The Great Escape (Special Edition) Review
This review contains historical spoilers
If the average person- therefore, most people reading this are probably excluded, as their interest in DVDs means that they’ve got more specialised knowledge of film- was asked to name their favourite film of all time, and weren’t allowed to mention a certain film set in a galaxy far, far away, it’s interesting to speculate what sort of films might crop up. Perhaps the most obvious choice, or at least one beloved by anyone who has ever spent a semi-drunk Christmas afternoon slumped in front of the television, is The Great Escape, a film so iconic that its theme tune has become synonymous with English footballing success (or failure), just as its most famous moments are regarded as the pinnacle of achievement for the mainstream war film. Although there’s an inevitable difficulty in looking at a film so famous from an entirely fresh perspective, there’s no denying that it still works extremely well as a satisfyingly intelligent piece of escapist (pun fully intended) entertainment, with a theme tune that almost defies the viewer not to whistle it.
With a title that gives away the central event, much of the film’s appeal arises from its iconic ensemble cast. There’s Virgil Hilts (McQueen), who is almost irrelevant to the actual storyline, but manages to make forced solitary confinement look cool; there’s Big X (Attenborough), the sort of dependable, stiff-upper-lipped man who inspires confidence in even the most cowardly prisoner, until Gordon Jackson makes a ghastly, hideous error towards the end; Blythe (Pleasance), the bird-watching forger who is slowly losing his sight, much to his horror; Hendley (Garner), the dashing and heroic flight lieutenant-cum-scrounger; Danny (Bronson), the ‘Tunnel King’ (with all the dubious connotations that such a name implies; James Coburn as the world’s least likely Australian and the usual supporting cast of sneering Nazi villains, all of whom say wonderfully cliched but would-be menacing things like ‘For you, the war is over!!!’
It’s hard to disassociate nostalgic enjoyment of one’s past viewings of the film with hard-nosed criticism, but this is one of those films where attempting to pick away at the flaws becomes a self-defeating exercise. A large part of this is because, to all intents and purposes, there aren’t any great flaws. Although Sturges has never really been ranked as one of the world’s great directors, there is no denying that he directed some remarkably good films, such as Bad Day at Black Rock (the Criterion laserdisc commentary on which, incidentally, apparently inspired Paul Thomas Anderson to be a director) and The Magnificent Seven. However, this is almost certainly his finest achievement, as he manages to keep a potentially plodding and downbeat story exciting and interesting throughout. Daringly, he delays the actual escape until nearly two-thirds of the way through the film; while the thought of two hours of planning and digging might sound dull as ditchwater, Sturges, with the aid of James Clavell and WR Burnett’s strong script, concentrates as much on character development as the various escape preparations; there’s also a generous dash of humour throughout that makes the characters more likeable than the stereotypes often seen in films like this.
The cast are all exceptional, even if McQueen does stick out like a sore thumb; however, it’s churlish to complain about his casting because he’s so entertaining and charismatic as Hilts, the ‘loner who becomes a team player’, as the publicity might have it, especially in the justly famous bike chase towards the end of the film (and, one day, he will jump that fence!). However, this is an ensemble piece, and all the actors are excellent, with Attenborough something of a revelation for those who have only ever known him as a white-bearded old luvvie as the methodical mastermind behind the escape plan. Even James Coburn’s appalling Australian accent (which makes one wonder at first if he’s a Nazi in disguise, quite wrongly) is perfectly bearable in the context of the film. Elmer Bernstein’s score is quite wonderful, even if the main theme has been adopted as a kind of jingoistic football anthem; all the same, it’s perfectly suited to the film’s sense of excitement and daring fun.
Of course, as anyone with any knowledge of the real escape knows, it was a fairly tragic event ultimately, with most of the escapees (73 out of 76) recaptured, and fifty of those were then executed on Hitler’s orders. Therefore, there’s a definitely downbeat tinge to the film, without the exhilarating resolution of a more conventional war epic. However, it would also have been utterly irresponsible for Sturges to have glamourised a fairly infamous event, given that many of those who had been prisoners at the time were still alive, and so the film’s execution is ultimately far more intelligent and restrained than it would have been twenty years later, where an actor like Stallone would have had the lead role and would have spent the picture machine-gunning Nazis to death. This is a consistently enjoyable, intelligent and gripping film that fully deserves its place amongst people’s hearts, and is guaranteed an almost eternal existence as the Bank Holiday film par excellence.
