I must have at least 7 home video releases of John Sturges’ classic starting from VHS, but they’ve come up with a good reason for me to return: a 4K transfer with color and contrast grading that to me better represents the movie. The thrilling, not-too-violent escapades of Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, David McCallum, James Coburn, Charles Bronson & James Donald are no longer timed so that everything looks like a washed-out high noon: both the 4th of July and much of the mad-dash escape scramble are meant to take place near the crack of dawn. In this case ‘Much darker’ is much richer; faces don’t get blown out. And I do see more detail in the enhanced image. So here we go again, happily.
The Great Escape 4K
4K Ultra HD
KL Studio Classics
1963 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 172 min. / Street Date January 11, 2022 / available through Kino Lorber / 39.95
Starring: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, Hannes Messemer, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, Angus Lennie, Nigel Stock, Robert Graf, Karl-Otto Alberty, George Mikell, Til Kiwe.
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Art Director: Fernando Carrere
Assistant directors: John Flynn, Robert E. Relyea
Stunts: Bud Ekins, Chuck Hayward, Loren James, Carey Loftin, Roy N. Sickner
Hair Dresser for McQueen and Garner: Jay Sebring
Second Unit Director: Robert E. Relyea
Assistant Director: John Flynn
Film Editor: Ferris Webster
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Written by James Clavell, W.R. Burnett from the book by Paul Brickhill
Produced and Directed by John Sturges
The Great Escape in 4K? Who would argue with that? CineSavant reviewed a Criterion Blu-ray of this undying favorite fewer than two years ago, so I’m taking advantage of holiday season laxity to only revise that review, not rewrite it — until we get to the 4K evaluation section. This United Artists crowd pleaser was showing serious fading issues thirty years ago, so what kind of shape must it be in now? We’ve seen HD color re-timings by MGM and by Criterion — how does Kino Lorber’s 4K remaster fare?
The Great Escape has reigned as standout entertainment for almost sixty years. No kid could walk away from a dizzying matinee, Elmer Bernstein’s music still buzzing in his head, without absorbing two prime facts:
1 ) Even if our fathers looked more like Donald Pleasance than James Garner, anything they did in the war effort instantly became a source of intense pride. And
2), Steve McQueen had to be the coolest guy on the planet, bar none.
The exciting movie sent many of us kids straight to the paperback racks to read Paul Brickhill’s original book. When they later sold posters for college dorm rooms, the ones we most often tacked to the wall were of McQueen and Raquel Welch.
If The Great Escape were made today it would be shoo-in for Best Picture, but in 1963 Academy nominations were for prestige releases and this was considered a mere action movie by a mere action director. John Sturges wasn’t the type to be profiled in documentaries or even to give interviews; there was probably not much of an Oscar campaign for the show. Its one measly nomination was for Ferris Webster’s editing.
Still considered more of a ‘Top Of The Pops’ attraction than great cinema, The Great Escape stands well above most post- The Guns of Navarone escapist war movies. It stretches the details a bit yet maintains a basic fidelity to wartime history. Veterans have since had to put up with terrible ‘true accounts’ claiming to honor their sacrifice, like Battle of the Bulge. I’m personally glad my father didn’t live to see Pearl Harbor. United Artists showed the finished copy of Escape to an audience of real ex-POW’s in England, and they loved it. The movie presents them as the most dashing, daring heroes of the 20th century.
Held captive as prisoners of war, a charismatic group of Allied fliers welcomes the opportunity to behave as patriotic juvenile delinquents. The German Luftwaffe moves their most troublesome prisoners into one camp, including Squadron Leader Bartlett, known as ‘Big X’ (Richard Attenborough). He organizes the digging of three tunnels, while Capt. Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) persists in abortive one- and two- man breakouts, earning himself the name ‘The Cooler King.’ Bob Anthony Hendley (James Garner) steals needed items and blackmails guards to obtain others. The meek Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasance) is a master forger.
Bartlett’s plan is to spring hundreds of prisoners all at once, requiring a major effort to capture them and disrupting the high command. But it’s a risky gambit — the SS resents Luftwaffe control over these arrogant POWs. Bartlett has been warned that the next time he escapes and is recaptured, he’ll be shot.
Movies about military downers and defeats haven’t fared well at the box office. The feel-good battle epic Zulu made big money but its more accurate prequel Zulu Dawn was denied a wide U.S. release. The Great Escape cleverly turns a defeat into a tale of victory. The risk and sacrifice of escape is a personal challenge for men otherwise unable to fight: civilized defiance. Big X’s organized POW battalion confounds the enemy within the parameters of the Fair Rules of War. That their efforts had little effect on the war proper is not the issue. The final tally for the mass escape effort is the same as for the idealistic Dutch students in Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange: honorable, patriotic resistance mostly gets a lot of good men killed. Yet we celebrate these men for daring to defy their captors.
The Great Escape can be distinguished from The Bridge on the River Kwai in that the rightness of the mission is never in question. Colonel Nicholson’s fellow POWs die of sickness under brutal Japanese abuse, but the Allied airmen under the command of POW leader Ramsey (James Donald) are treated reasonably well. The German guards envy them their Red Cross parcels from home. For men who are well fed, bored and itching to do something, an elaborate escape boosts morale more than building a bridge.
