The Great Escape: 50th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Review)

GREAT ESCAPE (1)Based on a true story, The Great Escape is also one of AFI’s “100 Most Thrilling American Films”. In 1943, the Germans opened a maximum security prison-of-war camp, designed to hold even the craftiest escape artists. By doing so, they unwittingly assembled the finest escape team in military history – brilliantly portrayed by Steve McQueen, James Garner, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn- who worked on what became the largest prison breakout ever attempted. The Blu-ray comes fully loaded with over three hours of special features including commentary with Director Preston Sturges and crew, multiple making of featurettes, the original theatrical trailer and more.



The Great Escape is many things – a look back at some brave men who tried to overcome the odds, a classic film that is beloved by many despite being praised and criticized for its historical authenticity, and a it was also a launchpad for many of its stars, especially for Steve McQueen who became a superstar after this.  Like most movies that cover history, there’s been a lot of liberties taken but there’s also some incredibly factual elements as well which makes this film unique and interesting.

The film opens with the creation of a new high security prisoner of war camp build by the Nazis to contain the most slippery of Allied prisoners who have a proven track record of escapes from other camps.  Instead of wasting massive amounts of manpower and resources into tracking these prisoners from various camps, they’ve decided to group them all into one super secure camp to neutralize their chances.  Or at least that’s the plan.  Of course, when you combine some of the best escape artists in one place, it’s only a matter of time before they make their move.

To do that, a team is formed that’s a mix of American, British, and Canadian military personnel under the command of “Big X” Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), an experienced escape artist and tactician.  Bartlett decides that for the next escape attempt, they won’t just settle for a handful to get out, but instead all 250 prisoners at once.   The idea is that this audacious plan  will serve two purposes, one to liberate the camp, and the second is to tie up German resources that will divert them from the war effort which will help the Allied cause.  For that many people to escape, three escape tunnels will be created at different points in the camp.

An elaborate plan goes into motion as each prisoner has a job to do that correlates with their natural talents.  Some have to obtain the tools needed like Hendley (James Garner), some have to make items like Willie (James Coburn), forged paperwork has to be created by Blythe (Donald Pleasance), the tunnels need to be dug by the “Tunnel Kings” (Charles Bronson and John Leyton), and there also needs to be a constant distraction to keep the guards busy, which falls to Hilts “The Cooler King” (Steve McQueen) who makes continuous escape attempts which keeps him in solitary confinement.

The setup for the film is perfect for building suspense as we see the men surreptitiously dig the tunnels under the noses of their captors.  While the camp commandant Luftwaffe Colonel von Luger (Hans Messemer) is more considerate and reasonable than you’d think, he is constantly threatened by the SS and the Gestapo who believe he is too soft on the prisoners.  By the time the tunnels are completed, some will be discovered, some men will break under the pressure, and some men just won’t survive.  But the plan does achieve its main purpose – to wreak havoc on the Germans who have to expend a lot of resources in the attempt to capture as many prisoners as they can.

I liked The Great Escape’s execution of the plan more than I liked the characters that seemed to be fairly stereotypical and one note.  The film is full of the British stiff upper lip and American can-do attitude, which works for a film like this, but I would have liked more time invested in the characters.  With this many characters though, that wasn’t possible since the script tries to devote equal time between them.  Still, there are some fun performances to be found from the great cast .  James Garner’s easy charm is on full display, while those of us that have only seen Attenborough as Jurassic Park’s John Hammond will see a new side to him.  James Coburn plays an easygoing and a somewhat convincing Australian, and we see Charles Bronson do some actual acting as a claustrophobic “Tunnel King”.  The rest of the cast are all fine in their roles, but I wish they had focused on just a few instead of so many of them.  This is also one of those movies where you yell at the characters for doing stupid things which is a sign that you are invested in what happens.  A lot of that is due to director John Sturges, who  does a nice job ramping up the tension and his focus on recreating the tunnels and escape methods really adds a lot to the movie.


