Now on Blu-ray: THE GREAT ESCAPE, Tight Spaces, Ripping Adventures
Steve McQueen, James Coburn, James Garner, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance and Richard Attenborough star in John Sturges' wartime adventure, now on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
Released in theaters in 1963, or less than 20 years after the real-life events that were fictionalized for big-screen purposes, The Great Escape remains a ripping adventure yarn that is often enclosed in tight spaces.
Quentin Tarantino's personal 35 mm acetate print of The Great Escape served as a color print for the Criterion Collection's new edition, which is probably no surprise for anyone who saw Tarantino's Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio's actor-character Rick Dalton in the Steve McQueen role. The 35 mm acetate print owned by Martin Scorsese was also used as a color print for the new edition, however, which testifies to the wide, enduring appeal of John Sturges's popular adventure.
Director John Stuges rose through film-industry ranks to become a film editor, learning from directors George Stevens and William Wyler, among others. He honed his craft as a director in his early films, leading to his only Academy Award nomination for Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), followed by the notable Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and, especially, The Magnificent Seven (1960), which garnered the worldwide success that empowered him to finally make a film version of Paul Brickhill's book, which he first became acquainted with shortly after its publication in 1950.
The true-life events detailed a planned, massive, well-organized break-out from a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1944. The camp was populated entirely by Allied Army officers who had been consistently trying to escape, as much as anything to try and distract the German army from their primary military objectives.
Sturges cast McQueen, Coburn, and Bronson from The Magnificent Seven, adding James Garner to the film's American contingent, though Coburn portrayed an Australian officer. Richard Attenborough, James Donald, David McCallum, and Gordon Jackson led the European component.
The actors were near the height of their early powers, fusing their likability and personal magnetism into tough, hardy military officers, equal parts intelligence and physical prowess. The film, which I first saw on broadcast television years ago and have seen multiple times since, is a rousing adventure, even though a recent viewing on Blu-ray reminded me how much of the action unfolds in tight, confined spaces, rewarding the star power of its players, who never overplayed any of their scenes.
The wildly fictionalized action sequences are sown neatly into the narrative, and the film rigorously avoids excessive sentimentality. When the action finally explodes, it feels like a joyous release of emotions that have been held in check for nearly the entirety of the story, which makes the pay-offs rich and rewarding, even if they don't always follow typical heroic patterns.
The Criterion Collection originally issued The Great Escape in 1991 on laserdisc. MGM released the film on DVD in 1998 and on Blu-ray in 2013, the latter of which engendered some spirited discussion about whether it was simply a 4K scan or a full 4K restoration. The estimable DVD Beaver compared multiple editions extensively, and notes in part about Criterion's new edition: "As with most classics, the colors will be debated ad nauseam. I can only say that the Criterion is brighter, shows more detail and depth and looks quite strong in-motion."
Due to my own limitations in experience and equipment, I'll simply state that the film looks marvelous on my relatively small screen and to my untrained eyes.
The new edition includes one new supplement, "Interview with Michael Sragow (2020)." This is a very helpful overview of director John Sturges' early career, provided by the very enthusiastic film critic. Sragow analyzes Sturges' expertise in staging action sequences and discusses how he refined his skills and expanded upon themes that excited him. Sragow also goes in-depth on the film at hand, showing how Sturges' experience came to bear, to its lasting benefit. It's a great watch. (23 mins.)
Criterion also includes a fine printed essay by film critic Sheila O'Malley (2020). A selection of supplements from past editions are also included:
"The Great Escape: Heroes Under Ground" (2001), narrated by Burt Reynolds, runs 43 minutes, is good and comprehensive, starting from events leading to the real-life escape in 1944, as told by a few real-life POWs who survived, and highlights the events that were fictionalized and why. (All the American POWs were transferred before the Great Escape, for example, which was changed to better feature the American stars and potential audiences during the escape that dominates the latter stages of the picture.)
"The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones" (2003), narrated by James Cobum, allows the real-life military man David Jones an opportunity to tell his true life story, which shaped the creation of the character portrayed by Steve McQueen, and also relates highlights of his long military career. (25 mins.)
"Return to The Great Escape": Featuring interviews with actors James Coburn, James Garner, Donald Pleasance, David McCallum, and others, this very engaging program from 1993, narrated by Miguel Ferrer, covers the making of the film. It also includes an interview with Steve McQueen's friend Bud Ekins, who doubled him for some of the motorcycle stunts. (24 mins.)
Two audio commentaries are also included. From Criterion's 1991 laserdisc edition, the first commentary is identified by the name of its host, film historian Bruce Eder. It features director John Sturges, composer Elmer Bernstein, production manager and second unit director Robert E. Relyea, and stuntman Bud Ekins.
The second audio commentary, from MGM's 2003 home video release, is identified by the name of its host, author Steven Jay Rubin. It stitches together comments by Relyea, actors Coburn, Garner, McCallum, Pleasance, and Jud Taylor, stuntman Ekins, production designer Fernando Carrere, and McQueen's talent manager Hillard Elkins, as well as an interview recorded in 1974 with Sturges. Rubin, who also directed "Return to The Great Escape," puts the comments into historical context and adds his own research into the events involved, the film and its making.
All in all, it's a good package for a very good film, an adventure classic and personal favorite that remains exciting to watch and stands up to rewatching multiple times.
The film is available from Criterion on Blu-ray and also DVD as of Tuesday, May 12, 2020.