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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

The Great Escape (1963)


Starring: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence and James Coburn
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
RRP: £15.99
Certificate: PG
Release Date: 03 June 2013

In March 1944 months of planning came to fruition with the focus of getting two hundred allied officers out of Stalag Luft III. False papers and clothing were manufactured, these and other supplies had to be taken, by each man, through the tunnel which led to the German countryside. The audacious plan nearly worked and although only seventy-six men escaped, it still represented the biggest single escape from a Nazi prisoner of war camp...

The Great Escape (1963 - 2 hr, 52 min, 13 sec) is an action adventure war film, directed by John Sturges from a screenplay by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, which was an adaptation of the book written by Paul Brickhill, who was a prisoner in the camp when the escape happened.

The film was designed to be a star vehicle and not an accurate documentary and as such there are many historical inaccuracies in the film, although the broader story is faithful to the actual events.

Although the film was relatively inexpensive, for the time, with a budget of four million dollars, the sheer number of ‘A’ grade actors involved and the intelligent script meant that the film quickly attained classic status, hence the reason that it feels like it’s shown every Christmas, along with an ageing James Bond film.

To increase the film's international appeal, some of the nationalities of the escapees were changed, Steve McQueen’s character Hilts was introduced, although no Americans escaped the camp, they had helped to dig the tunnels, but had been moved to their own compound before March 1944.

McQueen’s character is however perfect for the film, his loquacious manner serving as the perfect foil for both the stiffness of both British and German officers. This easy going attitude is also displayed by his fellow American, James Garner (Hedly), playing the fixer for the escape committee.

Adding to the roll call of Americans is James Coburn (Sedgwick), with a pretty appalling Australian accent. One thing you notice on properly re-watching the film is the really strange combination of uniforms and accents. Charles Bronson (Danny) plays a Russian, possibly, as his accent is mostly Brooklyn.

The British contingent is filled with some wonderful actors. Richard Attenborough plays the stoic and driven Bartlett, the originator of the plan, who structures the escape committee. He is ably aided by his number two, Gordon Jackson, playing Macdonald. Donald Pleasence becomes an honouree Brit, playing the forger Blythe. In truth, the list goes on with a veritable cornucopia of talent.

The film is well balanced between the Germans and British and, in truth, the prisoner of war camp was run under the Geneva Convention. The film introduces us to the gestapo early to contrast Von Luger’s (Hannes Messemer) humane treatment, as the Kommandant.

Much of the film is given over to the preparation for the escape, which gives time for the film to establish the characters and their interrelations, the most touching of which is the growing friendship between Hendley and Blythe. The film takes time to examine both the relationships between the prisoners, as well as those they develop with their captors.

This portion has elements of a boys own adventure, with the prisoners getting around the ‘goons’, as well as trying not to get caught digging the three tunnels. When the escape does happen, all pretence of historical accuracy is thrown out of the window in deference to the need to make the sequence dramatic.

The changes may have played fast and loose with the facts, but the film remains faithful to the book in depicting the silent conflict and game of cat and mouse which made up life in the camp. Lots of details of the mens deprivations are noted in almost throw away lines, when the men attempt to dispose of the tunnels dirt by engaging in gardening, the Kommandant is surprised that gentlemen airmen would grow anything other than flowers, the SBO reminds him that they can’t eat flowers. It’s this depiction of life in a prisoner of war camp which makes this a great war film and possibly the only one with no battles.

The disc goes straight into the film, with no menu, which may lead you to think that the disc has no extras, but they are there, including a full length commentary by Director John Sturges.

The Great Escape: Bringing Fact to Fiction (12 min, 21 sec), narrated by Burt Reynolds, looks at the changes made to the film, including the accurate design of the camp from the memories of actual prisoners. The Great Escape: Preparation for Freedom (19 min, 50 sec) is the second in the series of small programs; this one examines the historical facts. The Great Escape: The Flight to Freedom (9 min, 22 sec) takes the story on to the actual escape. The Great Escape: A Standing Ovation (5 min, 58 sec) covers the release of the film. All of the sections have contributions from ex-POW’s, film makers, with sections of the film and contemporary shots of the camp and characters.

The Great Escape: The Untold Story (2001 - 50 min, 47 sec) is a documentary, narrated by Derek Jacobi, which covers the true story, with contributions from surviving prisoners. Without the need to entertain, the documentary is able to tell much more of the story, including the circumstances under which the fifty escapees were killed in ones and twos and not together as depicted in the film. Overall, it is more poignant and moving than the film. There is a sad admission from one of the prisoners that having completed the escape it wasn’t worth the cost. The Great Escape: The Untold Story, Additional Interviews (9 min, 35 sec) shows the interviews which were not used in the documentary.

The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones (25 min, 01 sec), narrated by James Coburn, tells the story of the man which became the inspiration for Steve McQueen’s character, with an extensive interview with David Jones, who not only survived the war, but went on to work on the Apollo mission at NASA.

Return to the Great Escape (24 min, 09 sec) is another documentary covering the events, if you’re not overwhelmed with information about the escape and film. The extras complete with the film’s original theatrical trailer (2 min, 42 sec).

Undoubtedly, the film is one of the most successful and popular war films as well as a wonderful example of how to balance an ensemble cast. Although the extras are not new, having already appeared on the two disc DVD set, the improved picture and sound quality still makes this Blu-ray worth picking up. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio with a HD-DTS 5.1 audio track.


Charles Packer

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