To commemorate its 50th anniversary, John Sturges’ The Great Escape makes its debut on Blu-ray. It tells a fictional account of the WWII prisoner-of-war breakout at Stalag Luft III, which was documented in the non-fiction book of the same name by Paul Brickhill. Steve McQueen leads an all-star cast playing an international collection of characters, composites of the men involved, in a script that overemphasizes the American involvement and decreases the Canadian, setting a precedent for Argo.
As the film opens, Elmer Bernstein’s signature theme plays as the trucks bring the most troublesome Allied POWs to a maximum-security prison camp. Having so many crafty prisoners all together doesn’t seem like the greatest idea but when taken into consideration that this film inspired Hogan’s Heroes, it’s no surprise the Germans are like the dunces seen on that TV sitcom rather than the ruthless killers from Schindler’s List. Minutes after being in the camp, a few try to sneak out. They are seen posing as local workers and hiding in truck beds under cut trees, but all are caught.
Captain Virgil Hilts USAAF (McQueen) and Flying Officer Archibald ‘Archie’ Ives RAF (Angus Lennie) are made examples to the rest of the camp and put in the cooler for two weeks. This is where Hilts iconic baseball bouncing is first seen. Their first night out, they get caught on another escape attempt and go right back in.
Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett DFC RAF (Richard Attenborough) organizes the prisoners to make best use of their talents. Flight Lieutenant Bob Hendley DFC RAF (James Garner) is a scrounger and is able to wheel and deal to get whatever they need. Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe RAF (Donald Pleasence) is a forager, and he prepares the papers the men will need once they’ve escapes. The plan isn’t to get home but to just run loose in the country in order to get forces diverted to their capture.
They work on three tunnels, with varying degrees of success and failure, until finally breaking through one night. Seventy-six men escape before the guards discover what is going on. The film was a tad slow going within the camp and could have done with a bit of trimming. The action and excitement pick up as the story follows the men on the loose, although here is where the fiction diverges from fact the most, as revealed in the extras. The ending works well because the resolution for the different characters’ is unpredictable.
The video has a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The image doesn’t look sharp right from the opening credits and don’t improve. The noticeable DNR contributes to a smooth, flat look throughout. The palette is comprised of drab colors that come across dull. Blacks experience crush and the contrast is poor. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is filled with Bernstein’s score when the film opens and does so throughout, but the rears deliver little else. The track sounds free of age and wear. Dialogue is clear. Machine and weapon effects are supported with a good bottom end.
Extras come from MGM’s 2004 two-disc “collector’s edition” DVD set and all are in SD. Jay Rubin, director and co-writer of the documentary extra, “Return to The Great Escape” leads the commentary track, which finds him is joined by separate interviews clips of John Sturges from 1974; actors James Coburn, James Garner, David McCallum, Donald Pleasance, and Jud Taylor; second unit director Robert Relyea; motorcycle stuntman Bud Ekins; art director Fernando Carrere; and Steve McQueen’s manager Hilly Elkins.
What appears to be a special created for the History Channel in 2001 is broken down into individual components. In “The Great Escape:Bringing Fact to Fiction” (12 min), viewers are shown some of the differences between what happened and what happened in the movie, “The Great Escape: Preparations for Freedom (20 min) reveals the work that went in the actual escape and filmmakers’ decision to give Americans a more prominent role in the story. “The Great Escape: The Flight to Freedom(9 min) looks at what happened to the soldiers after their escape in real life and in the film. “The Great Escape: A Standing Ovation (6 min) concludes the History Channel special with a look at how the film was received.
The 2001 British documentary “The Great Escape: The Untold Story” (51 min) tells how the Allies went after the German soldiers who harmed the escaped prisoners. Outtakes of Additional Interviews (10 min) with subjects are also included “The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones”(25 min) looks at the career of U.S. Army pilot David Jones, who Steve McQueen’s character is based on. “Return to The Great Escape (24 min)” is a 1993 Showtime documentary about the film and includes interviews with stars like Garner, Pleasance, and James Coburn, whose Australian accent leaves something to be desired in the film. Also available is the Original Theatrical Trailer (HD; 3 min).
Even though it seems a tad sanitized by Hollywood, The Great Escape is an enjoyable film for fans of war stories. The Blu-ray offers a decent picture, a good soundtrack, and plenty of extras for fans to explore in order to learn more about the film and true-life events.
The Great Escape is also available from the Criterion Collection.
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