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Feature


John Sturges’ The Great Escape (based loosely on Paul Brickhill’s original novel and a true event) is easily among the finest and most influential motion pictures of all time. It fulfills the needs of many genres – heist, escape, action, character study, war, and comedy – all without ever feeling over-crowded or tonally confused. It features career finest (or near career finest) performances from a motley crew of the ‘60s finest character actors and leads, including Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, and James Donaldson, giving each actor his due time without its epic 172 minute runtime ever stretching into boredom. In fact, it’s hard to think of many other nearly three hour long features that zip by without a moment of what I’d call down time ( Seven Samurai, Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, The Godfather, The Right Stuff, and Saving Private Ryan are all members of this small club). There’s no obvious fat to be cut, there’s no time wasted on unnecessary sequences, and there’s no scientific explanation for the amazing speed at which this particularly time-consuming film moves along. For some reason, the Motion Picture Academy didn’t nominate The Great Escape for anything other than editing – perhaps because it smelled too much like a ‘boys adventure’ picture or perhaps the Academy was a stickler for historical accuracy at the time – but it’s hard to recommend Tom Jones (Best Picture winner), America, America, Cleopatra, How the West Was Won, or Lilies of the Field above Sturges’ masterpiece. At the very least, The Great Escape’s pop culture legacy is firmly intact, thanks to the likes of The Simpsons, Quentin Tarantino, Peter Lord & Nick Park (writers/directors of Chicken Run), and Eddie Izzard. I don’t really have much I can say that hasn’t already been said better.

 Great Escape, The

Video


This review copy of Fox/MGM’s Blu-ray release (the first Blu-ray release in any region, I believe) arrived in my mailbox the evening following its release date, as is the norm for Fox release (you may have noticed). Other news and review outlets scored their review copies earlier, so, before I even had the disc in hand, I was hearing rumours of Fox/MGM dropping the ball on this highly anticipated release. The original press release specs listed a full 4K restoration of the material that would be screened at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles back in April. That screening apparently occurred, but I haven’t read any reviews on the quality of the showing. The Great Escape gets such regular play on cable TV that I hadn’t ever bothered to buy a DVD copy over the years, so I’m unfortunately unable to directly compare this new transfer to older ones. However, I have seen the film in HD on TCM more than once and have a pretty strong memory of those viewings.

First things first – this transfer is an upgrade over SD releases. Even without seeing it back to back with a DVD, I can see that the general clarity and detail levels are beyond that of even an up-converted DVD image. There’s nothing overtly impressive in the close-up textures and the backgrounds are occasionally a bit mushy, but there are no issues with jagged edges and the overall mosaic is sharper than standard definition could handle. Edge enhancement also isn’t much of an issue, compared to various DVD screencaps scattered across the Internet, where every particularly sharp edge is haloed. Problems arise in complex overlapping patterns, some of which display shimmering Bayer effects, but again, there’s very little in terms of sharpening effects. The print is quite a bit grainier than I’m guessing most fans were expecting. The grain occasionally clumps and some of the wider shots are a bit of smeared, but the granules are primarily consistent. The presence of grain also means the producers haven’t gone hog-wild with digital tinkering. There are minor signs of DNR in the smoothness of facial skin and bit of blobbing in deeper set props, but nothing like the waxy monstrosities seen in too many other over-modulated releases. The most obvious mistakes in terms of clarity are some really frosty shots peppered throughout the nearly three-hour runtime, specifically the 4th of July sequence that begins around the 1:20:00 mark. This effects only the outside shots, which I suppose are already a bit foggy.

 Great Escape, The
Compared to my memories of the TCM HD airings, this new 1080p image is sizably less vibrant and has a cooler overall tint. I find myself missing the warmer DeLuxe Color skin tones and wooden browns. The bluer, de-saturated qualities also lead to a generally darker sheen, which makes for some dull-ish details during darker shots, especially those scenes set in the caverns (the black edges bleed out here too). We aren’t talking a French Connection level of dimming and ‘bluification,’ but I’m pretty sure The Great Escape was meant to be more eclectic and vivid than this (the consistent quality of navy blues and skin tones is a bit uncanny). The colour strips fallout of line a few times throughout the film, but this isn’t very (unlike some of Paramount’s White Christmas and To Catch a Thief semi-recent DVD releases).

