"This is a true story. Although the characters are composites of real men, and time and place have been compressed, every detail of the escape is the way it really happened."
--Prologue, "The Great Escape"
I was reminded a few years ago just how good a movie "The Great Escape" was when a reader listed it on DVD Town's message board as one of his favorite action films. It certainly is an action film, although I hadn't really thought of it that way before, especially in light of more recent action thrillers where bullets fly and things blow up every minute and a half. With "The Great Escape" it obviously isn't the quantity of action involved but the quality.
Made in 1963, director John Sturges's war epic has already weathered the test of time, and I am sure that long after most of today's action/adventure flicks have been laid to rest, "The Great Escape" will be as popular as ever. Now that the folks at MGM have finally made it available in a true Special Edition DVD set on two discs, giving it the recognition it deserves, it should acquire even more fans.
Based on the book by Paul Brickhill, which dealt with a real breakout from a German prisoner-of-war camp in which the author himself was interned, "The Great Escape" chronicles the exploits of a group of Allied POWs during World War II who undertook one of the biggest prison breaks of all time. In 1943 the Nazis decided to put their worst escapees in one ostensibly escape-proof, maximum-security camp. These were prisoners who had most often tried to escape previously, and putting all of the rotten apples in one basket seemed like a good idea at the time. What the Nazis didn't figure on, though, was that in this one camp would be the best escape artists of the war and, thus, the toughest men to control. Control them the Germans could not.
No sooner do the characters in the movie arrive in camp than they're all trying to escape the same day! It's the sworn duty of these men to attempt to escape, "to harass, confound, and confuse the enemy." The big escape itself in the film was planned for 250 men, and it was not only to get as many persons to freedom as possible but also to serve as a diversionary tactic, an attempt to keep a large portion of the German army occupied hunting down escaped prisoners during the D-Day invasion.
Director Sturges was an old hand at action and adventure movies, having already done "Bad Day at Black Rock," "The Old Man and the Sea," "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," "Never So Few," and, of course, "The Magnificent Seven." For "The Great Escape" he even got some of his "Magnificent" actors back together: Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson. Then he added a roster of other big names, shot the whole thing on location in Germany in and about where the story really happened, and hired Elmer Bernstein to do the now-familiar theme music. Together with noted screenwriters and novelists W.R. Burnett ("Little Caesar," "The Asphalt Jungle") and James Clavell ("King Rat," "Shogun"), the film is a terrific collaborative effort.
The movie stars the ever-cool Steve McQueen as Captain Virgil Hilts, "The Cooler King," and the ever-charming James Garner as Lieutenant Robert Hendley, "The Scrounger," a pair of American officers in a prison filled largely with British and Australian prisoners of war. Hilts spends most of his time in the camp's solitary-confinement cell, the "cooler," for trying to escape on his own; Hendley spends most his time finding things the rest of the outfit needs to survive and escape. Both characters behave heroically but in realistic, low-key ways; even the famous, climactic motorcycle chase is restrained by today's over-the-top standards. The movie strives for realism and suspense and never resorts to melodrama or absurdity.
Interestingly, both McQueen and Garner came from a background of TV Westerns, McQueen from "Wanted: Dead or Alive" and Garner from "Maverick." I've read that McQueen became greatly annoyed with his friend Garner during shooting, thinking he was trying to steal the picture from him. McQueen's paranoia apparently became so annoying to everyone in the cast that Sturges threatened to fire him. This is ironic, considering that in "The Magnificent Seven" it was Yul Brenner who thought that McQueen was constantly trying to upstage him and steal the picture. In any case, "The Great Escape" solidified Garner's reputation and made McQueen a bona-fide superstar.
Also in the cast are Richard Attenborough (actor and Oscar-winning director) as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, "Big X"; Donald Pleasence as Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe, "The Forger"; James Coburn as Flying Officer Louis Sedgewick, "Manufacturer"; James Donald as the Senior British Officer, Group Captain Rupert Ramsey, "The SBO"; Charles Bronson as Flight Lieutenant Danny Velinski, "Tunnel King"; David McCallum as Lieutenant Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt, "Dispersal"; Gordon Jackson as Flight Lieutenant Andy MacDonald, "Intelligence"; Angus Lennie as Flight Officer Archibald Ives, "The Mole"; Nigel Stock as Flight Lieutenant Denys Cavendish, "The Surveyor"; Robert Graf as Werner, "The Ferret"; and Hannes Messemer as Colonel von Luger, the camp commandant. The characters are amalgams of some of the people involved in the real escape.
