"It is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they can't, it is their sworn duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them. And their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability."
1943. A convoy driving somewhere in the German country. Exact location unknown. They arrive at the brand new Stalag Luft III Prisoner of War camp, which has been designed with a very specific purpose. Frustrated with resources wasted on tracking and recapturing escapees, the Nazis decide to build the ultimate prison.
A place from which there is no escape.
Except, in creating a camp for the worst offenders, the Nazis brought together the most experienced group of escape artists the war had ever seen. Mostly officers from England -- with a few Americans, Scots, and Australians for good measure -- they have dozens, maybe hundreds, of combined escape attempts.
Enter Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) with a plan for the largest single escape in the history of war. He wants to take 200 men out three different tunnels in one night. Sounds impossible, but even if some (or most) of the men are recaptured, they'll at least succeed in their duty to harass the enemy. They'll need diggers and engineers and forgers and tailors for countless mundane chores and details to line up perfectly. All while keeping the conspiracy a secret.
So who does Bartlett recruit? Here's a few of the main characters. Hendley (James Garner) is an American who is really great at securing hard-to-fine things like German identification papers. Blythe (Donald Pleasance) is the forger. Danny (Charles Bronson) is an expert tunnel digger. And Hilts (Steve McQueen), is a loner American who has escaped the most out of any man there. Hilts, like most of these men, adores driving the prison guards crazy and doesn't mind weeks (or months) in "the cooler" (solitary confinement) as punishment.
There are more, of course, but you probably get the idea. A couple hundred men must figure out the way to dig not one, but three tunnels to freedom. Tons of Earth must be clandestinely moved to the surface despite the camp's top soil being a completely different color than the tunnel material. They must find a way to light and provide air to the tunnel. They must have civilian (or Nazi) clothing and identification papers and train tickets for travel. They must find out exactly where they are in Germany, and how close they are to the nearest town and train station. Hundreds of heroes large and small. Hundreds of obstacles. A giant operation all leading up to the escape itself...
And that's only the first couple hours. What follows is an extended, thrilling sequence of adventures and escapes and captures and humbling tragedy.
In terms of "criticism", I'm not really sure where to begin after fifty years. Many smart folks have already said a lot of smart things. So I'll just tell you how I feel. To me, 'The Great Escape' is a classic highlighted by an all-star cast and Elmer Bernstein's iconic music score. Seriously, Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, James Coburn -- and those are just the big names from the era. This movie's kinda like the 'Harry Potter' franchise in that it's a who's-who of fantastic British faces you definitely recognize regardless of whether or not you known the actors' names.
Given its popularity over the years, even if you haven't "seen" 'The Great Escape', you'd probably recognize the film's imagery thanks to the countless parodies from 'The Simpsons' Season 4 episode, "A Street Car Named Marge", to 'Chicken Run'.
Producer/Director James Sturges ('The Magnificent Seven'), teamed with screenwriters James Clavell ('Shogun) & W.R. Burnett ('Little Cesar'), deftly balances various tones and dramatic elements, making the nearly three-hour film play much quicker. One minute it feels like a caper comedy, with McQueen the King of Cool leading defiant rabble rousers against Nazi scum. The next there's the constant gee-whiz audacity of it all -- incredibly clever men making the best of the scavenged materials. Follow those with moments of wonderful triumph, like making moonshine to celebrate American Independence Day, juxtaposed with rising tension as Nazis threaten to uncover it all and dash the men's hopes and dreams... To escape... To get back to fighting... To make it home.
In revisiting 'The Great Escape' for this review, I analyzed these tones and moments against my emotional response. Essentially, I wanted to know if there were too many tones, or if the overall feeling was too plucky and bright and funny for the film's darker third act. But as I write this, transcribing feelings into the written world, I realized two things. First, given the movie's running time, if it were painted in too few tones, with too little variation, the overall experience could have been listless and drab. Second, and more importantly, the best way to emote with the second half and feel the tragic moments to be completely uplifted during the first half. To feel as though there's no way these men can fail. We're having so much fun, in fact, that any little problem threatens to tear it all down.
