Appellate Judge Dave Ryan is twistin' your melon, man.
Our reviews of The Great Escape: Special Edition (published June 9th, 2004), The Great Escape (1963) (Blu-ray) (published May 20th, 2013), Junior Bonner (published May 25th, 2004), The Magnificent Seven (published June 15th, 2001), The Magnificent Seven (Blu-ray) (published September 8th, 2011), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) (published June 6th, 2005), The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) (published January 14th, 2000), and Thomas Crown Affair (1999) (Blu-ray) (published April 14th, 2010) are also available.
You get $10 off, and an attractive box.
For reasons best known only to them, MGM decided to mark the release of The Thomas Crown Affair by packaging three previously-released Steve McQueen DVDs with it to create The Steve McQueen Collection. Double-dipness notwithstanding, it's a very solid group of great films; one that showcases McQueen's talent quite well. If you don't have any of these films on DVD, this is a great opportunity to get them all at once at a slightly discounted price. And the box is pretty cool.
All four of these films are reviewed in depth elsewhere on this site; I refer you to those reviews for further details concerning extras and the technical details of the discs. (With one caveat, as will be discussed below.)
Terence Steven McQueen was born on March 24, 1930 in Indiana, at which point life began smacking him in the face. McQueen's father abandoned his mother before his birth; his mother was ill-equipped to raise the boy on her own and left him with relatives. She eventually took him back when she moved to California, but again she proved unable to effectively mother him. McQueen wound up being a Los Angeles street kid, hanging out with gangs. At 14, his mother voluntarily packed him off to a reform school in Chino, CA. At 16, he found himself in New York City, a hardened boy facing a hostile adult world. After drifting around for a few years, McQueen joined the Marine Corps in 1947. He had a mixed career in the Corps, and left after serving his term. Kicking around for a few more years, he eventually wound up dating an actress, who told him he should take up acting. Surprisingly, he did. He applied to, and was accepted into, Sanford Meisner's prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse. In 1955, he was one of only two actors (out of 2000 who auditioned) accepted into Lee Strasberg's Actor's Studio program. (The other? Martin Landau.) Soon afterwards, he was headlining a Broadway production, A Hatful of Rain.
After he played some small roles in a handful of films, McQueen's leading man career was born when he took the lead role in a low-budget sci-fi film called The Blob. Much to the producer and director's dismay, McQueen didn't seem to realize, or care, that these films were supposed to be done quickly, cheaply, and poorly. McQueen actually tried to develop his character, and acted the part as if he were doing Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon. He also laid the foundation for his "difficult to work with" reputation. The producers, who had signed him to a three-picture deal, let him out of the last two pictures just to get rid of him. McQueen instead turned to television, taking the lead role of Josh Randall in the western series Wanted: Dead or Alive. The show was successful, and McQueen's popularity began to grow.
A lead role in The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery led to McQueen's first appearance in a true blockbuster, when he was cast as one of the seven gunfighters under Yul Brynner in John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven (1960), the first disc in this set. The Magnificent Seven was, of course, a remake of Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, moved out of Japan and into Mexico. Like most of Sturges's work, it's a good film, but not a great film. It was a crucial role for McQueen, though. Here, for the first time, he was paired with several A-list and B+-list actors, such as Brynner, James Coburn, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, and Robert Vaughn. And out of all of them, he was the one you had to watch in the film. In The Magnificent Seven, McQueen clearly demonstrates that he's not just an actor, he's a star.
For fans, the film is also fun to watch just to witness the burning animosity between Brynner and McQueen. Brynner felt—absolutely correctly—that McQueen was trying to steal scenes from him. Whenever they are paired, McQueen will do some subtle thing—twirl a horse's rein, play with a button, or some such thing—to draw the viewer's eye away from Brynner. Brynner's contempt is thinly veiled. Even in "buddy"-type scenes, you half expect them to go at it right in front of you. It's all a great insight into McQueen's personality. He clearly wanted to be the center of attention in every scene—heck, anyone would. His gift was that he had the talent to make himself the center of attention, even when he wasn't supposed to be.
Needless to say, Brynner never worked with him again. But Sturges did, directing McQueen in The Great Escape (1963), Disc Two in the set. The escape isn't the only thing that's great—the movie is as well. It was a huge success; the biggest hit in Sturges's long and illustrious career, and the film that turned McQueen from an actor to an icon.
The film is roughly based on the true story of a massive breakout from a German prison camp in Poland during World War II. McQueen plays Capt. Virgil Hilts, the epitome of the image every American has of the Greatest Generation. He's tough, refuses to kow-tow to those Nazi bastards, and is fighting his own little war against Hitler from within the walls of the camp. It's completely unrealistic, of course—in real life, the escape was organized almost completely by downed R.A.F. pilots, with little American help—but it's a role tailor-made for McQueen. In fact, the role is McQueen, or at least a pretty fair facsimile of the image he consciously projected off the screen. Once again, McQueen shows that he can easily dominate a talented ensemble cast through sheer talent and magnetism. (Here, he's teamed with James Coburn and Charles Bronson again, with James Garner thrown in for good luck, and Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasance, and David McCallum added from the British side.)
For some fans, the film is all about that motorcycle jump; they view it as McQueen's ultimate badge of defiance. (Contrary to popular belief, that isn't McQueen making the jump himself—although he did do almost all of his own riding in the film.) Fair enough. But the film, as a whole, is much more than that. It's probably the best prison break movie ever made, a crisp and fun action thriller that is so well-paced it seems a lot shorter than its three-hour runtime.
Unfortunately, the disc included in this collection is not the far superior (and more recent) Special Edition disc, which is reviewed on this site. It's the older, original DVD version. Hence, you get the older transfer (which isn't all that bad, actually), and you don't get the second disc full of extras. Alas. The expense of picking up the Special Edition—and trust me, you will want to pick it up at some point—offsets the cost savings of this box set.
