The Great Escape Blu-ray features mediocre video and solid audio in this excellent Blu-ray release
In 1943, the Germans opened Stalag Luft North, a maximum-security prisoner-of-war camp, designed to hold even the craftiest escape artists. In doing so, however, the Nazis unwittingly assembled the finest escape team in military history who worked on what became the largest prison breakout ever attempted. Based on a true story.
For more about The Great Escape and the The Great Escape Blu-ray release, see the The Great Escape Blu-ray Review published by Michael Reuben on May 1, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Author's Note: The Video section of this review was updated and expanded on May 14, 2013, to
incorporate numerous developments and discussions since the review was first published.
Among its many notable qualities, The Great Escape may be the greatest war film ever made
without a single battle. The Bridge on the River
Kwai can boast at least one major explosion, but
The Great Escape doesn't even have much in the way of gunfire. Yet somehow the sense of
conflict—of lines drawn, weapons ready and the enemy engaged—infuses every frame of the
film, from the opening sequence of Allied POWs arriving at a high-security camp to a final scene
that I'll leave unspecified except to say that a baseball is involved. The film has been watched
and rewatched, studied, analyzed, written about and taught for fifty years now, and it's still hard
to explain why it continues to hold viewers so firmly in its grasp, despite an extended running
time and lengthy scenes in which, from an objective point of view, not much seems to be
The detailed extras on this Blu-ray (nearly all of which have appeared previously) provide
multiple perspectives and support hours of consideration by viewers of all backgrounds. But one
point emerges from these materials that would be hard to dispute: While The Great Escape may
be based on actual events, the film bears the unmistakable stamp of producer-director John Sturges,
whose singular determination to bring this story to the screen brooked no obstacles.
It was Sturges who overcame the reluctance of author Paul Brickhill, himself a survivor of the
Nazi POW camp designated as Stalag Luft III, to allow his non-fiction account to be transformed
into a screenplay. It was Sturges who persuaded United Artists and the Mirisch Company to put
up $4 million (a modest amount for a film of this scale, even in 1963), when all of the major
studios had already passed. It was Sturges who assembled the peerless ensemble cast for which
the film is rightly remembered, steered them through a lengthy shoot without a finished script,
and bucked up their spirits when many of them became convinced they were making a flop. And
it was Sturges who successfully wrangled the film's temperamental "star" Steve McQueen—who
wasn't really its star, but had to be made to feel like he was—thereby preserving McQueen's
iconic flight on a motorcycle as the film's defining image.
Sturges didn't win awards for The Great Escape, but he didn't make it for that purpose. His real
satisfaction came, as he made clear in remarks recorded in 1974 and reproduced on the
commentary track, when men who were there at Stalag Luft III and participated in the events
depicted in the film told him he'd done a good job capturing the spirit of their story
After a panoramic opening in which a fleet of trucks deposit their human cargo at the newly
opened POW camp—reconstructed by the production crew in the Bavarian woods so accurately
that the set gave nightmares to technical advisor Wally Floody, a former inmate at Stalag Luft
III—the essential plot is outlined in a tense, formal meeting between the two commanding
officers, German Luftwaffe Colonel Von Luger (Hannes Messemer) and British Group Captain
Ramsey (James Donald). Von Luger explains that the Nazis are tired of expending resources
chasing after escaped Allied prisoners. They have gathered all of the "bad eggs" in one maximum
security "basket". Since all of the prisoners in the camp are officers, they will be treated with
dignity and afforded appropriate privileges, but they should resign themselves to sitting out the
Captain Ramsey responds that it is the duty of every officer to attempt escape, to force the enemy
to consume maximum resources to contain him, and generally to harass the enemy to the fullest
extent possible. The battle lines have been drawn.
Detailed planning begins with the arrival of Squadron Leader Bartlett (a youthful Richard
Attenborough), after harsh interrogation by the Gestapo and SS. Warned that he'll be shot if he
attempts another escape, Bartlett immediately commences an ambitious undertaking on a scale
never before conceived: a mass exodus of 250 men involving three tunnels (code-named "Tom",
"Dick" and "Harry"), disguises, forged papers, maps and compasses. The entire camp is
transformed into a surreptitious escape factory under a carefully maintained cover of normalcy.
One can imagine how studio executives balked at Sturges' notion of dwelling at length on the
minutia of escape preparations, but then as now the results are enthralling. No director has
surpassed (and few have equaled) Sturges' ability to present complex logistics with such
apparently effortless clarity. Distances are surveyed and measured; tools are created from stolen
parts; ground is broken (the sounds disguised by various ingenious methods); tunnel entrances
are concealed; digging, tailoring and document forging continue 'round the clock. A highlight is
the development of a simple but ingenious system by Eric Ashley-Pitt of the Royal Navy (David
McCallum) for dispersing the copious quantities of dirt removed from the three tunnels.