Equal parts iconic and bold and funny and suspenseful, 'The Great Escape' is astonishing in many ways and worth revisiting over and over. Given how the real events played out, I doubt studios would green light such a picture today. But in the end, and despite the darkness, I think the ultimate, and powerful message appears as the film concludes with the imagery mirroring its opening moments. Though many died, the prisoners -- the allied forces if you will -- are resolved to fight on in honor of those who did not make it, and alongside those who did.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Presented by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, the 50th Anniversary Edition of 'The Great Escape' arrives on a single 50GB dual-layer Blu-Ray Disc housed in a standard case. There are no forced trailers and no main menu. Oddly enough, if you let the movie play through the credits, it'll just start over. This disc is Region A locked.
While it's certainly a clear upgrade over the DVD in terms of overall resolution, 'The Great Escape' makes a disappointing debut on Blu-ray.
We've been spoiled in the last few years with titles like and 'Lawrence of Arabia' and 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Citizen Kane' and 'North by Northwest'. And even when the initial release of a title like 'Patton' is imperfect, the studio later remastered the Blu-ray. Or take a look at the 'Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection'; many of those films are far from perfect (we're talking PQ, of course), but they look pretty damn good and offer significant improvements over their DVD forefathers.
I guess you could say, for iconic and classic titles, my expectations are set a little high (perhaps too high). Truth is, 'The Great Escape' is a fantastic film, one I revisit every year or two, but this release, framed in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with an AVC-MPEG4 encode, isn't any better than the HD version playing on Turner Classic Movies.
Sure, it easily bests the DVD. Colors -- especially reds and greens -- are vibrant and titles no longer bleed. The overall resolution is, as one would expect, much improved; faces and set textures in wider shots are much clearer. The source material is extremely clean too; I didn't see any scratches, dust, or blemishes other than a few hairs on the frame's lower edge (less than five).
So what's the big problem? The movie feels flat and soft. Process shots (dissolves, etc.) suffer most. Again, for a fifty year old film, this isn't a huge surprise, except I've seen other studios salvage projects of a similar vintage in worse condition ('The Bridge on the River Kwai') end up with better results. From what I've read online, it appears as though this is the 2004 DVD Master, which was done in "HD". Thankfully, grain remains intact and Edge Enhancement is minimal (I saw some ringing in distant trees, but nothing in faces and other textures). There is some minor banding as well, but like many of the flaws outside of the overall softness, this problem only appears a couple times.
'The Great Escape' improves clarity and color over the DVD, but suffers from an overall appearance that is, at best, average and, at times, troubling. We've seen better work for similar era movies and I implore the studios involved to do better when we know they can.
While the video could be (a lot) better, 'The Great Escape' sounds pretty darn good thanks to a dynamic 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack.
Though purists will miss the original Mono soundtrack available on previous DVDs, this Blu-ray features the same 5.1 mix from the 2004 DVD expanded via the losses audio codec. This movie can't possibly, and isn't trying to, compete with modern mixes, but there's still a lot to appreciate from the very beginning. Elmer Bernstein's classic music takes full advantage of the HD format, with crisps highs and thumping lows. The whole mix feels fuller than the lossy 5.1 mix on the DVD. Dialog and sound effects are precise and clear. Outside of music, rear channel usage and stereo pans are pretty minimal, but there were a few, enjoyable surprises. LFE is non-existant.
'The Great Escape' sounds much better than it looks.
Twentieth Century Home Entertainment has ported over most, if not all, of the Bonus Material from the 2004 Two-Disc Special Edition DVD Collector's Set, which remains a nice collection of Documentaries, Featurettes, Audio Commentary, and the Original Theatrical Trailer.
As an iconic suspense thriller, 'The Great Escape' is always a delight. The all-star cast and the filmmakers effortlessly bounce between taught drama, wise-ass comedy, and heart-breaking tragedy. Despite its length, this is one of those pictures that sucks you in and never lets go. As a Blu-ray Disc, true fans will be excited to finally own this classic in high definition, but the HD transfer is often soft and flat. The obvious upgrade on the disc is the DTS-HD MA soundtrack, though purists will malign the missing Mono audio presentation. For Special Features fans, everything from the 2004 two-disc DVD Collector's Set appears to be on this Blu-ray, which is great. However, other than the HD theatrical trailer, the bonus material is all in standard definition. Given that the upgrade from the DVD to Blu-ray is sometimes minimal, I would recommend this Blu-ray to fans who consider this a Must Own title. For everyone else, including those who have never seen the movie, give it a rent or pick it up at the right price (Amazon is currently selling this for $9.99).