Judge Mark Van Hook once made a great escape, but that was only from a bad rerun of "Hogan's Heroes" in the comfort of his living room.
Bartlett: "I'm gonna cause such a terrible stink in this Third Reich of
theirs that thousands of troops that could well be employed at the front will be
here looking after us."
When it comes to movies about World War II, they don't get much cooler or more iconic than John Sturges' The Great Escape. While most WWII films today seem hell-bent on making statements about the futility of war and the toll it takes on the souls of men, Sturges' film eschews any moral aggrandizing in favor of the thrilling (and true-to-life) tale of a single group of men and their courageous attempt to break out of a Nazi prison camp. Now that it's been released in a spiffy new Special Edition DVD from MGM, it's time for those who've never seen the film to finally catch up with Hilts, Bartlett, Sedgwick, Danny, Willy, Blythe, Hendley and the rest of the guys from Stalag Luft III. You no longer have any excuse.
Facts of the Case
It's 1944, and while World War II rages all over Europe, the German forces are expending far too many resources on keeping POWs under surveillance at their various prison camps. The solution? Collect every notorious Allied escapee in Germany and place them in Stalag Luft III, a maximum-security camp from which escape is deemed impossible.
Of course, upon arrival in the camp, the prisoners immediately begin their plans to break out. At first, the attempts are random and scattershot, but with the arrival of Roger Bartlett, AKA "Big X" (Richard Attenborough), a grander scheme begins taking shape. Bartlett envisions a breakout so large (roughly 250 men) that the Germans will waste thousands of troops combing Germany for the escapees. His plan? To dig three tunnels, each more than 30 feet deep and 300 feet long, one of which will eventually lead the prisoners to freedom outside of the camp's barbed-wire fences.
Among those enlisted to aid in the escape include: Hendley (James Garner), AKA The Scrounger, who, through bribery, theft and other means comes up with the documents and tools needed to engineer the escape; Danny and Willie (Charles Bronson and John Leyton), AKA "Tunnel Kings," whose job it is to actually dig the tunnels; Sedgwick (James Coburn), AKA "Manufacturer," who devises whatever mechanical gadgets (including an air supply machine) they might need; Blythe (Donald Pleasance), AKA Forger, who forges the documents they need for safe passage through Germany; and Hilts (Steve McQueen), AKA "Cooler King," who at first scoffs at Bartlett's vision, but whose resourcefulness soon becomes vital to what will have to be, without question, a great escape.
It's all about Steve McQueen jumping a barbed-wire fence on that stupid motorcycle.
Never mind that McQueen himself didn't make the jump, or that the entire chase never actually took place. Whenever a conversation about The Great Escape arises, talk inevitably turns to Steve McQueen, and how cool he looks on that bike.
It's a great sequence, to be sure, and for many it's the very definition of '60s cinematic rebelliousness. McQueen's Virgil Hilts, on the run from what appear to be a hundred or so German soldiers, grabs a motorcycle and makes a dash for the Swiss border. Whether he makes it or not is beside the point. The simple act of defiance would make McQueen an icon for decades to come.
Yet, in a way, it also short-changes the rest of the film, which by all accounts is one of the most exhilarating and ingeniously crafted heist pictures ever devised. By closely adhering to the details of the real-life escape from Stalag Luft III, adding in ample quantities of pathos, humor, male camaraderie and nail-biting suspense, Sturges threw it all into a pot and came up with one of the cinema's grandest entertainments. Its appeal is too great to be boiled down into just one sequence.
The script, written by James Clavell (Shogun) and W.R. Burnett (The Asphalt Jungle), gets enormous mileage out of the so-outrageous-it-has-to-be-true story, taking liberties only when necessary to make the material more understandable for cinematic audiences. The most obvious of these liberties are with the characters, most of whom are composites of the real-life POWs. For instance, the task of "Scrounger" is given to James Garner's Hendley, whose job is to gather the necessary materials—tools, papers, and various other items—to engineer the escape. In reality, this task fell upon a larger number of men, because for any single man to gather all of these materials would have been impossible. That the screenwriters took this license is entirely forgivable and, in a way, inevitable. To try to include that many major characters in a single film without losing the forward thrust of the narrative just couldn't be done, and how the screenwriters solved this problem is both completely natural and quite brilliant.
To be fair, most of the technical details of the escape—the digging and hiding of the three tunnels, the disposal of the dirt, and the breathing and transportation mechanisms inside the tunnels—are exactly as they happened. This leads to what is probably the film's best sequence, the escape itself. Besides being a masterfully edited and scored sequence in its own right, it derives a great deal of tension from of the fact that it's all true. Watching one man after another ride through the tunnel on their stomachs, we get a real sense of the claustrophobia that the escapees must have felt, and we appreciate just how much courage the escape actually took. With detection by the German guards a constant threat, the sequence achieves a level of suspense few heist films (which is essentially what The Great Escape is) ever manage.
Take that, Ocean's 11.
It's a credit to Sturges' skills at casting, as well as the nobility of the real-life participants, that we really care about these characters and want them to escape. The fact that those who actually attempted the escape did so with full knowledge that they probably would not make it to freedom, and instead were only trying to help in the war effort, is in itself an enormously appealing concept, but having it played out by actors like Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Donald Pleasance, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson and the rest of the terrific ensemble cast gives it a kind of magical, macho transcendence.
