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MGM Studios DVD presents
The Great Escape: Special Edition (1963)

"It is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape. If they can't, it is their duty to cause the enemy to use an inordinate number of troops to guard them and their sworn duty to harass the enemy to the best of their ability."
- Rupert Ramsey (James Donald)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: May 26, 2004

Stars: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson
Other Stars: Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, Hannes Messemer, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, John Leyton, Angus Lennie, Robert Graf
Director: John Sturges

Manufacturer: DVCC
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence)
Run Time: 02h:51m:59s
Release Date: May 18, 2004
UPC: 027616905710
Genre: war

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

One of the most legendary exploits in World War II was what has popularly become known as The Great Escape, made renowned by the book by Paul Brickhill and this film by John Sturges. In a POW camp run by the German Luftwaffe, with a prisoner population primarily of Dominion air officers, Stalag Luft III, a plan was hatched to not only break out of the supposedly unbreakable prison, but to do so on an enormous and unprecedented scale. The resulting film makes for one of the great classics of the human spirit.

The newly-established Luft III is meant to hold the most escape-prone POWs, all of whom had a long record of getting out of normal camps. With heavier guards and even microphones in the soil to detect any tunneling efforts, the Nazis were confident that these precautions would finally keep these men captive. But they didn't count on Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), who masterminds an elaborate set of three tunnels thirty feet below the surface, and extending into the woods outside the camp. Aided by master forger Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence), tunnel king Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson), scrounger Hendley (James Garner) and reconnaisance by compulsive escaper Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen), Bartlett establishes a program to get 250 men out of the camp and to make their way to freedom, or failing that, to raise as much havoc as possible within the Third Reich.

This isn't just another war picture; although it's set in during wartime and nearly everyone onscreen is a soldier, the story is really one of the irrepressible urge for freedom. Battles and military action are kept almost entirely offscreen. More than anything, this is a hugely effective suspense thriller. The last hour, centering on the actual escape that has been set up in the previous two hours, has almost inexpressible tension throughout, particularly in the claustrophobic tunnel sequences.

The casting is terrific on just about every front, with everyone quite beautifully realizing each of their characters. Many of the participants had been in the military and were able to use their experiences here, most notably Donald Pleasence, who had actually been held in Stalag Luft I for a time. There was a certain amount of controversy on the original release by the prominence given to the American participants, even though none of the actual escapees was American. But this was certainly a market necessity given the participation of McQueen and Garner. The other point of serious controversy, notwithstanding the assertion that everything shown in the escape is true, is McQueen's escape with its justly famous motorcycle chase, inserted into the film at the star's insistence to allow him to show off his biking skills. Even though it's utterly fabricated, it makes for some great filmmaking, though the iconic jump of the barbed wire, which would be a huge production number in slow motion today, is almost an afterthought and barely registers, it's over so quickly.

MGM's timing in releasing this film, with its important themes of the treatment of prisoners, is certainly apropos. It's a reminder of the importance of the now-"quaint" Geneva Convention, which for the most part was respected even by the Nazis. Even when Hitler, in a fit of rage at the success of the escape, ordered war crimes to be committed in violation of the Convention, it was correctly deemed to be monstrous not only by the Allies and the POWs, but by the Germans outside the Gestapo.

Even though I'd seen this picture several times before and remembered it as a quality picture, I was surprised by just how effective it is on repeated viewings. Those who've previously caught this film should consider it well worth revisiting. But those who haven't seen it before should avoid the extras and the accompanying production notes, which are loaded with spoilers. It's best to approach it without knowing the outcome of the escape.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The prior release of this film on DVD by MGM was justly maligned for its poor nonanamorphic transfer. The new anamorphic one presented here is much better, correcting the messed-up framing that revealed too much on the sides, improving the color and detail levels and generally giving a good deal more breathing room for bit rate, since the old disc insanely crammed the entire three-hour film into a single layer. It's still not perfect, though. The heavy grain is not well-rendered and often has a sparkly appearance. Edge enhancement is frequently noticeable, especially in shots of dark objects against sky. Aliasing is also apparent much too often. On the positive side, black levels and shadow detail are hugely improved and little of the old pixelation remains here.
click to view larger version of old image transfer framingclick to view larger version of new image transfer framing

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, French, Spanishno
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: In addition to the original 2.0 mono, a somewhat improved 5.1 DD track is provided. All are hissy and noisy to some extent, and Elmer Bernstein's classic score sounds a bit tinny. The bass levels seem to be unnaturally juiced on the 5.1, making the mono a much more pleasing audio experience. The 5.1 is not from separate stems in any event, but merely shuffling around the mono track amongst speakers, so one isn't missing much by going mono in any event. There's little directionality or surround activity in the 5.1 track. Comparing them directly is made difficult since MGM for reasons best known to itself has disabled the ability to change audio tracks on the fly.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
4 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director John Sturges, stars James Garner, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence, Jud Taylor, David McCallum, crew
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:31m:08s

Extra Extras:
  1. still gallery
Extras Review: This special edition really lives up to its name, providing a wealth of information both made up of interview clips from many participants including some who are long-deceased. It makes for an interesting listen and covers many of the problems in making the picture in good detail. It's seldom screen-specific, however. Also on the first disc is a subtitle trivia track, which has an unfortunate tendency to duplicate the audio commentary.

The second disc is packed with featurettes and documentaries. Several of them are devoted to the making of the film, but most, including the superb The Great Escape: The Untold Story, focuson the real-life event, incorporating reconstructions with interview footage from many of the participants. An unadvertised extra includes even more unused interview fopotage. Four of the pieces, narrated by Burt Reynolds, are culled from a History Channel program devoted the film. The 24m:09 Return to The Great Escape documentary that appeared on the old disc is also present here, as is the very same "collectible booklet" so there's no reason whatsoever to hang onto the old disc. While a good deal of the information in that documentary is repeated elsewhere here, it's still nice to be able to toss the old disc without any reservations. A thorough stills gallery features many behind-the-scenes shots, and finally an anamorphic trailer tops off the package. There's very little more one could ask for and any fan of the film should be ecstatic.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

One of the great WWII entertainments, with an inexorably thrilling execution and themes, is given an upgraded transfer but it's still not as good as the film deserves. The extras are highly worthwhile, focusing to a great extent on the real-life facts behind the film.


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