MGM’s second crack at the film, after a rather disappointing non-anamorphic transfer, this new 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is a vastly improved effort, albeit with some small issues remaining. (Incidentally, the box wrongly claims it is non-anamorphic.) Although, by and large, the film is presented with great clarity, there is the odd moment of distracting softness in the print, as well as some occasional speckling on the print itself; there has evidently been some restoration done on the film, but the overall effect is not as impressive as some other films of the period (and I’ll plug Criterion’s work on Spartacus yet again at this point.)
Allegedly, a 5.1 remix is provided. This is ‘allegedly’, because there is no sign that this is anything other than a mono soundtrack; there is no noticeable use of any surround effects, for one thing, and the dialogue and music sound much as they have always done, without any increased clarity or effectiveness. As far as it goes, the soundtrack is fine- it’s certainly on a par with the original mono presentation of the film- but there’s nothing to get very excited about.
MGM have recently been consolidating their position as a vastly improved DVD producing studio with a lot of very well-thought out special editions, such as The Usual Suspects or Thelma and Louise; this is their latest effort, and, although not up to the standards of those two, it’s still good to see the film presented with some strong supplements. On the first disc, there’s a cast and crew commentary track, which, much like the one on The Magnificent Seven DVD, is a patchwork of archival interviews and contemporary comments. There are some fascinating bits of information scattered about, mainly about Steve McQueen but it’s a pity that Criterion’s track, which features John Sturges and Elmer Bernstein, wasn’t able to be licensed. The other extra is a ‘trivia track’, which concentrates both on the film and the historical events which inspired it; unfortunately, the text is presented in large boxes which obscure the film, rather than the more user-friendly subtitle stream that these are normally shown as. Nevertheless, it’s of frequent interest.
The second disc is where the majority of the extras are contained, and it bears noting that they are of vastly more interest to those interested in the historical background to the film than the picture itself. The first documentary is entitled ‘The Great Escape: The Untold Story’ which is a 50-minute piece about the escape itself, the execution of fifty of the prisoners and the subsequent punishment meted out to the Nazis. It’s solidly interesting stuff, with some revealing interviews from WW2 prisoners about their experiences, but the use of actors in ‘dramatised’ sections does irritate somewhat. There’s also a short number of additional interviews for this, which will be of interest to anyone who enjoyed the main feature. There’s also a rather spurious featurette called ‘A Man Called Jones…the real Virgil Hilts’ which is a look at one of the men who might have inspired the Steve McQueen character, but, then again, may not have; there’s nothing here that wasn’t presented better in the longer documentary.
Given that the film has numerous behind-the-scenes stories about its production, ranging from McQueen’s temperamental fits of narcissism (famously, the bike chase was inserted for the sole purpose of allowing him to show off his skills behind a motorbike) to the difficulty of filming in Germany itself, one might expect a really excellent making-of documentary. Unfortunately, the one provided- ‘Heroes Underground’ is firstly divided up into seven irritating ‘featurettes’, with no play-all option, and lacks any real insight into the film itself, with only one member of the film’s production interviewed and any potentially interesting stories glossed over quickly. Coupled with the irritatingly intrusive narration by Burt Reynolds, this is a real disappointment. Other extras include a (dire) theatrical trailer and a lengthy photo gallery that scores points for including text that puts the shots in context, but loses them again for dividing sections up into a couple of pictures at a time.
A genuinely classic film- although one that might have been even better had it not had obvious allowances made for the American market- is finally released in a decent DVD package, even if the soundtrack leaves something to be desired, and the lack of a thorough documentary about the film itself is a disappointment. All the same, it’s a more than worthy replacement for the undistinguished previous release or that ancient, worn-out VHS copy, and is recommended as a result.