Although this film was touted to feature a new 4K restoration, it sure doesn’t look like it to me.  Although this 1080p (2.35:1) transfer does look decent for the most part, there is no way that this could have the recipient of a brand new restoration.  There’s many soft looking shots and too much digital noise present for that to have been the case.  The colors are washed out and there’s a general lack of detail throughout the film which is troubling.  Some scenes look pretty good but there’s not enough of them to make up for the rest of the film.  For a film that’s celebrating its 50th anniversary and it so beloved, you’d think that MGM would have put more effort into this transfer, especially after they claimed they were doing a new restoration for it.


The Great Escape’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix fares a little better than the video quality  as it does a pretty good job bringing the action to life.  Dialogue is clear and clean sounding which is nice when you have as many accents as there is in this film.  The film’s sound effects are also nicely reproduced here although there really isn’t much rear channel activity.  Elmer Bernstein’s famous score is also presented well here and all of its martial beats sound fantastic on Blu-ray.  While this lossless mix does stand up today’s efforts, it still works well for the film and overall it’s pretty good for a film of this age.


The extras have been ported over from the previous Collector’s Edition and they are all pretty good and they make up for the rest of the disc’s shortcomings.  I really enjoyed The History Channel segments but it seems like they were all chopped up from one long documentary.  If that’s the case, I wish they would have just kept it all together.  All of the extras save for the trailer are in standard definition.

  • Audio Commentary – This isn’t a traditional commentary since it’s more of a collection of interviews that have been edited together.  Not that that’s really a problem as that frequently happens for movies from long ago that may not have the stars with us any longer.  I would much rather have this than nothing which happens a lot too.  For this track, we hear from a bunch of the people that were either involved in the making of the movie or were tangentially connected to it with interviews with: director John Sturges, James Coburn, James Garner, David McCallum, Donald Pleasance, Jud Taylor, Robert Relyea, Bud Ekins, Fernando Carrere, and Hilly Elkins.
  • The Great Escape: Bringing Fact to Fiction – This is the first part of the History Channel series that’s narrated by Burt Reynolds which looks at the differences between what actually happened and the film.
  • The Great Escape: Preparations for Freedom – This is a twenty minute look at the events that took place in Stalag Luft III and how accurate that picture was for the film.  The historical discrepancies like having Americans participate in the escape (even though they were transferred out of the camp before the escape in reality) is addressed here.  To be fair, the Americans did help with the effort before they were transferred out.
  • The Great Escape: The Flight to Freedom – This is a short look at what happened after the escape attempt happened by the real people who did it.  It seems like the prisoners fared better in real life than they did in the movie.
  • The Great Escape: A Standing Ovation – A very quick look at the film’s reception which included praise from actual prisoners of war who though Sturges captured the atmosphere of the camp really well.
  • The Great Escape: The Untold Story – At almost an hour long, this 2001 documentary which was made for British TV covers the historical events through interviews and re-enactments.  It also provides a glimpse into what happened after the movie and after the war where those that were responsible for war crimes were hunted down.
  • The Great Escape: The Untold Story – Additional Interviews – Almost ten minutes of more interviews that were cut from the man documentary.
  • The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones – The character of Hilts as played by Steve McQueen was based on an American pilot named David Jones.  Jones is a fascinating man in his own right, as he took part in the famous Doolittle Raid against Japan and he later became a test pilot and worked for NASA as well.
  • Return to The Great Escape – This almost thirty minute retrospective is a nice way to round out the extras.  We get some interviews from 1993 with stars James Garner, Donald Pleasance James Coburn, and more who talk about the making of the film and share their memories with us.
  • Original Theatrical Trailer


The Great Escape is a good film that offers some great suspense but not very interesting characters.  I was more invested into the creation and execution of the escape plan than I was the characters.  The Blu-ray has a fairly weak transfer, some decent audio, but some really good extras that have been broken up into small chunks.  Every actor in the film does well with what they were given and it’s easy to see why this is still a popular movie.  Let’s hope that for the 60th anniversary, we will get a real restoration of the film and that it’s given the respect it deserves.

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