The Great Escape
One of the most exciting adventure tales ever told, this action epic recounts the planning, execution, and aftermath of a daring true-life escape from a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, in which 250 men attempted to tunnel their way to freedom. In the role that cemented his superstar status, Steve McQueen plays the motorcycle-racing daredevil who sets out to foil the Nazis, alongside an all-star cast that also includes Charles Bronson, James Coburn, James Garner, and Donald Pleasence. The expert direction of John Sturges, eminently hummable Elmer Bernstein score, and rip-roaring stunts come together in what may just be the most spectacularly entertaining prison-break movie of all time, a rousing ode to the determination, camaraderie, and courage of everyday heroes.
The Criterion Collection presents John Sturges’ The Great Escape on Blu-ray in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on this dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a 4K restoration that was performed by MGM, which in turn was sourced from the 35mm original camera negative and a 35mm interpositive. The Great Escape is a title that Criterion released previously on LaserDisc.
The previous MGM Blu-ray was apparently sourced from a 4K restoration itself, though I am unsure if that is the case, and if it was I don’t know if it’s the same one that was also used here because the two presentations look very different from one another. The first and most obvious difference between the two is the colour timing: Criterion’s leans far warmer, with a heavier yellow look, while the MGM went a cooler blue/teal route. The film’s colour scheme is not one that I would call dynamic since it’s loaded with beiges, browns, and greens, giving it a dirty, earthy look, which certainly seems suiting considering the film’s subject matter. Criterion’s warmer look fits the film and is closer to how the film looked on home video prior to MGM’s Blu-ray edition, which I have to say has never looked right. Criterion does address the colours in the restoration notes for this edition, which indicate that the Metrocolor prints were too far faded to be used as any sort of guide, so colours were referenced against acetate prints owned by Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, for what that is worth. Considering the colour scheme of the film and how it looked on home video prior to the MGM Blu-ray I feel this is correct and looks better than the MGM edition, but the heavier yellow does affect other aspects of the presentation: I found darker moments (like the sequences in solitary confinement) to look more greenish and sickly, while black levels tend to look a bit murkier overall. Having said that, the darker scenes, like the actual escape sequence, are easier to see here in comparison to the MGM edition.
Criterion’s presentation also differs in a couple of other ways. I found the image a bit sharper here with a better handling of fine-object detail and textures. This is probably because the image does have a less processed look in the end, allowing film-grain to breathe a bit more, but this also leads to another big difference in how the two presentations handle things, and Criterion’s has a bit of a mixed result.
Most of the film is sourced from a negative, but there are a handful of scenes where it’s very obvious this isn’t the case (the fourth of July sequence being the most extended), and the image degrades severely during these moments and the image also becomes grainier. I believe MGM amped up the noise reduction for their release during these scenes, which gave their image a more filtered look that wasn’t all that great. Criterion takes more of a hands-off approach and that leads to a grainier, fuzzier look, which is fine, but it also doesn’t appear the encode is handling it all that well, giving the grain a blockier, more digital look.
Restoration work has been quite thorough, and damage is never a real concern, the source only faltering during those previously mentioned moments where another source had to be used. Outside of that and hiccups around how the encode handles those sequences, I do find this presentation an improvement over MGM’s, and it’s still the best I’ve see the film.
Criterion includes two audio tracks: the film’s original 1.0 monaural presentation in lossless PCM, and the remastered 5.1 surround presentation, presented in DTS-HD MA (I assume it’s based on the film’s original 4.0 stereo soundtrack). The 5.1 presentation is the more dynamic of the two but thankfully doesn’t get too aggressive keeping most everything localized to the front speakers, with only the music and some of the action spreading to the rears. Everything is mixed well, making sure dialogue is still easy to hear, the mix never drowning any of it out with some overzealous sound effect, and there are no unnatural dropouts. If I had one complaint it’s that I sometimes felt voices had a bit of an edge to them, as if someone was trying to give them more of a punch during the mix, but it’s a minor complaint.
The original mono is, not surprisingly, far less dynamic than the surround track, but it holds its own. Dialogue is still easy to hear and the music and action in the film show some decent range, though not much. I did find voices to sound a bit more natural and less edgy here in comparison to the surround presentation, and that’s the big plus it has over the surround track.
Both are ultimately fine and it will come down to personal preference, and thankfully Criterion does offer the option: the MGM Blu-ray didn’t, only offering the surround remaster.
Criterion has carried over most of the material from previous home video releases for the film, including their own LaserDisc. Things start off with two audio commentaries, one from 2003, created for the MGM special edition DVD, and the other from 1991, made for Criterion’s LaserDisc edition. Both have been constructed from multiple recordings or interviews featuring crew members (and some cast members on one), with the respective moderator of each track also talking about the film. The MGM track was constructed by author Steven Jay Rubin and features excerpts from interviews he conducted with director John Sturges (from 1974), production manager and second unit director Robert E. Relyea, production designer Fernando Carrere, Steve McQueen’s manager Hillard Elkins, actors James Coburn, James Garner, David McCallum, Donald Pleasance and Jud Taylor, and stuntman Bud Ekins. The Criterion track was constructed by film scholar and Criterion regular (back in the day) Bruce Eder and features Sturges, Relyea, Ekins, and composer Elmer Bernstein.