Which finally brings us to The Great Escape's labeling in the years since its release as merely a great "guy" movie, the unfortunate result of the film's lack of any female characters or, one would assume, a romance angle (the studio apparently lobbied for one, but Sturges staunchly refused). In truth, we are told in the DVD bonus material that more women saw and loved the film upon its release than men, which goes to prove that great storytelling transcends gender (hell, the person who originally introduced me to the film was none other than my own mother). So if you happen to be female, and are wary of seeing a three-hour movie without women or romance, have no fear. The Great Escape is a thrilling story that never bores, and it can be enjoyed by any audience—old or young, black or white, and yes, male or female.
MGM has now made a great movie even better with this commemorative two-disc Special Edition of The Great Escape. Disc One features the film in a striking new digital transfer taken from an attractive source print that, while not quite good enough to make anyone think the film was made yesterday, still restores a good amount of luster to a gorgeously-shot film. Grain is apparent throughout but is never bothersome (the movie is more than 40 years old, after all), and colors are as rich and vibrant as they've probably ever been.
Audio is presented in a newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track that serves to highlight Elmer Bernstein's justifiably famous score, which somehow never quite gets enough credit for its versatility and instead is only remembered for the overriding march theme (dum dum…dum DUM da dum dum…). While that tune is certainly as infectious as they come, it's compounded by moments of sublime beauty (especially when paired with shots of the Swiss Alps late in the film) as well as riveting suspense (the escape sequence wouldn't work half as well without it). As for the 5.1 track, most rear channel activity comes from the score, though there is some good use of the surround field in moments of heightened action.
Also included on the first disc is a wonderfully produced screen-specific audio commentary that includes such participants as stars James Garner, James Coburn, Jud Taylor, Donald Pleasance, David McCallum, production designer Fernando Carrere, assistant director Robert Relyea and many others, the highlight being excerpts from a 1974 interview with director John Sturges. The track is narrated by Steve Rubin, director of the documentary feature Return to the Great Escape, and he is great at juggling between all the different participants in the track. One minor caveat, however—since the disc was produced roughly two years ago, the track makes no mention of the deaths of actors Pleasance, Coburn, and Bronson, all of whom passed away in the interim, which is somewhat sad and even a little eerie, as Rubin at one point mentions that Bronson is currently living "in semi-retirement." Otherwise, it's a great track that, even despite the film's 3-hour running time, never becomes stodgy or boring.
Disc One also includes a trivia track that runs throughout the course of the film. Although some of the tidbits are indeed interesting, I can't imagine anyone but the most ardent Escape fans wanting to sit through the entire thing.
Moving onto Disc Two, this is where we come to the real meat and potatoes of the package. We kick off with four featurettes—Bringing Fact to Fiction, Preparations for Freedom, The Flight to Freedom and A Standing Ovation, each varying in length from around 10 to 30 minutes (though I can't be sure of this, as they're not time-coded). Narrated by Burt Reynolds (?), these featurettes do a great job of covering the film's history from the genesis of the project all the way through its release and subsequent acclaim in the years since. There's a handy "Play All" feature that allows them to be played as a single documentary, which is really the most ideal way of viewing them.
Continuing through the disc's documentary supplements, we come to The Great Escape: The Untold Story, a British-produced doc that juxtaposes reenactments of the real-life events surrounding the escape with interviews from actual escapees to tell the story and its aftermath, making no mention of the Sturges film. This is a wonderful inclusion, as it focuses on the true-life story of the prison break without making comparisons to the film, letting the audience instead see just what kinds of concessions the writers made, and just how many details they got right. As a supplement to the documentary, the disc also includes interviews that didn't make it into the final piece, but which further illuminate just how closely Sturges and company stuck to the original story.
Next up is The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones, a 20-minute interview featurette with David Jones, the man said to be the inspiration for the Steve McQueen character Virgil Hilts. Jones discusses his experiences both before and after the escape, and it is these sections of the piece that prove most interesting, as his discussion of the escape reveals very little that we don't hear in the disc's other features, and from the interview we don't learn much about how he actually influenced the Hilts character, other than that he was an American prisoner at Stalag Luft III. However, there is gold to be found here, especially as Jones recalls his experiences in the Dolittle raid on Tokyo prior to the escape, and history buffs will no doubt relish the opportunity to hear a firsthand account of the raid. As extras go, it feels a bit superfluous, but it's good history nonetheless.
Finally, we have the aforementioned Return to the Great Escape, a documentary produced for television in the early '90s and directed by film historian Steven Jay Rubin. This is the only real place on the disc in which the information tends to overlap with the other features. Nevertheless, it's an entertaining and enjoyable sit, and includes some good interview footage with most of the principles who were alive at the time of its production; including Garner, Coburn, Pleasance, and a number of crew members. By far the best facet of the doc is footage of the prison camp site as it stands today, and although there's not much left of Stalag Luft III, it's still fascinating to see where the camp once stood. For those of us not planning a trip to Poland in the near future, it's the next best thing to being there.
Rounding out Disc Two are an extensive photo gallery, the film's original theatrical trailer, and previews and recommendations of other MGM releases (and incidentally, the trailer included for the studio's new DVD of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly is probably the best-cut trailer, theatrical or DVD, that I've seen all year. Can't wait to check out the disc).
I love The Great Escape desperately, and as a fan, I'm tickled that MGM took the time to revisit it properly with a more-than-adequate SE release. The bountiful extras included here are both relevant and informative, and very rarely overlap in terms of the information relayed. The film and disc are so good that I have no problem recommending this as a blind purchase, or as an upgrade to the previously released edition.
Those responsible for bringing The Great Escape to trial are sentenced to 20 days in the cooler, while the film—an outright classic—and disc are acquitted on all counts. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director John Sturges, Cast & Crew
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