The solid and enjoyable The Great Escape is not quite ready for its prime-time Blu-ray release, with poor video and decent audio.
I have to admit that upon listing my favorite World War II films, The Great Escape did not immediately appear. This is probably due to a childhood that emphasized action war films that glorified America’s involvement, such as Midway and The Guns of Navarone. I’m not saying that these have now fallen off the list, but I can announce that 1963’s The Great Escape is good enough to join. It’s too bad that its arrival on Blu-ray is so disappointing.
As World War II rages on, a group of perennial escape-happy Allied POW’s is transported to a new super secure facility deep inside Germany. Its commander – Luftwaffe Colonel Von Luger (Hannes Messemer) – boasts to the British Captain Ramsey (James Donald) that the facility has been built to keep them from another escape. But Luger is not without compassion, as he tells Ramsey that his men will all be treated with respect and dignity, but to plan on sitting out the war in prison. Without hesitation, Ramsey confidently responds that it’s every officer’s duty to not only escape, but to harass the enemy as much as possible. With these lines drawn, a daring plan to escape is hatched by newcomer Roger Bartlett (Sir Richard Attenborough) on a scale never before imagined: he wants 250 men to experience freedom, complete with forged papers, disguises, and rations. Within a night, the entire camp is focused on the incredibly dangerous plan, which will take months to realize. But Bartlett will need lots of help from his fellow prisoners: there’s maps to make, disguises to manufacture, and tunnels to dig. Enter one of the deepest and most recognizable casts from that decade, including ‘The Tunnel King’ (Charles Bronson), ‘The Scrounger’ (James Garner), ‘The Forger’ (Donald Pleasance), and ‘The Manufacturer’ (James Coburn), as they lead a coordinated effort to dig their way to freedom. The problem is that the team doesn’t know what lies beyond the wooded forest just outside the prison’s fences, requiring them to trust the wild card Captain Hilts (Steve McQueen) aka ‘The Cooler King,’ whose constant confinement in solitary affords him a view of the forest.
As plans are made and tunnels are carved out of yard tools, the team begins to bond, creating unlikely friendships that will play out once the escape is hatched. When that happens, the film shifts from escape to pursuit, as the Germans run each group to ground. These are among the film’s most tense scenes, as an unexpected twist befalls a group of the recaptured officers. The film ends where it started, offering a stirring lesson to moviegoers that escapes are difficult and many times deadly.
Director John Sturgess and Editor Ferris Webster do a masterful job of presenting a complex and enthralling look at the extreme preparations one sometimes takes in mounting an escape. Believe me when I say that every detail is laid out here, and the film is surprisingly better for it. Sturgess exceeds at keeping the audience from straying too far into the weeds by mixing up preparations with funny interludes and powerful drama. As with today, there’s no doubt that the studio initially failed to appreciate his vision of dwelling on every minute detail, but he demonstrates such acumen in making them so clear to follow that we lose ourselves in the Allies’ masterful plan. When Lieutenant-Commander Pitt of the Royal Navy (David McCallum) devises an intricate method for moving tunnel dirt outside, we celebrate like we’re watching something Q and James Bond would have concocted. Give Sturgess a lot of credit for maintaining his vision throughout the process, which apparently was filled with other issues including the constant complaints from McQueen at his lack of screen time. In the end, The Great Escape doesn’t sugar-coat the dangers Allied POW’s faced, nor does it back down from presenting what must have been a gritty film for its age.