Escape is also unlike The Guns of Navarone, an adventure fantasy with heroic commandos performing 007-like feats of sabotage that change the course of the war. The prisoners may be played by big stars like James Garner or Steve McQueen, but they’re not supermen. The enemy isn’t easily fooled. They don’t carry bad guy guns, the kind incapable of hitting a running hero.
Escape films have a lot in common with the heist/caper crime subgenre: The Asphalt Jungle, Ocean’s Eleven. The schemes, dodges and con games supporting the tunneling operation are a caper far more elaborate than a bank job. They’re wholly credible and entertainingly funny. Unlike Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 there are no deep-cover German agents among the prisoners to sow discord and paranoia. The escapees’ refusal to accept defeat is inspiring in itself. I’m sure organized criminals and gang members love The Great Escape. I wonder if it made the list of films deemed suitable for screening in prisons?
Director John Sturges was always adept at sketching male relationships. Every prisoner is defined by his function and embellished with character quirks, and nobody is cast against type. We root for every last one of them. James Garner breezes through as yet another Maverick– like virtuous crook. Sight-challenged forger and birdwatcher Donald Pleasance underscores the escapees’ vulnerability. There are no shirkers, doubters or conscientious objectors, just a potential nervous breakdown case or two. Diminutive Ives (Angus Lennie) is near the breaking point but so is the team’s physically strongest member, Charles Bronson.
The fate of individual escapees boils down to sheer chance, not the pecking order of star billing. Fumblers like Cavendish (Nigel Stock) and MacDonald (Gordon Jackson) are denied the lucky breaks afforded the laid-back plodder Sedgwick (James Coburn), who seems to lead a charmed life. Talented escapee and cool customer Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum) finds himself in a situation that requires an immediate, instinctual act of self-sacrifice. I hope the Germans kept records — otherwise, his gallantry would be lost to history.
The Great Escape puts American stars at the forefront of what was actually an all-British affair. The few American POWs in the camp were relocated before the breakout date. But no backlash resulted when Americans Garner and McQueen were given the most exciting escape routes. (Technically, Garner is playing a Canadian.) U.S.- English diplomacy had taken a hit when the wartime Objective Burma recast what was almost exclusively a British fight into an exclusively American one.
The very similar escape film The Colditz Story was authentically all-British, but without Hollywood stars it did not attract an American audience. United Artists knew that the name stars were essential. They more or less wanted ‘The Magnificent Seven Escape’ and wouldn’t have complained if the prisoners wore cowboy hats and had sexy German girlfriends. But producer-director John Sturges held out for a realistic approach.
The presence of the Americans isn’t insulting because director Sturges emphasizes the ensemble nature of the story. James Garner’s conman isn’t always at the forefront and none of the stars hogs the best dialogue. Second-string players John Leyton (of the fanciful Great Escape emulator Von Ryan’s Express) and Lawrence Montaigne are allowed to make their mark. Charles Bronson’s Danny is a Pole flying for the RAF, which always makes me wonder why the Germans didn’t find an excuse to simply shoot him. Bronson’s role is fatter than that of fellow Magnificent Seven alumnus James Coburn, stuck playing an unlikely Australian among real UK actors with authentic accents.
Steve McQueen’s Virgil Hilts is treated almost like a special effect, in part because the actor all but blackmailed John Sturges into showcasing his role. Because Hilts mostly stays locked up in solitary confinement, he’s never just another prisoner standing around in wide shots. But he gets a showy entrance every time he’s recaptured, and he’s present for the important Fourth of July scene. Hilts is the only prisoner who scraps with the guards, the only one who plays games in the barbed wire in broad daylight, etc.. Whenever Hilts is present, he’s a front ‘n’ center standout. McQueen’s brand of self-effacing scene stealing is at its best here. For sheer effectiveness, Escape is probably his best movie.
Most adventure movies ration out the action to prevent audience boredom. Writers James Clavell and W.R. Burnett’s early prison scenes are mostly static and claustrophobic. They wind the spring good and tight for two hours so that the suspense of the prison break becomes unbearable. The confinement reaches its extreme in the digging cave-ins where Charles Bronson’s Tunnel King Danny almost goes nuts. But it’s also carried by the overall design. The settings become grayer and more enclosed, playing a game of sensory deprivation.
When dawn arrives after the escape, our sudden release into the wide-open beauty of the German countryside is exhilarating, overwhelming. We almost expect the escapees to forget to keep running and stop for a picnic. All the previous hopes and frustrations are let loose. We want everybody to get away clean. We applaud every clever move, as when James Garner steals an airplane. Steve McQueen’s itch to get his hands on a motorcycle is equally welcome. This is adventure of the highest kind — we’re constantly thinking, ‘Where were the mistakes made? What should they have done instead? What would I do in their place?’ The Great Escape fires the imagination; it makes us feel like the foxes in a grand chase.