A major reason these scenes work is that they aren't just about mechanics. They're also about the
relationships forged among men working toward a common purpose. An obvious example is the
close coordination between the two principal diggers, a/k/a "the Tunnel Kings", Flight Lieutenant
Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson), a native Pole who escaped to England, and Willie Dickes
(John Leyton). But perhaps the most unlikely friendship is that between Flight Lieutenant Robert
Hendley (James Garner), an American in the RAF dubbed "the Scrounger", and an interpreter of
aerial photographs named Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasance), who made the mistake of tagging
along on a routine flight just for the experience. Shot down over Europe and captured by the
enemy, Blythe now works as the team's document forger. He and Hendley bond over trivia such
as Hendley's ability to secure milk for Blythe's tea and weightier matters such as the urgent need
to secure exemplars of critical German papers for Blythe to forge. When Blythe encounters
difficulties during the escape, there is never any doubt that Hendley will risk his own life to assist
his friend and partner.
Hendley is not the only American in the camp. (In real life, all Americans were transferred out of
Stalag Luft III several months before the escape.) An American flyer, Captain Virgil Hilts
(McQueen), is sent to solitary confinement in "the cooler" on his first day for testing out a blind
spot in the barbed wire perimeter. A defiant Scot, Archibald Ives of the RAF (Angus Lennie), is
sent there with him. It's the first of many stretches in the cooler for Hilts, who is defiance
incarnate. Every time he heads back to the cooler, another American, Goff (Jud Taylor), throws
him a baseball and glove to help pass the time.
McQueen is off-screen for much of The Great Escape (a point that did not sit well with the
insecure star), but the defiant tone he so effectively strikes in his early appearance reverberates
throughout the film and is reinforced every time Hilts emerges from the cooler newly
emboldened to attempt another escape. Initially wary of Squadron Leader Bartlett's effort to
coordinate a massive flight, Hilts ultimately agrees to play a key role in order to settle a personal
score against the camp authorities. When the escape finally occurs, it's appropriately Hilts who
leads the German army on the grandest and most spectacular of all the chases. (In reality, no
escapee rode a motorcycle. It was McQueen's idea, and he happened to be good at it.)
The final act of The Great Escape is a directorial juggling act, as the fugitives scatter in all
directions, fleeing their pursuers by truck, train, boat, bicycle and on foot. The film's sole Oscar
nomination was for Ferris Webster's crisp editing, but here, too, much credit belongs to Sturges,
who began his career in Hollywood as an editor. Sturges understood how to shoot these
sequences to maintain the sense of men pursuing a common purpose, even as they become
separated by distance. He also managed the tricky balance of retaining a sense of hope while not
downplaying the truth of what the escapees' efforts cost them. There were many casualties of The
Great Escape, and the film is dedicated to their memory.
Author's Note: This Video section was updated and expanded on May 14, 2013.
It's rare to revisit a review, but discussion of The Great Escape Blu-ray has been sufficiently
lively and eventful that the original write-up already feels "dated" (although my video score
Within hours after this review was posted, I was contacted by Torsten Kaiser, whose 2011
interview on this site I had quoted. Mr. Kaiser expressly stipulated that his message was
"private" and "not for publication". I replied to him on that basis. No one was more surprised
than I to find portions of our exchange reproduced, without
the Blu-ray.com forum.
Mr. Kaiser has objected to the use of his interview without his permission, citing his "20 years"
in journalism. In my 40 years of scholarship, journalism and law practice, I have never
encountered any such limitation on the quotation of previously published materials. If Mr.
Kaiser doesn't want to be quoted, he should not give interviews for publication.
Mr. Kaiser's repeated denials that he saw the Blu-ray being reviewed here are mystifying, because
I never claimed otherwise. The Blu-ray review is mine and mine alone. To avoid any possibility
of confusion in that regard, however, I have removed all of Mr. Kaiser's quotes in this Take 2.
A more germane issue is the review and favorable video rating recently published by Robert
Harris. Some people seem to think that Mr. Harris and I have reached opposite conclusions on
The Great Escape Blu-ray, which Robert and I both find unfortunate. Very few readers seem to
have noticed that both of our reviews recommend a purchase.
Robert Harris and I have been friends since we worked together at the site where I formerly
posted reviews, and we've remained in contact since I joined the staff at Blu-ray.com. We've
been chatting about The Great Escape, and it's been a delightful and educational experience, as
communicating with Robert always is. As he writes in his review: "There are multiple ways of
considering this Blu-ray. None are incorrect." I know Robert Harris' methodology; he avoids
reading press releases, reviews and any other material that might influence his evaluation. For
reasons he explains in his write-up, he decided that the new Blu-ray is a more than adequate
representation of a film that any film lover should see. I don't disagree, but I had read the press
release promising a "restoration", and I decided—over the course of two days of writing the rest
of the review—to hold MGM to that standard.