Although this is an action film, there is a minimum of violence and no profanity, so, if you're interested in such things, it is suitable for family viewing. Furthermore, it has aged well; unlike many older films, it does not look in any way dated. Indeed, I would say it remains as fresh and inspiring today as when it was made. And let us not forget that Elmer Bernstein's remarkable music is still instantly recognizable. That popular march tune that plays throughout the picture is an inspiration in itself.
Minutiae notes: McQueen's passion for motorcycles led to the director's adding the famous chase scene toward the end of the movie, but McQueen did not do the most hazardous jump himself; stuntman Bud Ekins did that. In one scene, through the magic of editing, McQueen plays a German cyclist and is chasing himself! And the bike McQueen rides in the film, which is supposed to be a wartime BMW, is really a Triumph TTS Special 650 in disguise. In matters non-McQueen, Charles Bronson had been a coal miner in real life before becoming an actor, so his digging scenes were old hat. Stalag Luft III, near Zagan, Poland, was the actual prison that this film's camp was patterned after. Finally, "The Great Escape" was not only based on the Brickhill book but on the 1959 POW movie "Danger Within" (aka, "Breakout), which also co-starred Richard Attenborough. Ah, the movies.
Anyway, the video quality of this new anamorphic transfer is excellent, and the screen is plenty wide. The color remains as natural as it was in the first DVD, but this time it is not so faded, except in a brief Fourth of July sequence toward the middle of the film. Otherwise, hues come off with a splendid depth, richness, and vitality. Jittery lines are now pretty much absent; there is little or no grain to speak of, except during the opening credits; definition is good; but faces are sometimes a tad glassy. All told, the image quality is among the best I've seen for a movie of this vintage and should disappoint no one. Let me put it another way: If I loved this movie, which I do, and if I owned the older DVD of it, which I do, and if I were shown this new Special Edition, I'd fork over the money immediately for the improved video alone.
The soundtrack of the older DVD was labeled Dolby Digital and, in fact, there were two signals sent to the main front speakers; whether these were true stereo signals or not was unclear, but for all intents and purposes, the sound was 2.0 monaural, with a hint of background noise to suggest its 1963 origins. This time out, the MGM engineers have provided the film with a more aggressive DD 5.1 soundtrack, a true stereo sound emerging more clearly from all five speakers. The front-channel spread is wider, the balance is more neutral and less bright, there is less noise, and occasionally one can even detect some information in the rear channels.
In addition to the movie's improved picture and sound, the new special-edition has a lorry load of new extras. Disc one contains the feature film; the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack; thirty-two scene selections; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles. In addition, the first disc contains an audio commentary with actors living and dead: James Garner, Jud Taylor, David McCallum, James Coburn, and Donald Pleasence, plus others of the filmmaking crew. It was presumably put together from various previous recordings, with further notes by the late John Sturges taken from a 1974 interview. The commentary is hosted by combat film historian and writer Steven Rubin. Together with an optional text trivia track and the several documentaries on disc two, the sheer bulk of information provided about the movie is quite exhaustive.
Disc two contains mostly documentaries and featurettes. The first documentary is called "The Great Escape: The Untold Story." It is fifty minutes long and was made in 2001, followed up by "The Untold Story: Additional Interviews," nine minutes long. A second documentary is titled "The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones," twenty-five minutes, narrated by James Coburn. And the third major documentary is a reprise from the first DVD, Steven Rubin's "Return to The Great Escape," twenty-four minutes, made in 1993, and narrated by Miguel Ferrer. Then, there are four, shorter featurettes: "Bringing Fact to Fiction," twelve minutes; "Preparations for Freedom," nineteen minutes; "The Flight to Freedom," nine minutes; and "A Standing Ovation," six minutes, the latter items narrated by Burt Reynolds. Some of this material becomes repetitious, but it's all fascinating and enlightening. The package concludes with a photo gallery, an original widescreen theatrical trailer, and an eight-page informational booklet insert.
In our own day and age when the term "blockbuster" too often suggests digital special effects or a place to rent movies, "The Great Escape" serves to remind us of the true meaning of the word. It is a blockbuster from beginning to end.