The Great Escape propelled McQueen into the celebrity stratosphere. He had his pick of films, and put in an eclectic series of performances (including an Academy Award-nominated turn in The Sand Pebbles) before making Disc Three of this collection, Norman Jewison's The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Thomas Crown was a radical departure for McQueen. For the first time, McQueen was playing completely and utterly against type—Thomas Crown is an educated, aristocratic Boston Brahmin, not a hardscrabble rebel survivor. Jewison initially didn't want to cast him, despite McQueen's interest in the script, thinking that audiences just wouldn't accept him in the role. But McQueen, who had previously worked with Jewison on The Cincinnati Kid and had struck up a friendship with him, talked him into it.
Thomas Crown isn't a great film. It's too stylish for its own good. McQueen, though, is amazing. There is very little story and character development in the script, but McQueen completely fleshes out the character through his ability to speak volumes without saying a word. It's all there—the piercing glances, the looks of resigned boredom, the trademark flashed smile. Paired with a suitable female foil in Faye Dunaway, McQueen shows he can be the King of Cool in any role. The Thomas Crown Affair was reasonably successful…but unfortunately for Jewison, it was McQueen's other 1968 film—Bullitt—that really captured the public's imagination. (Interestingly, both films were written by Boston attorney-turned-screenwriter Alan Trustman, who later penned They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! for Sidney Poitier.)
After Bullitt, McQueen did Faulkner (The Reivers) and race-car driving (Le Mans), and also turned down the Sundance role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (He refused to be ranked below Paul Newman in the credits, since he felt he was a better actor than Newman. When Newman and the studio didn't budge, he walked.) Somehow, he wound up in Disc Four, Junior Bonner (1972), Sam Peckinpah's elegiac meditation on both the rodeo and the slow death of the American West. McQueen plays the title character, a down-on-his-luck aging rodeo star who's living from bullride to bullride. For Peckinpah, the film was a stark departure from his blood-drenched action westerns. For McQueen, though, it was a return to his roots. Once again he was cast as the aloof, embittered drifter—a role he had been playing since he was 14. McQueen takes the character and infuses him with a lot of humanity, though, especially when we see him interacting with his real estate-hawking brother (Joe Don Baker) and his estranged parents (the marvelous Robert Preston and Ida Lupino). The toll that McQueen's pedal-to-the-metal lifestyle had taken on him is evident here as well—he looks even older than his 42 years.
Typically slow-paced (as most Peckinpah films are), Junior Bonner is more of a curiosity than a must-see. For fans of McQueen, though, it's well worth watching, if only to see the fantastic pairing of the stoic McQueen with the always-ebullient Preston. Shockingly, the two are absolutely believable as father and son; their relationship is the soul of the movie.
McQueen's next film was The Getaway, after which he wound up marrying his co-star, Ali McGraw. Following the serious Papillon and a lucrative turn in Irwin Allen's The Towering Inferno, McQueen functionally dropped out of the Hollywood scene and became a near-recluse. When he returned to the screen in 1978 (in An Enemy of the People), he was overweight, long-haired, and nearly unrecognizable after nearly three years of alcohol and drug abuse. But he could still act, as he proved in his swan songs Tom Horn and The Hunter.
What he didn't admit is that he had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a virulent form of lung cancer usually caused by exposure to asbestos. He moved himself to Mexico in order to undergo a cancer treatment based on laetrile, a controversial drug derived from the pits of apricots that was illegal in the United States. Unfortunately, his coolness couldn't stop the progression of the tumors, and—weakened, thin, and a shell of his former self—he died on November 7, 1980 after surgery. In the ultimate irony, it appears that McQueen, a highly skilled driver who never came close to a fatal accident despite his long history of racing, was probably killed by the asbestos-based fire suits worn by racers as protection against heat and flame.
Steve McQueen would have turned 75 this year had he lived. It's beyond doubt that there would have been many other classics added to the McQueen legacy in that time. Or maybe he would have been too cool for that. We'll never know. But while he was around, he was one of the best at what he did. These four films are good examples of what he accomplished in his 50 years, and give the viewer a sense of what might have been had he lived (or had he been a bit less prickly and arrogant). Despite being the consummate double dip, The Steve McQueen Collection is nonetheless a collection of memorable films. If you don't have any of these in your collection, this is as good a way to get them as any. In fact, it would be the best way—if only the Great Escape special edition were included.
My advice: pair this with Warner Brothers' The Essential Steve McQueen box set, and you've got yourself a comprehensive and thorough history of this great American film icon. You may not like McQueen, but he forces you to respect his talent. Any true cinema fan should at least give him the chance to do so.
[Editor's Note: The Judgment scores in the sidebar are not meant as a reflection of the merits of the film, but as an overall score for the box set, which for technical reasons cannot be displayed as a single overall score. For discussions of and scores for the individual films, please see the linked reviews.]
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Scales of Justice, The Magnificent Seven
Perp Profile, The Magnificent Seven
Distinguishing Marks, The Magnificent Seven
• Audio Commentary
Scales of Justice, The Great Escape
Perp Profile, The Great Escape
Distinguishing Marks, The Great Escape
Scales of Justice, The Thomas Crown Affair
Perp Profile, The Thomas Crown Affair
Distinguishing Marks, The Thomas Crown Affair
• Commentary by Director Norman Jewison
Scales of Justice, Junior Bonner
Perp Profile, Junior Bonner
Distinguishing Marks, Junior Bonner
• Audio Commentary by Peckinpah Experts Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle, Moderated by Nick Redman
• IMDb: The Magnificent Seven
Review content copyright © 2005 David Ryan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.