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The Great Escape(1963)
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.
Starring: Steve McQueen (I), James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence
Director: John Sturges
» See full cast & crew
The Great Escape Blu-ray Review
The Grandeur of Defiance
Reviewed by Michael Reuben, May 1, 2013
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 happening. 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 war. 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.
The Great Escape Blu-ray, Video Quality
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 remains unchanged). 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 notice, in 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 OCN. 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 entire image. 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 "restoration". 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 impressions.
The Great Escape Blu-ray, Audio Quality
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.
The Great Escape Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
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 poor arrangement. 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.
The Great Escape Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
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.
The Great Escape: Other Editions
Blu-ray bundles with The Great Escape (1 bundle)
The Great Escape Blu-ray, News and Updates
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• The Great Escape Blu-ray - March 25, 2013
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment have officially announced and detailed their upcoming Blu-ray release of John Sturges's The Great Escape (1963), starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough. Using an all-new ...
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