All too often, films with an ensemble cast are a dream for the studio’s marketing department, but end up being a nightmare for the moviegoer. They are the very definition of the phrase, “too many Chiefs and not enough Indians”. There are exceptions to this rule (such as Steven Soderberg’s re-make of Ocean’s 11), but more often than not, such films fall flat, as everybody leads in their own direction, and nobody follows.
Thankfully, this is one of those rare exceptions. Each member of the cast of T…e Great Escape understands their role in telling the story, and they fill it perfectly. No one actor is the star here (though it is clear that Steve McQueen is certainly the man); everyone sacrificed their personal glory for the good of the film.
And it is a good film… very good, in fact. It is powerful and dramatic, without being overly melodramatic. It is realistic, yet still entertaining. It is very funny, yet it does not wander into the campy slapstick of Hogan’s Heroes. It is, quite simply, the most enjoyable and truly entertaining film about World War II ever made. Though the film spans three hours, and the majority of the action takes place inside the prison camp, the story never becomes dull. With a script this good, who needs elaborate locations? Much like the aforementioned Ocean’s 11, this is essentially a heist film at its core, and the unfolding con is fascinating to watch.
Another unique and gutsy aspect of this film is its nervous third act. Without spoiling the action for those that have not seen the film, I will just say that the approach is unique, and the film would not have been as wonderful had it been any different.
This is a truly excellent film, and I am thrilled to say that it has finally gotten the treatment that it deserves on DVD. This is a perfect gift for Father’s Day, Memorial Day, or just because.
This is, hands down, the best newly-created 5.1 track for an older film that I have ever heard. Often times, when a new 5.1 track is created for a film that didn’t previously have one, one of two things happens; either the new mix is too weak, for fear of changing too much from the original film, or it is too strong, resulting in a track that sounds unrealistic and out of character. MGM hit this one dead on. I was pleased to hear that the track didn’t become crazy with ambient noise and surround effects, with bullets whizzing over the viewer’s heads. However, the track was certainly given a much-needed kick in the pants, with powerful, tight low end, and a great new range of volume. When a man is whispering, levels are low. When an airplane flies by, levels are high. Dialog is clear, and anchored to the center, just where it should be.
It is also a treat to hear Elmer Bernstein’s fantastic music with new clarity. This is one of those classic scores that should be studied by musicians today as one of the great contributions to film. Bernstein knows when he should relegate himself to supporting the action on screen, and when he should take an active part in telling the story. Many key scenes in the film are conveyed solely through music, as other methods of storytelling would not have had the same emotional impact. This is an excellent score, and a wonderful new Dolby track. I wish that all older films were given this same treatment.
While not quite as breathtaking as the audio, the video on this disc is nothing to sneeze at, either. There is some flicker and color bleeding during the opening credits, but once the film gets underway, those defects are gone for good. What is left is a picture filled with vibrant blues and rich greens. Flesh tones are a bit on the red side, and blemishes do show up on occasion, but generally speaking, the picture probably looks better than it did when the film was new. I was especially struck by the clarity of the picture, as grain is virtually nonexistent. Nighttime scenes suffer from being over-lit, but that is more of a result of the technology of the day than poor filmmaking.
On the whole, I would say that I am very pleased with the picture quality of this film. Open areas feel large, and enclosed spaces feel tight and constricting. This is a transfer that is worthy of the film.
A great film deserves great extras, and MGM really delivered on this set. In addition to the usual theatrical trailers and photo galleries (covering 15 topics in all), there is also a very entertaining trivia track… a feature that I am glad to find on more and more discs these days. This is essentially “Pop-Up The Great Escape”, and it, like the film itself, is endlessly entertaining and fun.
Another typical extra is the inclusion of a commentary track. This one, however, is one of the best that I have heard. Instead of following the typical approach of off-the-cuff comments, this commentary track is a carefully crafted audio documentary, which includes sound bites from many of the primary players from the cast and crew of the film. The result is something new and original, that is unquestionably more interesting than the typical chat track.
As if this wasn’t enough in itself, there are also many featurettes included with the film, including a four part documentary narrated by Burt Reynolds and produced by The History Channel. These segments work to separate the real facts of the events from the Hollywood fiction. Also included is a documentary on the untold story of The Great Escape, as well as a segment of additional interviews with the actual participants in the real-life escape. Finally, there is a piece on the real Virgil Hilts, which is a fascinating segment in its own right.
The extras included with this film are the very definition of what a quality DVD should entail. Absolutely nothing is missing from this set. It is, quite plainly, more than I had ever dreamed that it would be.
I really couldn’t be happier with this DVD set. The film is wonderful, the technical aspects are top-notch, and the extras are plentiful. My only hope is that the great treatment that this title has finally received will encourage current and future generations to discover this excellent heist film. To borrow a phrase, this is truly a “Movie for Guys Who Like Movies.”
Special Features List
- Commentary by director John Sturges, actors James Garner, James Coburn, Donald Pleasance, Judd Taylor, and David McCallum, and crew members, hosted by documentarian/author Stephen J. Rubin
- Theatrical Trailers
- The Great Escape: The Untold Story Featurette
- The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones Documentary
- Five Featurettes: Return to The Great Escape, Preparations for Freedom, A Standing Ovation, Bringing Fact to Fiction, The Flight to Freedom
- Trivia Track
- Photo Galleries