with Director John Sturges, Composer Elmer Bernstein, 2nd Unit Director Robert Relyea and Stuntman Bud Ekins
• Audio Commentary with Director John Sturges, Assistant Director Robert Relyea, Actors James Garner, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, Jud Taylor and David McCallum, Production Designer Fernando Carrere, Steve McQueen’s Manager Hilly Elkins, Motorcycle Stuntman Bud Ekins and Author Steven Jay Rubin
• “Heroes Underground” Documentary
• “The Real Virgil Hilts” Documentary
• “Return to The Great Escape” Featurette
• Interview with Critic Michael Sragow
• Trailer
• Booklet


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The Great Escape: Criteron Collection [Blu-Ray] (1963)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 28, 2020)

When we look at flicks that define the concept of “Guy Movie”, 1963’s The Great Escape merits serious consideration for that title. After all, Steve McQueen stars in it, and he lands high on any list of movie-acting man’s men.

And a flick about war prisoners who stage an escape? It doesn’t get more “guy” than that.

Set during World War II, Escape opens with the arrival of truckloads of Allied prisoners at a German maximum-security camp called Stalag Luft III. We quickly meet Senior British Officer Ramsey (James Donald) who acts as liaison between the prisoners and the Germans who run the joint.

He confers with Colonel Von Luger (Hannes Messemer), the German head of the camp, who explains the nature of the place. We find out that Luft III confines only the craftiest of prisoners, ones who present the most extreme risk of escape.

From there we get to know some of these guys. The roster includes Virgil Hilts (McQueen), Bob Hendley (James Garner), Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson), Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence), Louis Sedgwick (James Coburn), and “Piglet” Ives (Angus Lennie).

The group quickly takes up the challenge to escape. Along with Ramsey, Bartlett grabs the lead and gathers a party to dig three tunnels out of the camp and address other necessary elements. He assigns them various roles based on their distinctive talents.

That group includes most of the guys I already listed. In a different category we find Hilts and Ives, who attempt their own two-man escape through a small tunnel.

Their initial effort fails and lands Hilts back in isolation, a place where he eventually spends so much time that he earns the appellation of the “Cooler King”. Those in charge of the big escape approve of his efforts mainly because they distract the Germans from their own task.

After another stint in the cooler, the group tries to recruit Hilts for their purposes. They realize that if he escapes but intentionally gets captured, he can give them information about what lies beyond the landscape.

Hilts agrees and becomes part of their plan. The rest of the film follows the progress of the escape and what happens to all the prisoners.

From the start, Escape quickly sets a tone that lets us know what kind of movie to expect, as Elmer Bernstein’s score helps establish the mood with the jaunty main theme. This tells us the film won’t exactly provide a dark and harsh examination of prison camp life, so though it offers some emotional moments, Schindler’s List it ain’t.

Nor should it be, but the film’s cheeky tone comes as something of a surprise given the darkness of some of its material. I don’t want to give away the ending, but don’t expect things to conclude happily. The movie works on its own terms and provides a positive swing of sorts, but it doesn’t follow the path I thought it would.

Of course, Escape doesn’t have much leeway to give us a happy ending, since it comes based on a true story. The movie takes some liberties – mainly through the characters – but it remains surprisingly true to life in many ways, largely in that it doesn’t sugarcoat the conclusion. The flick could have altered things to give us a more upbeat finale but it doesn’t, and it definitely deserves credit for that.

Although Escape presents more than a few moments of melodrama, it fails to become mired in excessive sappiness. The movie easily could have turned into a lame “triumph of the human spirit” experience, especially via the Hilts character, who demonstrates firm toughness and refuses to let the system capsize him. Happily, the movie keeps things from becoming goopy and syrupy, as it stays with a more matter of fact and somewhat glib tone that works for it.

The cast help make it succeed. Coburn can’t pull of an Australian accent to save his life, but overall, the actors bring a lot to the table.

McQueen seems particularly strong. He comes across as cocky and flippant but resolute as well, and he helps make Hilts a charismatic character despite limited screen time.

Escape offers a surprisingly human portrait of some Germans as well. Von Luger comes across as quite full-blooded and real, so the movie doesn’t soften him or turn him into a Colonel Klink style buffoon, and it doesn’t attempt to act as an apology for Nazi excesses either.

Instead, it shows some mild compassion from the leader without problematic sappiness. A concluding sequence between Von Luger and Ramsey simply and effectively conveys these elements.

