Criterion excels with “The Great Escape”
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Natural film grain dances across the German countryside as Steve McQueen stars as Captain Virgil Hilts “The Cooler King,” who escapes from Stalag Luft III and snags a Nazi motorcycle.
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“THE GREAT ESCAPE: THE CRITERION COLLECTION”
Blu-ray, 1963, Not Rated
Best extra: Commentary with director John Sturges, composer Elmer Bernstein, and others, originally recorded for Criterion’s laserdisc
FOR THE first time in home viewing, “The Great Escape” is truly cinematic, with first-rate sharpness, natural film grain, and accurate color toning. I’ve owned this World War II favorite on five different editions over the last three decades – starting with The Criterion Collection laserdisc from 1991.
The folks at MGM produced the 4K, 10-bit restoration from the original camera negative (2.35:1 aspect ratio) which covers 95 percent of the nearly three-hour film. A 35mm interpositive was also scanned, as well as a lesser print with larger grain, to fill-in gaps from the damaged negative and interpositive.
A special shout out goes to directors Martin Scorsese and, Quentin Tarantino, and the Academy Film Archive’s Technicolor Reference Collection, who provided original saturated color prints as a benchmark to form the authentic color base on this Criterion special edition.
The 4K master was then down-converted for this 1080p edition. It also includes the original uncompressed mono track and a remastered DTS-HD six-channel soundtrack, still mostly balanced for front speakers.
(1&2) The arrival of Allied pilots to the German POW camp Stalag Luft III. British officers R.A.F. Flt. Lt. Mac MacDonald “Intelligence” (Gordon Jackson) and Senior officer Ramsey “The SBO” (James Donald) arrive via a car. (3) Polish R.A.F. Flt. Lt. Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson) and R.A.F. Flt. Lt. Willie Dickes (John Leyton) were considered “The Tunnel Kings.” (4) Colonel Von Luger (Hannes Messemer) “The Kommandant” of Stalag Luft III.
As a child of the 1960s, “The Great Escape” was an annual event on network TV – often split over two nights. It inspired school kids with its daring and ingenious action. Steve McQueen’s motorcycle chase through the German countryside, ending at the Switzerland border, was everyone’s favorite. American pilot Virgil Hilts “The Cooler King” (McQueen) steals the show, taking a bike at a Nazi checkpoint and jumping a barbed-wire fence. The stunt was a last-minute addition. McQueen was reportedly irritated, thinking he didn’t have enough to do film critic Shelia O’Malley declares in Criterion’s enclosed essay.
The production was mostly filmed at Bavaria Studios outside Munich, Germany, where a replica of camp Stalag Luft III was constructed. It was the most secure POW camp in the heart of Hitler’s Germany, and surrounded by a forest of pine trees. It housed 10,000 Allied airmen in six compounds. The production built one compound and hired American students from a nearby university as extras.
Director John Sturges (“Gunfight of the OK Corral,” “Bad Day at Black Rock”) who had made U.S. Army documentaries during WWII with director William Wyler (“Ben-Hur,” “The Best Years of Our Lives”), first attempted an adaptation of ex-POW Paul Brickhill’s memoir in the early 1950s. Brickhill had been shot down in Tunisia in 1943, and shipped to the German POW camp, where he was involved in the construction of three tunnels. He detailed the mass escape of 76 British and American fighter pilots through a 350-foot tunnel. Sadly, only three would make it to freedom, while fifty prisoners were executed by the Gestapo causing international outrage. At the time, producer Samuel Goldwyn responded, “What the hell kind of escape is this?” Author Glenn Lovell relates the event in his book “Escape Artist: The Life and Times of John Sturges,” also quoted in the essay.
After Sturges’ successful Western, “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) – which also starred McQueen, James Coburn (Louis Sedgwick “The Manufacturer”), and Charles Bronson (Danny Velinski “The Tunnel King”) – United Artists finally gave the go-ahead. The all-star cast also included James Garner (Robert Hendley “The Scrounger”) and British actors Richard Attenborough (Bartlett “Big X”) and Donald Pleasence (Colin Blythe “The Forger”). Most of the characters in the film were created from composites of real people. American screenwriter W.R. Burnett (“The Asphalt Jungle”) wrote the script.
(1&2) Capt. Hilts finds a blind spot between the guard towers, and he’s stopped by guards and Col. Von Luger and sentenced to twenty days to the isolation block “the cooler.” (3) Scottish Flying Officer Archie Ives “The Mole” (Angus Lennie) is also sent to the “the cooler.” (4) British Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett “Big X” (Richard Attenborough) arrives at the camp.