While I don’t profess to know everything about the path which The Great Escape has taken to Blu-ray, it’s very clear that the crew responsible have produced one of the worst transfers of a library release I’ve seen. The main problem is clarity, which is downright murky in parts, thanks to an improper clean up by whatever hack team at MGM thought that ‘pristine restoration’ meant using inferior source material. The culprit is centered around a suspect print (or perhaps a series of them) used to bring its 1080p MPEG/AVC transfer to the home market. Colors are washed out and not at all realistic, settling in on too much green in the background sets which mixes in the faces. Closeups, detail on clothing and those sets look decent when the average print is used, and downright foggy when the poor ones are dragged out. Softness pokes up its ugly head, particularly in nighttime outdoor scenes, taking away any grain that might have been present. Darkness creeps in all over the place, obscuring shadows and any sense of depth. If you’re a total fan of the movie, you might be willing to overlook these issues, as it’s probably the best release available. There’s also no compression, edge enhancement, or banding, proving that the foul up isn’t total. if you expect more from library films, then MGM won’t look too good here, reminding us why master prints are always the desired mode of choice for dust-offs.
The Great Escape offers a decent DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that’s also all over the place. This time, it’s the lack of balance between voices, music, and sound effects which ruin the experience. Dialogue, which is so central to a story of this nature, gets lost anytime Elmer Bernstein’s score makes an appearance. In fact, the music track is so loudly mixed here that one must play The Remote Game to keep your ears intact. It’s not a blaring effect, but simply too loud as compared to everything else. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that the film was originally created without the presence of any effects in the rear speakers, thus forcing MGM to feel pressured to make the soundtrack appear here as well. Luckily, separation and phasing in the front speakers sounds normal, with no stereophonic delay. The LFE comes out to play often here, particularly near film’s end as McQueen attempts an escape on a motorcycle. There’s no evidence of popping or hissing, leading me to believe that at least one thing wasn’t screwed up totally by MGM.
Sadly, The Great Escape is without a main menu, making initial navigation impossible. During playback, there is a simple menu to gain access to the plethora of features ported over from the DVD. From what I can tell, the disc is missing the photo gallery and trivia track. Almost all of the supplements here are presented in SD:
- Commentary with Director John Sturges, Cast and Crew: More like a series of interviews than a commentary, we learn about the film from the actors and crew. It makes for a choppy presentation, but we do gain some insights into production.
- The Great Escape: Bringing Fact to Fiction (12:21): This feature is narrated by Burt Reynolds, and discusses the differences between the film and the real history of the break out.
- The Great Escape: Preparations for Freedom (19:50): Also produced by The History Channel in 2001, this featurette details the real escape efforts by the prisoners at Stalag Luft III, which became the inspiration for the film. There’s some interesting insights here which will surprise audiences who thought that Americans were also involved in the exodus.
- The Great Escape: The Flight to Freedom (9:22): The third in the 2001 History Channel features, this one focuses on the pursuit by the Germans after the escape.
- The Great Escape: A Standing Ovation (5:58): The last of the History Channel specials focuses on the film’s reception by the POWs and moviegoers.
- The Great Escape: The Untold Story (50:47): Another 2001 documentary – this time by a British television station – uses re-enactments and interviews to explain how members of the Gestapo involved in the slaughter of 50 of the prisoners were hunted down for their acts.
- The Great Escape: The Untold Story—Additional Interviews ( 9:35): Nothing much here, except for what the title states.
- The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones (25:01): The story of American Army pilot David Jones – who became the inspiration for McQueen’s character – is featured. Through interviews with Jones, this 2001 documentary discusses his experiences at Stalag Luft III, as well as the path he takes after the War.
- Return to The Great Escape (24:09): This is a 1993 Showtime retrospective featuring James Coburn, James Garner, Donald Pleasance, and others who were involved in the making of the movie.
- Original Theatrical Trailer (2:42): This is the only item presented in HD.
Our evaluation copy is the same that’s available in the store – it has no slipcase or interior artwork.
While a great movie about the tenacity of Allied POW’s, the Blu-ray release of The Great Escape is a mixed bag to be sure. An uneven audio track, coupled with the worst video transfer of the year, doesn’t make up for the deep collection of supplements that were ported over from the DVD. If you own it in that format, you might want to wait for MGM to one day properly restore it. At its current price point ($9.99 at the time of this review), it’s borderline on whether I can recommend it for first-time purchase.