Despite sharing some of the same participants and focusing on some of the same material I was surprised by how different each track was. The Criterion track has the advantage in that it sounds like the participants, though recorded separately, are watching the film while making their comments since they speak specifically to the scenes on screen (most of the time) and point out details. It also has Bernstein (missing from the other track), who offers his insights into how he developed the film’s iconic score and what his intentions were behind his various choices. Bernstein even breaks down specific portions as they come up in the film, right down to each beat. Sturges also gets more time on Eder’s track and getting his comments on his passion in trying to develop the film, his thoughts behind the construction of many scenes, and the process of writing the script (which occurred as the film was made) is invaluable here, as Sturges’ comments on the other track aren’t as in-depth and Rubin ends up quoting him from this track. Eder also offers his own comments on the film and explains what is fact and fiction, which leads to details on the real-life escape, the real people who were the basis for the characters (who were usually composites of multiple people) and historical facts around the German POW camps. What’s also impressive is that Eder manages to keep the track going through the film’s entire runtime, whereas Rubin’s has a few dead spaces. (In a nice bit of nostalgia, Criterion also leaves in all references to the LaserDisc format, like when Eder comments he will get into more detail on a specific subject on the “next side” of the disc).
Still, Rubin’s track is an impressive piece all on its own, and it’s probably one of the better studio-produced tracks I’ve listened to. While it does cover some of the same material found in Eder’s track, specifically in regards to adaptation of the book and production, the track offers more personal recollections about the experience and the actors in the film. There is more discussion about Steve McQueen in this one, with some personal stories about the man (Coburn says he was a “cool cat”). There is also some mention of deleted sequences (Garner feels he and Pleasance had a strong scene that was ultimately cut, and he talks about it here) along with stories around early assemblies of the film, which were apparently terrible (McQueen was livid according to a few comments here). It sounds like all of this material was recorded as interviews and it doesn’t sound like anyone is actually watching the film, not even Rubin, who chimes in with other details around the film and his own personal stories, including his encounter with McQueen. But the fact no one sounds to be watching the film is never a hinderance as Rubin has edited the track in such a way to fit comments with what is going on onscreen.
In the end I might give the edge to the Eder commentary but they’re both enjoyable and informative and nicely put together, so I don’t think anyone can go wrong with either. But if you have the 6 hours to spare, I recommend giving them both a go.
Criterion also ports over material from the MGM edition, including the 44-minute, 4-part documentary ”The Great Escape:” Heroes Underground. It plays a little like a making-of in that it covers a few details about the production, but it intercuts all of this in with interviews with some of the actual POWs from the camp and details about the real-life escape and the aftermath (which is also covered in the two commentaries). This is followed by the 25-minute The Real Virgil Hilts, which is a 25-minute interview with veteran David M. Jones, an American POW at the actual prison camp, and one of the people that was the basis for McQueen’s character. Here he talks about his service, his time at the POW camp, and his life after the war. Return to “The Great Escape” is a 24-minute making-of featurette created in 1993 and it has appeared on every home video release for the film since the 1998 DVD edition (and looks to be sourced from a VHS tape). Comprised of interviews conducted by Rubin (some of the comments here are found in his commentary) it offers a surprisingly decent account of the film’s production in its rather short run time. Missing from this Blu-ray is The Great Escape: The Untold Story. Though I believe most know how the film concludes, I’ll avoid spoilers and just say the documentary was about actions taken after the escape attempt. It’s a shame it’s not here because it’s a good documentary (and MGM included some deleted interviews from it as well) but I suspect that maybe there were issues with licensing it since it wasn’t produced by MGM.
Criterion then throws in a new interview with critic Michael Sragow. Though he covers the film a little bit, as well as its impact, his very enthusiastic contribution is more of an appreciation for director John Sturges and his work. The disc then concludes with the film’s original theatrical trailer and an insert featuring an essay on the film by Sheila O’Malley, who offers her own admiration for the film, its structure, storytelling, and director, even quoting Paul Thomas Anderson, who said one can learn more about filmmaking from the LaserDisc commentary for Bad Day at Black Rock than one can from film school (I’m guessing the one recorded for the Criterion disc). It’s a short essay, only a few pages, but a loving appreciation all the same.
Unfortunately Criterion doesn’t add much that is new, but the material carried over does do an incredibly thorough job already (especially within the two commentaries!) making it hard to imagine much else (other than maybe the supposedly dreadful made-for-TV sequel, that I have yet to see).
Despite a handful of faults, Criterion’s edition for The Great Escape is the strongest one yet for the film, improving over MGM’s previous edition with its presentation, and still offering an in-depth set of features, including Criterion’s original LaserDisc commentary. Highly recommended.