This is one movie that really got us excited in movie matinees: after two hours of confinement we spend a couple of reels amid green valleys below spectacular mountains. Everybody wants to see Hilts succeed; we debated what he should have done at that tall barbed-wire fence. When Hendley and Blythe’s tiny airplane flew by a mountain castle worthy of Sleeping Beauty, I remember adults and kids clapping. Best of all, the thrills and drama are not diminished on home video — the epic film plays perfectly.
A question . . . Why did the Germans just return Steve McQueen’s Hilts to the camp? They would surely trace the stolen motorcycle back to its dead rider in the ditch. I should think that the Gestapo or Army Intelligence would soon call at the camp, collect Hilts, and make him disappear.
The KL Studio Classics 4K Ultra HD of The Great Escape 4K gave me a chance to compare a new 4K and an earlier Blu-ray of a film I know very well. TGE was already giving MGM Home Video trouble back in the 1990s, when photochemical efforts to pull good color from it and The Magnificent Seven were almost impossible — the negatives had faded so severely. The bells and whistles later available to colorists could work miracles, even if a ‘paint-by-numbers’ look was the result. Previous video iterations of TGE give most actors identical skin tones.
The Criterion is almost uniformly bright, giving most of the exteriors a California sunshine look. Faces look too bright, often a bit yellow-y.
The new KL 4K is darker and richer, a little colder and with colors subdued a tiny bit. I changed my LG overall screen setting from ‘cinema’ to ‘standard,’ and a hint of dullness disappeared.
What I see now is a return to what I remember as original timing. Camp interiors are allowed to look darkish, grim. Older transfers tried to defeat the gauzy diffusion applied to the 4th of July ‘breakfast celebration’ — it’s now not as bright, more like a bunch of guys with cups of warm moonshine huddling in the clammy fog.
At first the morning escape scenes seemed dark until I remembered that almost all of them take place pre-dawn and early-ish morning. The shadows are long. There’s more diffusion on some shots to suggest morning haze. We get more of the idea that the escapees have reached the town, the river, the railroad station before the local police have been fully alterted. The early-hours overcast look goes all the way through the scene where Garner and Pleasance steal the plane — there is still very little sunshine.
When Criterion lightened everything to high noon the colors got brighter but the grain jumped out in many shots. This KL 4K is more subdued but it looks like morning, with nice side lighting when they step into the sun at railroad stations, etc. ‘Cavendish’ being caught in the truck takes place in dawn fog. You get the idea that this was at most a six-hour spree, that the fugitives were almost all rounded up before lunchtime.
The extras for this special edition are included on a second disc, a Blu-ray. Many are the same excellent pieces created for a 2004 DVD, starting with a fine multi-speaker edited commentary with the voices of surviving cast members and recordings of those that had passed away. By now, David McCallum may be the only Great Escapee still standing . . . at 89 years of age!
Criterion’s disc included a nice piece examining the show and John Sturges’ career. The new item for Kino’s edition is a commentary with Steven Jay Rubin, who produced much of the older content as well. He’s joined by Steve Mitchell. It’s not easy to fill nearly three hours with interesting gab but they do a creditable effort.
The older material laid out on the Blu-ray can become a little redundant at times; I’d start with the long-form docu The Untold Story.
Boy, did we love the poster for this show, as pictured on the disc cover. When I arrived at MGM/UA Home Video in the early 1990s all the department heads displayed personal copies of the most desired and attractive United Artists posters in their offices, many of them unfolded. I saw one Escape poster so often that I finally asked about it, and was told that a couple of years back there had been a terrific raid on the advertising files. As Maxwell Smart would have said, “Missed it by that much.”
The Great Escape was one of the first war movies I showed my kids, who were just the right ages when the first letterboxed laserdiscs were released. Showings had two changeover breaks for snacks! The story is a primer about supposed honor and righteous defiance, with the lesson that nothing is fair in love and war. The escape is a happy success for a few but disastrous for many — everyone must take their chances, just like life. I tried to stress that this all happened to the generation before me, ‘the grandparents.’
Steven Spielberg felt the same connection. All through the making of the effects for Close Encounters in Marina Del Rey, this was the music that he listened to while driving to work in his green Mercedes convertible. Spielberg built part of his career emulating pictures like The Great Escape, a solid movie-movie that has retained the power to hold audiences spellbound.
With help from Gary Teetzel.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Great Escape 4K
4K Ultra HD rates:
Sound: Excellent 5.1 Surround & Original 2.0 Mono
4KUHD DISC 1:
NEW Audio Commentary by Steve Mitchell and Steven Jay Rubin; Audio Commentary with John Sturges, James Garner, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, Jud Taylor and Many others, moderated by Steven Jay Rubin
BLU-RAY DISC 2:
Featurettes narrated by Burt Reynolds: Making of the Classic (24:09); Bringing Fact to Fiction (12:21); Preparations for Freedom (19:50); The Flight to Freedom (9:22); A Standing Ovation (5:58)
Featurette narrated by James Coburn: The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones (25:01)
Steven Clarke documentary The Untold Story (50:47); + Additional Interviews (9:35)
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One 4K Ultra HD disc + one Blu-ray (for extras, not an HD feature) in Keep case
Reviewed: December 21, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson