- Jul 6, 2003
The Great Escape: Special Edition
Rated: Not Rated
Film Length: 172 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16X9 Enhanced Widescreen (2.35:1)
Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
Audio: English - Dolby Digital 5.1; English, French, and Spanish – Monaural
May 18th, 2004
Based on the actual escape of 79 Allied POWs from the “escape-proof” German detention facility, Stalag Luft III, The Great Escape tells the emotionally resonant story of a group of Allied officers who bravely orchestrated one of the largest prison breaks of World War II. Essentially, the story begins before their arrival, when the Nazi regime elected to place POWs deemed to be flight risks into the new high-security facility. In most cases, these prisoners had attempted to escape previously, sometimes on several occasions, so putting these “rotten eggs into one basket” seemed to be a good idea.
Unfortunately for the Germans, placing these escape artists into a single facility did not give them the kind of control they had sought. On the contrary, it actually allowed these escape artists to work together on an elaborate multi-pronged scheme to break out of the prison. It has also been argued that the escape was devised not only to free a large number of prisoners, but also to tie up as much of the German military machine as possible in tracking escapees down, while their allies continued to fight the Germans on the outside.
While it took the concerted effort of a great many POWs to execute the plan, a small group of individuals, such as Roger Bushell and Wally Floody, did most of the mental gymnastics involved. These men coordinated the digging of tunnels (affectionately known as “Tom”, “Dick”, and “Harry”), the efforts to craft the uniforms and papers the men would need after escape, and helped keep the men focused on their sworn duty to either escape or impede the German military machine as best they could.
Now undoubtedly, most of you reading this either know this story well, or have seen the movie by now, but I intend to keep plot details as vague as possible, in the event you have not. As such, I will now turn my attention to the brilliant acting by the ensemble cast. Specifically, in addition to the magnificent performances from Garner and McQueen, the film also benefits immensely from the talents of the other screen legends that round out the cast. Seriously, just take a look at this group of actors: Richard Attenborough (as Roger “Big X” Bartlett); James Coburn (as Louis Sedgewick); Donald Pleasance (who plays Colin Blythe); James Donald (as Rupert Ramsey); and Charles Bronson (who plays Danny Velinski) could easily headline almost any film, and all do a great job here. As an aside, Garner really was a “scrounger” in the Army, and Donald Pleasance actually did time in a German POW camp (Stalag Luft I).
Arguably, however, Steve McQueen’s character is the focal point of this film, and he outshines his fellow actors by turning in a performance that is cocky, exciting, and truly memorable. From the confidence and resolve he displays in helping his fellow officers escape, to the show-stopping exhibition of his motorcycle-riding prowess in the German countryside, McQueen is the epitome of unrelenting courage and selfless bravery. As I mentioned above though, the other guys do a very good job as well, and their effectiveness as an ensemble influenced later films like The Dirty Dozen, and Kelly’s Heroes.
To be sure, while The Great Escape is a pretty accurate interpretation of the titular event, the filmmakers and performers did take some dramatic license with these men’s story. In particular, the sheer number of those involved in the escape made it necessary to make the principal characters composites of the POWs involved in the breakout, by combining elements of several real life officers into them. Additionally, although the prison housed mostly Australian and English officers, a pair of American officers (using the movie characters’ names), named Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) and Lieutenant Bob Hendley (James Garner) figured prominently in the movie version of the escape. Obviously, the wild motorcycle escape and chase never happened either, and all of the other discrepancies are covered exhaustively in the supplemental materials.
Suffice it to say that the vast majority of movies are made to make money, and this one was no exception, so the story was tweaked a bit. Still, most of the story is factually sound, according to some of those who survived a stay in Stalag Luft III. This is due in large part to the filmmakers having access to those who had survived. For instance, former POW Wally Floody played a large role in helping to ensure the sets were as accurate as possible. More importantly, even though the truth was stretched in some instances, the way the filmmakers stayed true to the spirit of the story, and paid tribute to the brave souls who carried out the ambitious plan to break out of Stalag Luft III, was remarkable (at least to me).
Despite a few very minor quibbles I had with the film, like how easy the life of the POWs seemed at times, or how effortlessly the POWs seemed to obtain contraband, the prisoners’ battle to outwit their German captors was pulled off quite well. But where I think The Great Escape really shines is how well the filmmakers capture the spirit of the historical event. Indeed, in my mind, this film stands as an enduring classic, featuring magnificent performances by the ensemble cast, a fairly faithful rendering of a compelling and true story, tremendous attention to detail, and excellent execution by the filmmakers.
Add to that an uplifting, memorable score by Elmer Bernstein, and this nearly three-hour film really seems to zip on by! To be honest, I generally won’t go out of my way to watch “war films”, but this is one that has me in its hooks. If you haven’t seen it yet, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do! It really does belong on the short list of the greatest war/adventure movies ever made!
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
The Great Escape is a film that was badly mistreated on its previous DVD release, and was in dire need of “special edition” treatment. Thankfully, MGM has done John Sturges’ film proud by creating a new high definition transfer, which offers this grand old epic in a smashing anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) presentation.
So, what was wrong with the previous disc anyway? Well, the biggest problem was that it was poorly framed, but this issue has been addressed, and the print used to create this new two-disc edition is also very clean, not to mention being free from major defects. Colors were also less vibrant on the previous disc. Of course, if you are expecting perfection, you will be disappointed, because the film still shows its age a little bit. For instance, several scenes, especially the opening credits sequence exhibit a fair amount of grain, and some sequences look slightly softer than others. Honestly, however, neither of these issues detracts from the viewing experience too much.
The really good news is that image quality appears to be much sharper than it was on the previous bare bones DVD. To begin with, texture and fine detail are also much improved, and the visuals are much more film-like as a result. As I mentioned, color rendering is also improved, with Stalag Luft III, the German locales, and characters skin tones looking more realistic and vital this time around. Similarly, contrast was well balanced, and blacks were deep and pure, so there is plenty of detail even in shadowy escape tunnels.
Further, I did not notice the presence of digital compression artifacts, or edge enhancement halos. Indeed, compared to watching this film on cable or the previous DVD, this new transfer is a revelation, and to my eyes The Great Escape’s image quality has never been better on a home video format! Fans of this film should be ecstatic, perhaps enough to forgive MGM for their transgressions on the previous DVD release of this film!!!
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
For the first time on DVD, The Great Escape has been given the Dolby Digital 5.1 treatment, but since most of this three-hour film consists of dialogue and music, I do not think the new track is a giant leap above the original monaural recording. Wait a minute, did I just write that?!?!
Getting back to business, the film’s soundstage is a little more expansive, and dialogue sounds slightly cleaner in 5.1, but purists (or even 5.1 devotees like myself) could stick with the monaural track without losing too much sleep. On both tracks, frequency response is smooth and even, and dialogue is easily discernable. In terms of surround channel use on the new mix, there is precious little, just some occasional ambient noise or subtle musical reinforcement.
In like fashion, the subwoofer does not get too much of a workout, even though it does add a little punch to the film’s few action sequences and to the drums in Elmer Bernstein’s wonderful score. All in all, neither version of the soundtrack (monaural or 5.1) is particularly dynamic, but they suit the source material just fine.
War film expert Steven J. Rubin, who created “Return to the Great Escape”, hosts this unconventional commentary track, which is comprised chiefly of archived interviews with the cast and crew, including director John Sturges. Surprisingly, this concept actually works better than one might expect it to. True, there is no mistaking the fact that most of the participants comments do not relate to the whatever happens to be onscreen at the time they are speaking, but there sure are a lot of insightful stories told by Sturges, James Garner, James Coburn, Donald Pleasance, Jud Taylor, David McCallum, Bud Ekins, and Robert Relyea. Of course, Mr. Rubin has a lot to say about this film (both his knowledge and passion about it are evident), but sadly, no interviews survived with Steve McQueen.
In my opinion, some of the many highlights from this extremely interesting track included:
--- James Garner talking about his days in the Army (he served in Korea) as a “scrounger”, and how it benefited the film.
--- Discussions about John Sturges’ directorial style, his determination to get The Great Escape made, and the casting process.
--- Debates about whether or not the “Great Escape” was really an effort to divert the Germans’ attention away from the D-Day invasion.
--- Lots of information about the design of the camp, which was based on exhaustive research and information obtained from some of its “guests”.
--- James Garner discussing two scenes that were cut from the film, both of which featured his interactions with Donald Pleasance.
--- Mr. Rubin talking about how Sturges’ utilization of a great ensemble cast influenced later films, such as Kelly’s Heroes, The Dirty Dozen, and A Bridge Too Far.
--- Frank comments about Steve McQueen from his fellow actors, including interesting thoughts about both his problems with the script and the development of the motorcycle chase sequence.
A wealth of information on The Great Escape, its cast-members, and the real event that inspired the film is offered via pop-up text boxes. Some of this information will already be know to you if you have seen the featurettes, or listened to the commentary track, but there is still more detail provided, so it is worth a watch.
The Great Escape: Bringing Fact to Fiction
Narrated by Burt Reynolds, this 12-minute featurette contains a good discussion about the exploits of the courageous and “escape-crazy” officers imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, as well as the cinematic license taken by the filmmakers to help ensure box office success for The Great Escape. There is also a great deal of insight into the production offered by the crew and the ex-prisoners of war the film is based on, including the process of distilling the story to make it more compact, the casting process, location scouting, scripting (and scripting problems), and why the production was eventually moved to Germany from just outside of Los Angeles.
The Great Escape: Preparations for Freedom
Also narrated by Burt Reynolds, and through interviews with former “guests” of Stalag Luft III, like Albert Wallace, James Cullen, John Weir, and Alex Cassie, this featurette provides an overview of the POW camps operated by the Germans. These individuals, along with authors Arthur Durand and John Vance, talk about how the prisoners’ escape attempt became organized, the ingenious planning that led to the escape of 79 men from Stalag Luft III, how the prisoners were able to dispose of the dirt from the tunnels, and how they created costumes and papers that were to be utilized after their escape.
There is also a fascinating discussion of how secret government agencies would smuggle items to the POWs that might prove helpful during escape attempts. Finally, the reasons why the filmmakers embellished the American role in the attempt to escape Stalag Luft III are revealed. If you have any interest at all in World War II, or in this film, I believe you will find this informative 19-minute featurette extremely enjoyable (not that the others are bad)!
The Great Escape: The Flight to Freedom
Continuing the theme of the previous featurettes, narration by Burt Reynolds and interviews with the cast and crew provide the viewer with a greater understanding of the events that transpired during the actual escape. Specifically, author Jonathan Vance and several former POWs talk about the film’s depiction of how the men fared after their escape, and discuss Steve McQueen’s demand that he be allowed to showcase his motorcycle riding abilities and the inaccuracies in the ending sequence. This featurette runs for approximately 9 minutes.
The Great Escape: A Standing Ovation
Again narrated by Burt Reynolds, “A Standing Ovation” chronicles The Great Escape’s premiere, its critical/audience reception, and the impact of the film on Steve McQueen’s career. The investigation into the murders of the 50 officers who were “shot while escaping”, which resulted in the subsequent executions and imprisonment of Gestapo officers
after the war, is also covered in detail.
The Great Escape: The Untold Story
Directed by Steven Clarke, this 50-minute long dramatization/featurette takes a look at the British pursuit of war criminals after World War II ended, particularly the Gestapo personnel that carried out the killings of fifty of the officers that took part in the “Great Escape”. Former POWs Alex Cassie, Jack Lyon, and Jimmy James are again on hand to tell this part of the story in their own words, which makes the details of their fellow officers lives and deaths that they provide so much more powerful. As is the case with the other featurettes on this disc, this extra is very informative. A must watch, especially for those with an interest in World War II!
The Great Escape: The Untold Story – Additional Interviews
Running Time: 9 minutes
--- “The Forger’s Tale”
In this short featurette, former POW Alex Cassie discusses how he fabricated documents that the escaping officers would need after they were free from Stalag Luft III. He also talks about the thoughts that were running through the minds of those who were preparing to escape. Interestingly, Mr. Cassie chose not to escape, as he did not fancy running about the German countryside in inclement weather.
--- “The Home Runs”
Former POW Jimmy James dicusses the fate of the three escapees from Stalag Luft III that were not recaptured.
--- “The Survivors”
This segment reveals what happened to POWs Jimmy James, Alex Cassie, Jack Lyon, and Les Broderick after World War II ended.
--- “The Fifty”
The names of the fifty escapees that were coldly gunned down by the Gestapo are provided.
The Real Virgil Hilts
The 25-minute long “The Real Virgil Hilts” featurette chronicles the exploits of David Jones, who served as the inspiration for the Hilts character. In a fascinating interview, Mr. Jones talks about his entry into the armed forces as an aviator, Roosevelt’s response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, and his time as a prisoner of war. He goes on to discuss the scope of the Great Escape, how hard the men who carried it out worked, and his illustrious career after World War II (he retired as a 2-Star General). There is also some great footage taken from the Doolittle Convoy that David Jones was part of, and from raids by B-25 bombers.
Return to the Great Escape
In this insightful featurette, which runs for 24 minutes, the birth of The Great Escape out of Paul Brickhill’s memoirs is discussed, as are the characters in the film (including the real-life men they were based on). In interview excerpts, John Sturges talks about the difficulty he had in getting the film made, and actors James Garner and Donald Pleasance talk about their experiences in the military. The participants are also speak candidly about the writing problems that led to an incomplete screenplay and Steve McQueen’s brief walk-out during production.
There are a total of 13 photo galleries, which contain stills that have been grouped by subject (i.e. “The Tunnel” or “The Motorcycle Chase”). These galleries contain 107 still production photos, which are both black-and-white and color.
The theatrical trailer for The Great Escape is included.
The Great Escape comes along with a nice booklet that features five pages of test on the story and the production, a comparison of widescreen vs. “full screen” , and a chapter listing.
Other Great MGM Releases
There are trailers for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Collector’s Edition DVD, the Escape From New York: Collector’s Edition DVD, the Windtalkers DVD, and an “MGM Means Great Movies” promo. In addition, the cover art for Hart’s War, A Bridge Too Far, and Battle for Britain.
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THE LAST WORD
The Great Escape is not a lot of things. It is not a completely faithful representation of the men involved in the titular event. It is not a highly decorated film. It is not without its fabricated “Hollywood” moments. However, despite all of this, John Sturges’ The Great Escape is one of the most gripping and entertaining war epics ever put on film!
In my opinion, Sturges did a remarkable job of condensing the incredible scope of the escape operations into a story more suitable for the cinema, without being disrespectful. Indeed, the attention to detail that the entire filmmaking team paid, the care taken to assemble the ensemble cast, and the willingness to change things on the fly to make a better movie impressed me a great deal. I am sure I am not alone in feeling gratitude towards John Sturges for the monumental effort he undertook to get the movie made, and for his excellent treatment of the subject.
This souped-up DVD gives The Great Escape a whole new lease on life, via a brand-new high definition transfer, Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, and enough featurettes and other extras to keep fans busy for a long while. The commentary track, cobbled together from interview excerpts, also works surprisingly well, not to mention being informative and entertaining.
Although I had not seen this movie in about ten years or so, I really fell in love with it during this review. So where does that leave us? Let’s see…a great movie, nice packaging, spiffy new transfer and remixed soundtrack, lots of quality extras…sounds like a winner! If you were thinking of picking this up, rest assured, The Great Escape should not disappoint!!! Highly Recommended!