Wherever one comes out on the quality of this Blu-ray, no informed source outside MGM has
claimed that it's the result of a true restoration performed with state-of-the-art technology. No
one credibly could. As Robert Harris said in a subsequent posting: "It does not look like film, and
certainly has no appearance of a newly produced 4k restoration" (my emphasis). MGM has not
retreated from its position that the Blu-ray is the result of a new 4k scan, but the real question is
what they were scanning. If MGM is going to publicize a Blu-ray with claims of a restoration,
then no one should be surprised when they are criticized for failing to deliver a Blu-ray that
reflects a fully restored film according to the high standards that have been set by true
restorations such as Funny Girl, The Godfather Trilogy or How the West Was Won.
(Reports indicate that restoration work was performed on The Great Escape in 2004 under the
supervision of personnel who have now departed, but that was before Blu-ray—indeed, before
the format war. Both technology and standards have made enormous strides since then.)
Sharpness and detail on the Blu-ray of The Great Escape vary from good to merely acceptable.
While some of the softness is attributable to optical effects and diffusion (as many posters have
been quick to point out), much of it appears to be due to an image harvest from dupes several
generations removed from the original camera negative (OCN), which, by all reports still exists
for all or most of the film. A true "restoration" involves scanning and digital clean-up of the
Colors are frequently bland and washed out either by fading or by overstated contrast or color
values that aren't quite right (too much blue, too little green, etc.). There are also occasional
variations in density that register as a kind of "flickering" or instability that ripples through the
Of greatest concern, however, is the lack of (to my eye) natural-looking grain. This is often a
point of contention in the latest Blu-ray iterations of classic films. De-graining software has
become more sophisticated in the years since the Patton fiasco, so that the process no longer
converts characters into wax dummies. Even more problematic, in my opinion, is the ability to
add back grain digitally, which can be a useful tool in "massaging" together footage culled from
disparate sources, but can also be misused to add fake grain that compresses more easily and
attempts to create the illusion of film in the same manner that artificial sharpening attempts to
restore the illusion of lost detail. Many viewers find this artificial grain acceptable. I call it
"noise", and it recurs through the Blu-ray of The Great Escape.
In my initial presentation, I noted the disc's low average bitrate of 18.19 Mbps and argued that
the de-graining was done to facilitate compression and accommodate multiple language tracks
and approximately 8 Gb of extras on a single disc. I still consider that a strong possibility, but an
alternate explanation is that the source for MGM's Blu-ray is so "dupey" and so far removed
from the OCN that the grain structure is too faint and the resolution too compromised to show
clearly—hence the need to add "digital" grain to the Blu-ray image. But if that is the case, one
has to question why MGM is touting a new 4k scan. If the source is so thoroughly compromised,
is there even 4k worth of data to harvest?
Although it is impossible to be certain without access to the source material, I still contend that
the better practice would have been for MGM/Fox to have provided the extras on a separate
DVD and devoted the entire BD-50 to the task of reproducing their source elements, whatever
they may be, at the highest possible bitrate. And they never should have called this a
Now, does that mean the Blu-ray is worthless? Of course not. If I thought that were the case, I
would have recommended against purchase, as I have in the past. The Blu-ray is certainly
watchable, as many people have reported, and some films are so indisputably great that they
don't need "eye candy" to be absorbing. The Great Escape is a perfectly serviceable Blu-ray at an
astonishingly low price. Had it been offered as a quicky catalog release, my grading scale would
have been much different. But if MGM/Fox wants to be judged by the standards of a
"restoration", that's their choice—and their risk.
People who are in a position to do so are continuing to pursue inquiries about The Great Escape
Blu-ray and how it was produced. Whether they will be able to obtain definitive information,
and, if so, whether they will be able to share it publicly, are matters on which I would not
presume to speculate. In the meantime, individual viewers should continue to make their own
purchasing decisions, and I hope those who watch the Blu-ray will continue reporting their
According to IMDb, The Great Escape was initially released to theaters in both mono and four-track stereo. Previous iterations on DVD have
run the gamut. MGM's initial release in 1998
offered a stereo track in Dolby Digital. Its more elaborate "collector's edition" six years later
offered a choice between 5.1 and mono tracks, also in Dolby Digital. The Blu-ray offers a single
option in English of lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 (along with numerous tracks dubbed in other
languages). The mix for this track is presumably the same as that offered on the 2004 DVD and
is probably based on the four-track stereo source.
