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Kino Lorber delivers definitive edition of WWII epic, “The Great Escape”

Updated: May 4, 2022


Steve McQueen plays U.S. pilot Captain Virgil Hilts, who finds a blind spot between the German guard towers, and he’s stopped by the guards and Col. Von Luger (Hannes Messemer) “The Kommandant” of Stalag Luft III, who sentences him to twenty days to the isolation block “the cooler.”

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)


4K Ultra HD; 1963; unrated; streaming Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube Best extra: A 50-minute British TV documentary, “The Untold Story,” highlighting the actual escape

EIGHTEEN MONTHS AGO, we reviewed The Criterion Collection’s 1080p version of “The Great Escape.” After owning five editions of the World War II epic over the last three decades – starting with the Criterion laserdisc in 1991 – the movie finally became a “cinematic experience” with natural film grain and first-rate sharpness.

The folks at MGM produced the 4K 10-bit restoration from the original camera negative (2.35:1 aspect ratio), which covered 95 percent of the nearly three-hour film. A 35mm interpositive was also scanned, as well as a lesser print with larger grain and softer picture, to fill in gaps from the damaged negative and interpositive. Now, Kino Lorber, under the KL Studio Classics banner, has released the 4K Ultra HD version sourced from the same master, but with slightly different color and brightness grading, plus the added 2160p resolution. A 4K digital version has been available for over a year.

(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) A replica of the POW camp was constructed at Bavaria Studios outside Munich, Germany. (4) James Garner plays American R.A.F. Flt. Lt. Robert “The Scrounger” Hendley. (5) Scottish Flying Officer Archie Ives (Angus Lennie) “The Mole” eyes the barbed-wired fence. (6) 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.” (7) Colonel Von Luger meets with Senior officer Ramsey.

What are the results? Right off the bat, you’re going to see more fine detail, particularly in the facial markings and costume textures, and natural film grain. It’s especially evident with screens 65 inches and larger when seated within the minimum viewing angle of 30 degrees recommended by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. That translates to a viewing distance 1.2 to 1.6 times your screen’s diagonal measurement. In my theater room, the first- and second-row seats fall within the suggested distance. Side note: The standard HDR10 or the more advanced Dolby Vision grading are not available on this release, even though the outer sleeve and inter-jacket say it features Dolby Vision. It’s presented in SDR (standard dynamic range), just like Kino’s 4K release of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” from last year. Both are coded with the lesser Rec.709 color gamut and contrast levels found on all Blu-rays. There’s no word if the cost or color and contrast condition of the 4K master made the HDR upgrade unavailable.

Still, wide shots filled with dozens of Allied POW faces have clearly more definition than the 1080p and the 4K digital versions. The overall color palette is slightly cooler on the neutral side, and darker in certain scenes, while the Criterion disc was dialed on the warmer side. The audio is the same as the Criterion disc, which includes the original uncompressed mono track and a remastered DTS-HD six-channel soundtrack and with Elmer Bernstein’s classic score front and center. Just don’t expect much action from the rear speakers with explosions and bullets.

(1) Australians Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick (James Coburn) and Polish R.A.F. Flt. Lt. Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson) try to escape attempting to blend in with Russian workers. (2) Capt. Hilts throws his baseball toward the bind spot along the barbed-wire fence. (3) 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.

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.

McQueen, who plays American pilot Virgil Hilts “The Cooler King,” steals the show, taking a bike at a Nazi checkpoint and jumping a six-foot barbed-wire fence. The stunt was a last-minute addition and handled by stunt double Bud Ekins. McQueen was reportedly irritated throughout the production, thinking he didn’t have enough screen time. At one point he planned his own strike. Hollywood agents and studio exclusives flew to Germany to broker the stalemate between McQueen and director John Sturges (“Gunfight of the OK Corral,” “Bad Day at Black Rock”). 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. German and American students from a nearby university were hired as extras. Sturges got his start as a film editor at RKO before WWII and enlisted after Pearl Harbor, making U.S. Army documentaries with director William Wyler (“Ben-Hur,” “The Best Years of Our Lives”). He first attempted an adaptation of ex-POW Paul Brickhill’s “The Great Escape” memoir in the early 1950s.

Brickhill an Australian, had been shot down in Tunisia in 1943 and shipped to the 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 50 prisoners were executed by the Gestapo causing international outrage.

(1) Lt. Velinski measures the length of one of the three tunnels. (2) Much of the July 4th sequence was filmed with a diffusion filter over the Panavision lens and the film grain is much larger, as American pilot’s Hilts, Hendley, and Goff make moonshine from the potatoes they hoarded. (3&4) The tunnel “Tom” is discovered during the Independence Day celebration and Ives can’t take it any longer and tries to escape. The Allied pilots find Ives stuck on the barbed-wire fence. (5&6) Hilts is purposely caught after a brief escape to provide intelligence of the nearby village and ordered back to “the cooler.”

After Sturges’ successful Western “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), which also starred McQueen and “Great Escape” co-stars James Coburn and Charles Bronson, United Artists finally gave the go-ahead. The all-star cast also includes James Garner and British actors Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasence. Most of the characters were created from composites of real people. American screenwriter W.R. Burnett (“The Asphalt Jungle”) wrote the script.

EXTRAS The 4K disc includes two commentaries. The best, with Garner, Coburn and Sturges, and moderated by war film expert Steven Rubin, was pieced together in the early 2000s from interviews with the cast and crew. The other features film historian Steve Mitchell and Rubin.

The enclosed Blu-ray houses just the bonus extras, including seven featurettes. The four-part “The Great Escape: Heroes Underground,” narrated by Burt Reynolds, 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 frozen ground that put them two hours behind schedule. Once they cracked the surface, there was another surprise: They were short of the tree line and steam was 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. The Nazis redirected thousands of troops from the front and fanned out across the countryside to hunt down the escapees.

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 was that the tunnel was 20-feet short of the forest tree line. (3) Everyone waits their turn. (4) 76 Allied prisoners escaped before they were discovered at 5 a.m. (5&6) At daybreak, the POWs listen as Col. Von Luger read the list of missing prisoners.

The most interesting bonus is the 50-minute “Untold Story.” Filmed in England and Poland, where Stalag Luft III was built, it re-creates several events surrounding the escape, including the British hunt to find the Germans involved in the murders of the unarmed escapees. The investigation was headed by RAF policeman Frank McKenna. The bonus also highlights Bushell, who had tried to escape several times before the Great Escape. “His real objective was to achieve this gram slam, as it was, the big tunnel,” says escapee Jack Lyon.

Six-hundred men spent a year digging, forging documents and turning uniforms into civilian clothes. The few pilots who spoke German became scroungers, bribing guards for what was needed. One was Dennis Cochran, who was shot down over the English Channel. His letters from the POW camp always ended, “I’ll be home soon,” says his sister Beryl Fitch.

Another letter, from RAF pilot Tom Kirby-Green, written to his wife just before the escape, is read by his son, Colin.

“My adored darling, I am thinking so much of you now and longing so hard for you. I feel so grateful for your love and tenderness and so humble. Soon I hope I shall be able to make the world a paradise for you and for Colin. I love you, darling. What more can I say? Kisses to you, Your Thomas.”

This new 4K edition is the definitive edition and the best this timeless classic has looked since it premiered on July 3, 1963. Is there one more upgrade with HDR? Time will tell.

— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

(1&2) 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. (3-5) Hilts makes a run to jump the barbed-wire fence at the border. (6) British Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett “Big X” (Richard Attenborough) is captured. (7) Senior officer Ramsey gets the news that 50 airmen had been killed by the Gestapo, which caused international outrage.



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