The disc includes three carry-over featurettes, with the four-part “The Great Escape: Heroes Underground” narrated by Burt Reynolds, the most interesting. It details the production and real-life escape that unfolded on a bitterly cold March night, the master plan of South African pilot Roger Bushell. In the film Roger Bartlett (Attenborough) creates the blueprint. The plan was to liberate 250 POWs by tunneling out from Stalag III. Escapees faced plenty of setbacks that night in 1944, including the frozen ground that put them two hours behind schedule. Once they cracked the surface, there was another surprise when they found themselves short of the tree line, with steam rising from the 30-foot deep hole, says British escapee Bertram “Jimmy” James.
At 5 a.m., a shot rang out and it was all over. Forced to redirect thousands from the front, the Nazis searched the countryside for the escapees.
Recorded earlier this year, film critic Michael Stragow provides new insights into the career of Sturges – who he considers “the great bridge” between directors of the old studio system: John Ford, Howard Hawks, and William Wyler. And the TV directors of the 1960s who overtook Hollywood: John Frankenheimer, Sam Peckinpah and Sidney Lumet. “What makes him so great is he’s an invisible moviemaker, often like Ford was. The story is the star of the film,” says Stragow.
Sturges got his start as a film editor for RKO, working with editors Robert Wise (“West Side Story”) and Mark Robson (“The Seventh Victim”), who both became big-time directors. His first major job was editing, and being director George Stevens’ right-hand man on adventure film “Gunga Din” (1939) starring Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, and Victor McLaglen. The experience solidified his career as a director.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, Sturges enlisted and was slotted for military documentaries, eventually assigned to work with director William Wyler. The two would team up on “Thunderbolt” (1947) a Technicolor documentary of the U.S. dive bomber used behind the German lines. They headed to Italy to document a U.S. squadron, where they found ways to mount the cameras on the belly of the planes and cockpit to film pilot’s reactions.
(1) Lt. Danny Velinski measures the length of one of the three tunnels. (2) The July 4th sequence the film grain is much larger, as American pilot’s Hilts, Hendley, and Goff make moonshine from the potatoes they hoarded. (3) The tunnel “Tom” is discovered during the Independence Day celebration and Ives can’t take it any longer and tries to escape. (4&5) Hilts is purposely caught after a brief escape to provide intelligence of the nearby village and ordered back to “the cooler.”
By the early 1950s, Sturges’ “Jeopardy” (1953) a tight 81-minute film with Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan, was a “real standout,” says Stragow. “It’s amazing how much suspense he gets from a father who takes his family to a remote beach in Mexico.” “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955) was Sturges’ first masterpiece and widescreen film, he says. “It remains the peak of widescreen composition for an American film. He uses it for drama.” It would be Sturges’ only Academy Award nomination for Best Director, but opened the door to helm the VistaVision western “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” (1957) with Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holiday.
The Criterion disc also includes two commentaries. The one recorded in 1991 with Sturges and composer Elmer Bernstein, narrated by critic Bruce Eder, is well worth the time. From the opening frames, Sturges gives details about Stalag III and its location in East Prussia, which became East Germany after WWII. Then Bernstein, who also wrote the score for “The Magnificent Seven,” jumps in detailing “The Great Escape’s” opening march, which he says “represents the enduring spirit of these soldiers.” It plays behind the titles as German motorcycles lead a caravan of trucks filled with Allied pilots to the POW camp. Then Sturges takes over, “The characters are fictional in one sense and real in another. Every attribute of these characters is based on reality. All these things happened.” This enjoyable back-and-forth dialogue continues for the next three hours.
Still, with all this praise, one thing is missing. Where’s the 4K Ultra HD version? We deserve it – especially since another 1960s favorite “Spartacus” is coming to 4K in July from Universal.
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
March 1944 - The Great Escape
(1&2) Hilts pops his head from the 30-foot hole from the tunnel. A surprise to Hilts, MacDonald, and Bartlett that the tunnel was 20-feet short of the forest tree line. (3) 76 Allied prisoners escaped before they were discovered at 5 a.m. (4) Col. Von Luger reads the list of missing prisoners.
(1&2) American R.A.F. Flt. Lt. Robert Hendley (James Garner) and Flt. Lt. Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) seemed destined to make Switzerland after commandeering a German flight trainer. Then the aircraft has a failure and they are surrounded by the German Army. (3) Hilts makes a run to jump the barbed-wire fence at the border. (4) Lt. MacDonald is captured. (5) Senior officer Ramsey get the news that 50 airmen had been killed by the Gestapo, which caused international outrage.