Note: The Great Escape also has a weird history with framing on digital home video. It has been presented in 2.30:1, 2.35:1, and 2.69:1. This release is 2.35:1, which matches the IMDb.com specs, but director John Sturges has said that the 2.30:1 is close to his intention.

Correction: Troy Anderson at andersonvision.com noted that while getting screencaps for me to use with this review that the encode material marks the transfer as being made in the second quarter of 2004. Assuming the data is accurate (and why not?) that would probably mean that this 1080p transfer is the same one I saw on TCM and that my memories are deceiving me on the differences in quality. Anyone with further information pertaining to this possibility should feel free to say something in the comments section.

 Great Escape, The

Audio


More bad news: Fox/MGM has not included The Great Escape’s original mono soundtrack, which had been available as an option on the previous MGM special-edition DVD. Your only choice here, assuming you’re going to watch the film in English, is a newly re-mastered version of the old 5.1 remix, presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio sound. However, according to IMDb.com specs, The Great Escape was released with a 4-track stereo option (Westrex Recording System) throughout appropriately equipped for stereo, so the non-mono sound likely hasn’t been taken entirely from a single channel source. Still, stereo to 5.1 almost always leads to issues with artificial directional effects, surround support, and dialogue track splitting. For the most part, this is a 1.0 dialogue and effects track laid over a nice stereo surround representation of Elmer Bernstein’s ear-bug of a musical score. The music is full, rich, and loud without overwhelming the dialogue or important effects. The LFE enhancement also applies almost exclusively to the music, where it does occasionally overshadow the melodies. The sounds of war machinery and buzzing vehicles sit more or less in the center channel, only occasionally wandering out to the stereo or surround channels. These splits aren’t particularly awkward or distracting (the shifting dialogue is surprisingly natural), but mono would be preferable.

 Great Escape, The

Extras


The extras here match those of MGM’s last two-disc special-edition release (minus an image gallery and a trivia track), beginning with a grouped commentary made up from interviews with Sturges, actors James Garner, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence, Jud Taylor and David McCallum, production executive Robert Relyea, and stuntman Bud Ekins.

The other extras are a series of retrospective featurettes that sort of link into each other, including:
  • Bringing Fact to Fiction (12:20, SD) is a quick look at the real-life ‘Great Escapers’ and the changes made to their story while making the film.
  • Preparations for Freedom (19:50, SD) continues covering the technical processes of planning the escape.
  • The Flight to Freedom (9:20, SD) covers the historical escape itself and compares it to the film’s events.
  • A Standing Ovation (6:00, SD) briefly covers the film’s premiere and massive success.
  • The Great Escape: The Untold Story (50:50, SD) is closer to a long-form documentary, complete with re-enactments. It includes interviews with real escapers Jimmy James, Alex Cassie, Jack Lyon, and Les Brodwick, along with surviving family members.
  • Additional Interviews from The Untold Story (9:40, SD).
  • The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones (25:00, SD) covers the inspiration behind Steve McQueen’s character.
  • Return to The Great Escape (24:10, SD) finishes things out by telling the true story one more time.


 Great Escape, The

Overall


You shouldn’t need me to tell you that The Great Escape is a fantastic, endlessly re-watchable motion picture. The question is whether or not this new Blu-ray release’s disappointing 1080p images is enough to keep fans from re-buying the film for their collection. In the end, this is an upgrade over the DVD releases (as far as my eyes can tell), but it does have problems. I don’t think the problems are as aggressive as some other critics think they are, but, clearly, there’s room for improvement. The missing mono audio track is a disappointment as well, but the DTS-HD MA 5.1 serves the film well and the extras, ported from the previous DVD releases, are quite informative (if not a little repetitive).

 Great Escape, The

 Great Escape, The

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Thanks to Troy Anderson from andersonvision.com for the caps.


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