Of course, no one goes to see Escape for those moments. We want tension and excitement, and the movie aptly displays those.

Essentially the first two-thirds lead up and through the escape itself, while the final act shows what happens to the various prisoners. Very little action ensues in the first two acts, but the film still moves pretty briskly and maintains our attention.

The final third presents a nice level of action, especially via a motorcycle chase sequence. Overall, The Great Escape presents an involving and entertaining program.

The Blu-ray Grades: Picture B+/ Audio B/ Bonus B+

The Great Escape appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Though a little dated at times, the image largely held up well.

For the most part, sharpness worked nicely. Some softness appeared at times, but those instances remained infrequent and they stemmed from the original photography. The majority of the flick appeared precise and accurate.

No signs of jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and I saw no indications of edge haloes. With a natural layer of grain, noise reduction failed to become a problem, and the image lacked print flaws.

With its grim POW camp setting, the palette focused on a fairly brown and blue set of tones. The Blu-ray replicated these accurately and gave them the appropriate sense of accuracy.

Blacks looked dark and dense, while shadows appeared smooth and concise. I felt wholly pleased with this appealing visual presentation.

The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of The Great Escape fine, 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.

This release also included the film’s LPCM monaural soundtrack. In terms of quality, it felt a bit more natural than the 5.1 affair, as the latter could demonstrate some unnecessary reverb that went absent in the mono mix.

That made the mono track more satisfying from my POV. While I did like the 5.1 effort for what it was, I generally prefer original audio, and the high quality of the mono mix made it more pleasing.

The mono track showed smoother speech, and both effects and music seemed more concise. Of course, the mix still showed its age, but it came across as a better representation of the souce.

How did the Criterion Blu-ray compare to the prior Blu-ray? Both shared the same DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio, but visuals became a different story.

I thought the old Blu-ray looked muddy and soft, factors that some believed simply were endemic to the source. Given its greatly improved sharpness, colors and general smoothness, the Criterion release proves that perspective incorrect. It turned into a massive upgrade over the flawed 2013 release.

This Criterion Blu-ray mixes old and new extras, and we find two separate audio commentaries. From 2003, the first features author Steven Jay Rubin, 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. Rubin narrates the piece, which consists of his remarks plus many separate interviews edited into the 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.

Recorded for a 1991 Criterion laserdisc, the second commentary involves director John Sturges, composer Elmer Bernstein, 2nd unit director Robert Relyea and stuntman Bud Ekins. Hosted by film historian Bruce Eder, this edited piece covers historical elements/influences, story and characters, sets and locations, cast and performances, music, editing and connected elements.

Whereas the host played a major role in the first commentary, Eder takes a relative backseat here, as we don’t hear much from him until a good 40 percent of the way into the film. Sturges does most of the heavy lifting up until that point, though we hear plenty from Bernstein and Relyea as well.

The filmmakers continue to pop up a lot as the movie progresses, though we get more from Eder, presumably because the others fade. Whatever the case, we get a good collection of thoughts in the commentary. Inevitably, some of the info repeats from the first track, but the older discussion still comes with plenty of useful material.

Footnote: after Eder introduces himself at the movie’s start, the track never identifies the other participants. Although we can figure out who’s who pretty easily, it still seems odd that the commentary forces the listener to do the work.

The four-part Heroes Under Ground fills a total of 43 minutes, 39 seconds. Narrated by Burt Reynolds, 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 “Heroes” give us a decent look at some parts of the filmmaking process, the elements connected to the real story offer the best moments. We get a good look at what actually happened and the change made for the movie. “Heroes” could use a little more depth, but it provides a pretty concise and efficient look at the material.

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.

We follow with the 24-minute, nine-second Return to The Great Escape. In this piece, we hear from 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.

In addition to the film’s trailer, we get a new Interview with Critic Michael Sragow. It spans 23 minutes, 11 seconds and provides notes about the life and career of John Sturges, with some emphasis on Great Escape. Sragow brings a good overview.

A booklet completes the package. It provides a map of the POW compound, credits and an essay from critic Sheila O’Malley. The booklet completes the set on a positive note.

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 picture, audio and bonus materials. This becomes easily the best home video rendition of the movie to date, one I expect could be improved only if via a 4K UHD version.

To rate this film, visit the Special Edition review of THE GREAT ESCAPE

Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main