MGM // 1963 // 172 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 20th, 2013
Put a fence in front of these men...and they'll climb it!
"We dig. Around the clock."
World War II is raging on, and the Germans have dedicated one of their concentration camps to holding Allied prisoners well-known for making escape attempts. Life is relatively peaceful in this camp -- gardening, games and other activities are provided for the prisoners, but heavy security is in place to ensure that escapes are next to impossible. Nonetheless, the allies begin planning an incredibly complex, high-risk escape. Every individual has a specific job, and it'll take great effort from all involved to make the whole thing work. Can they pull it off, or is the plan doomed to fail?
There were more than a few epic war movies made throughout the 1960s. Most of these films were notable for their massive ensemble casts, lengthy running times and patriotic fervor. The Longest Day, Battle of Britain, Battle of the Bulge, The Guns of Navarone...the list goes on. However, the most satisfying of these flicks may well be John Sturges' 1963 adventure The Great Escape, which remains one of the most beloved war movies ever made despite the fact that it doesn't contain any scenes of combat. he film lacks the preachy pomposity that sometimes afflicts the other war dramas of the era, and it's more concerned with entertaining its audience than delivering an exercise in phony grit. As far as I'm concerned, it does a far better job of paying homage to its characters than something like Battle of Britain does -- it takes these brave men and turns them into pop culture icons.
The Great Escape has an incredible ensemble cast at its disposal, and even with a three-hour running time not everyone gets the amount of screen time they really deserve. Even so, the movie does a good job of casting individuals so immediately distinctive that we feel we know a great deal about them at a glance. James Garner (Maverick) is the charming scrounger who can get you anything. Donald Pleasance (Halloween) is the timid pencil pusher. Steve McQueen (The Magnificent Seven) is the impossibly cool rebel. Charles Bronson (Once Upon a Time in the West) is the troubled guy in charge of the toughest manual labor. Richard Attenborough (Jurassic Park) is the high-ranking officer. James Coburn (In Like Flint) is, uh, the charismatic Australian (okay, so maybe that casting decision isn't quite perfect). On and on it goes. The film's first two hours offer a thoroughly charming, unhurried portrait of these men attempting to plan their escape, and you feel you know many of them quite well by the time the film's final hour begins documenting the escape itself. Despite the fact that Steve McQueen seemed insistent on doing everything in his power to ensure that he would be regarded as the film's star (including his famous demand that the filmmakers find a way to incorporate his motorcycle riding skills), this is very much an ensemble film that relies heavily on its entire cast.
One of the film's strongest virtues is the manner in which it so frequently incorporates playful charm without ever denying the harsh reality of the situation the characters face. It's a bit startling when some good-natured prison pranks give way to a scene of somebody being shot down in cold blood, but the relative lack of sentimentality suits the movie well. In the wrong hands, this back-and-forth might have seemed like a tonal disaster, but Sturges ensures that the bloodshed and the goofiness are able to sit side-by-side rather comfortably (a notion taken to even greater extremes just a few years later in The Dirty Dozen). That relative complexity continues all the way to the finish line, permitting a movie that neither wallows in cynicism nor goes out of its way to end things on an upbeat note. There's a little dialogue exchange near the end that perfectly summarizes the movie's mentality:
Character A: "Do you think it was worth the price?"
Character B: "Depends on your point of view."
That's a refreshingly non-jingoistic take on the material for the era, and the movie embraces that complexity while simultaneously ensuring that it presents the men themselves as heroic figures.
Another considerable asset is the iconic score by Elmer Bernstein. The composer's upbeat march perfectly captures the derring-do spirit of the flick; it defines the film's identity in a way that the very best scores often do. There's a great deal of terrific material beyond the main theme: ominous descending chords for the Germans, insinuating suspense music, exhilarating action sequences -- but that march returns again and again, bringing with it a feeling of sublime joy. It's no surprise that the score has been employed in countless parodies over the years; it's as immediately evocative as the Jaws theme.
Unfortunately, The Great Escape (Blu-ray) has received a middling 1080p/2.35:1 hi-def transfer that only represents a marginal upgrade from the standard-def version. It appears as if much of the grain has been digitally removed, and the image often looks soft and a bit muddy. Yes, it does look sharper and better than ever before, but not to the degree that it really ought to. Colors don't have a whole lot of pop, and there are moments of light bleeding here and there. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is okay, but honestly it only feels like a surround track when Bernstein's score kicks into gear. Otherwise, it's a reasonably clean, crisp track that is pretty simple and front-heavy. The louder action sequences are somewhat lively, but again, there's not a lot of rear speaker activity. It's good, just don't expected any sort of room-rattling knockout. All of the supplements are reprised from the previous special edition DVD release: a well-produced "audio commentary" comprised of interview snippets with director John Sturges, actors James Garner, James Coburn, David McCallum, Donald Pleasance and Jud Taylor, art director Fernando Carrere, stuntman Bud Ekins and assistants Robert Relyea and Hilly Elkins, eight stellar featurettes ("Bringing Fact to Fiction," "Preparations for Freedom," "Flight to Freedom," "A Standing Ovation," "The Untold Story," "The Untold Story -- Additional Interviews," "The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones" and "Return to The Great Escape"), which run about two and a half hours combined, and a theatrical trailer. You'll have to access these features from the pop-up menu, as no disc menu is included. In an ideal world, The Great Escape would have been given a satisfactory restoration and the features would be presented in HD on a second disc, but for now, this is all we get.
The Great Escape remains a terrific flick, one that is well worth adding to your collection. Is the Blu-ray release anywhere near as great as it ought to be? No. Still, MGM is thankfully offering the disc at a discounted price (on the day of release, most retailers were selling it for $10), so that eases the pain just a bit. The problems are worth noting, but the movie itself is too good to pass up. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 172 Minutes
Release Year: 1963
MPAA Rating: Not Rated