From the opening bars of Elmer Bernstein's memorable score, the Blu-ray's track reveals very
good dynamic range for a recording of this vintage, with excellent bass extension that supplies
genuine punch to the martial beat of the bass drums. The dialogue with its variety of accents and
intonations is distinct and crisp, and the sense of stereo separation is often helpful when multiple
characters are arrayed across the screen. Signature effects like the roar of Hilts's motorcycle or
the bounce of his baseball register with the necessary impact, and the sounds of camp life—both
legitimate and clandestine—punctuate the action as necessary. While it would be a stretch to
claim that the track creates a surround field comparable to what one might expect from a
contemporary mix, the sound editing is sufficiently detailed and the reproduction of sufficient
quality to more than make up for the lack of rear channel activity.
As is its custom, Fox (which handles the Blu-ray mastering for MGM) has failed to provide a
main menu and programmed the disc with BD-Java without including the bookmark function, so
that it is impossible to mark your place when you stop play. There is no excuse for Fox to
continue implementing this user-unfriendly design, which it never uses on its own discs, but only
on MGM's. As is my custom, I have downgraded the score for extras on any title featuring this
The extras have been ported over from MGM's 2004 two-disc "collector's edition" DVD set.
The only omissions are the "trivia track" and a photo gallery.
Commentary with Director John Sturges, Cast and Crew: This isn't so much a
commentary as a series of interviews edited together. The interviews were done by Steven
Jay Rubin, director and co-writer of the documentary, "Return to The Great Escape" (also
included and listed below), who serves as a sort of moderator. Rubin also provides
additional commentary, derived from his book Combat Films: American Realism, 1945-1970. The following is a list of the commentary
John Sturges, director (interviewed in 1974)
Robert Relyea, former assistant to Sturges
Bud Ekins, motorcycle stuntman
Fernando Carrere, art director
Hilly Elkins, former manager for Steve McQueen
The Great Escape: Bringing Fact to Fiction (480i; 1.33:1; 12:21): One of a group of
short documentaries produced for MGM in 2001 by The History Channel and narrated by
Burt Reynolds, this featurette focuses on the differences between the real history and the
film and also on the contributions of technical advisor Wally Floody.
The Great Escape: Preparations for Freedom (480i; 1.33:1; 19:50): This 2001 History
Channel featurette details the real escape efforts by the prisoners at Stalag Luft III, which
were accurately depicted in the film, and also addresses the decision by the filmmakers to
include Americans among the escapees, despite the fact that all of the American officers
had been transferred from the camp.
The Great Escape: The Flight to Freedom (480i; 1.33:1; 9:22): This 2001 History
Channel featurette compares the film's account of the escapees flight after their exit from
the tunnel with the less sensational (but no less dramatic) experiences of the real
The Great Escape: A Standing Ovation (480i; 1.33:1; 5:58): This 2001 History Channel
featurette focuses on the film's reception, especially by former POWs.
The Great Escape: The Untold Story (480i; 1.78:1, enhanced; 50:47): This is a 2001
documentary made for British TV. Using interviews and re-enactments, it chronicles the
successful Allied effort, after the war's end, to identify and prosecute members of the
Gestapo responsible for casualties among the escaped prisoners.
The Great Escape: The Untold Story—Additional Interviews (480i; 1.78:1, enhanced;
The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones (480i; 1.33:1; 25:01): A portrait of
American Army pilot David Jones, who served as the inspiration for Steve McQueen's
character, told through interviews with Jones in 2001 , historical photos and excerpts
from The Great Escape. Among his other exploits, Jones was one of the pilots chosen for
the Doolittle Raid that constituted the immediate U.S. response to Pearl Harbor. He was
later shot down and spent time at Stalag Luft III. After the war, he served as a pilot for
NATO and as a test pilot for advanced bombers. He also worked with NASA.
Return to The Great Escape (480i; 1.33:1; 24:09): This 1993 Showtime documentary
directed by Steven Jay Rubin features retrospective interviews with Garner, Pleasance
and Coburn, among others, and provides an effective overview of the making of the film.
Original Theatrical Trailer (1080p; 2.35:1, enhanced; 2:42): Anyone who thinks that
giving away important plot points in a trailer is a recent phenomenon should find this one
Given the video issues, prospective purchasers might be tempted to wait in the hope of a future
restored edition. I think that would be a mistake. Nothing in MGM's recent history suggests that
it is in any position to underwrite the cost of a restoration at the negative level, which would be a
major expense. Barring such an overhaul, any subsequent edition would offer only marginal
improvement over the current Blu-ray. Warts and all, this is about the best presentation we're
likely to see of The Great Escape for the foreseeable future, and it remains one of the greatest
war films of all time. With appropriate caveats, I recommend adding this disc to your library,
especially if, like many viewers, you don't already own it on DVD.
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