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Blu-ray Review: The Great Escape (1963)

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Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, and James Coburn.  Okay, perhaps those weren’t all big names when The Great Escape was released in 1963, but they’re all names we know now and watching John Sturges’ classic WWII film will show you exactly why that is.

The Great Escape is based on the true story of a group of American and British airmen who find themselves put together in a POW camp during WWII.  They are in this one camp because they all have a penchant for attempting to escape and the German Luftwaffe figured it would be better to put all the troublemakers in the same place.
Yeah, as you may have surmised from reading the title of the movie, a great escape is in fact planned.  The movie doesn’t just deal with the plans for said escape, but also the escape’s immediate aftermath.  And, it is only there, with some of the moments following the escape that the nearly three hour film falters.  The lead-up to the escape, the introduction of the characters, the excavation of the tunnel, and formulation of the plan are absolutely outstanding.

In fact, much of the post-escape moments are outstanding as well, but to that point the film doesn’t feel bloated – it is a taut yet funny piece about this group of guys coming together and planning something wonderful.  Once they are separated and we follow the multiple paths some of the tension oozes out, and it shouldn’t, because the Germans are still on the escapees’ heels.

It isn’t just the brilliant nature of the escape and the formulation of said escape that make the movie as good as it is,  actually a lot of it is that list of actors above.  These aren’t just actors, they are legends of the silver screen, men with big personas and tons of charisma.  Anyone of them could carry a film by themselves (look at their filmographies), but together they’re something truly special.  They are a powerful ensemble which is a pleasure to watch on the big screen, and Sturges knows just how to handle them.  They all get their moments—their scenes—and they’re all at the top of their game.   To be sure, the entire endeavor is testosterone heavy (there are no speaking parts for women), but it works and it works very, very well.

What is not outstanding is this new Blu-ray release.  It is pretty good, but it is certainly not outstanding.  It starts off badly with, and this is always inexplicable to me, the lack of a main menu.  There are some nominally interesting behind the scenes pieces included (a number of these are a part of a single series of features),  including a good one on the man McQueen’s character is based on, but having to watch the actual movie play out while trying to figure out which of the bonus features you’ve watched and which you haven’t is just plain annoying.

I am, however, happy to report that the print is a relatively clean one.  There are certainly some moments when you will notice a little imperfection here or there, but by and large there is little to complain of.  I do not feel it is necessarily quite as sharp and detailed as it might be, but I’m not sure if that’s age or intent or a failing on another level.  On the auditory side of things, the truly good bit of the 5.1 DTS HD-MA is the score.  The effects are clear and the audio wholly intelligible, but Elmer Bernstein’s score is certainly the highlight.

The Great Escape is a war film that has passed the test of time.  Some of this is probably attributable to it being a period piece, and some of it to having a great story.  While those are great reasons to watch, the best reason is for the incredible amount of charisma present on screen.  As a bargain-priced release, even with a main menu, this should be added to many a film collection.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.