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The Great Escape

The Great Escape on DVD

A grand and rousing adventure in which a ragtag band of freedom fighters fights overwhelming odds to strike their blow against tyranny is always a hoot to watch. Hence “Star Wars” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and any number of such flicks.

But when it’s also leavened with a healthy dose of reality, it becomes even more interesting – as is the case with The Great Escape, the retelling of the attempt during World War II of some 250 Allied prisoners to stage a huge exit from their prisoner of war camp.

It wasn’t just any camp, either. The Nazis had just built it and had brought in their elite guards to keep their eyes on this collection of prisoners – the elite of the escapers from other camps.

John Sturges’ movie does a great job of capturing the indomitable human spirit, the “never say die” attitude of these people who don’t care a whit that their new camp is supposed to be “escape proof” but who know it’s their sacred duty not only to escape, but to harass the German military machine in whatever manner they can to ensure that the enemy has to spend valuable resources baby sitting (or chasing down) them rather than sending more soldiers into action against Allied troops elsewhere.

The all-star international cast is terrific. Richard Attenborough plays the British office in charge of the plan, Steve McQueen is the motorcycle ridin’ “cooler king” whose repeated escape attempts help keep the Germans off guard as to the true escape plan. James Garner is the scrounger, a man who seemingly can come up with any tool or other item needed including expensive cameras to be used in the forging of documents; Donald Pleasence is the forger, who goes blind during the process and has to be helped in his own escape. Charles Bronson is a claustrophobic “tunnel king”.

The worst aspect of the movie is James Coburn’s Australian accent, which is non existent except for some Aussie-like phrases he utters. He was from down under undoubtedly for historical accuracy, but they should have let him be an American to enhance his believability.

Still, this is a terrific movie, one of the great WWII flicks and its nearly three hour running time whizzes by as if it were a much shorter film.

And Elmer Bernstein’s score is wonderfully rousing.

This new DVD version is also terrific, though we wish their “stunning new high definition transfer” would have been from a restored version of the movie. The picture is featured in anamorphic widescreen, 16x9 TV compatible, and overall it’s good, but it really shows the film’s age and shows that even a good digital mastering can’t make a silk ear out of a sow’s purse. The colors tend to look a bit smeary, though the image is nice and sharp. But overall, we were left wishing for better video quality.

Audio is Dolby Digital 5.1 surround and it’s quite good, though we didn’t notice much, if any, surround. It’s mostly mono and there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that.

This two disc set includes plenty of extras as well. First up is a running audio commentary featuring director Sturges and various cast/crew members. There’s also a trivia track on disc one.

Disc two includes “The Great Escape: The Untold Story” and “The Real Life Virgil Hilts” (the Steve McQueen part) documentaries, five featurettes on various aspects of the production, a photo gallery and the trailer.

Despite our angst over the picture quality, we’re pleased to add this version of the Great Escape to our DVD library. It isn’t that it’s bad; it’s just disappointing in this day and age of great film restorations.

The Great Escape, from MGM Home Entertainment
172 min. anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1, 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence
Written by James Clavell & W.R. Burnett
Produced and directed by John Sturges


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