The Great Escape appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Though a little dated at times, the image largely held up well.
For the most part, sharpness worked nicely. Some softness appeared at times, but those instances remained infrequent and they stemmed from the original photography. The majority of the flick appeared precise and accurate.
No signs of jagged edges or shimmering occurred, and I saw no indications of edge haloes. With a natural layer of grain, noise reduction failed to become a problem, and the image lacked print flaws.
With its grim POW camp setting, the palette focused on a fairly brown and blue set of tones. The Blu-ray replicated these accurately and gave them the appropriate sense of accuracy.
Blacks looked dark and dense, while shadows appeared smooth and concise. I felt wholly pleased with this appealing visual presentation.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack of The Great Escape fine, especially given its age. The soundfield didn’t go nuts, but it opened up matters to a decent degree – albeit erratically. Some scenes used the side and rear speakers to good advantage, while others seemed essentially monaural.
These variations occurred without obvious rhyme or reason. For instance, sometimes the score would spread across the front and back, while other times it remained constricted.
Effects occasionally broadened to the side and rear channels but they also could seem limited at times. Erratic as it may’ve been, the track showed moderate ambition and used the various channels in a satisfying way at times.
Quality seemed a little more questionable but was usually good. Dialogue sounded iffiest, with a fair amount of variation. Although speech always appeared fairly intelligible, it displayed inconsistent quality.
Some lines were natural and relatively warm, while others came across as somewhat stiff and thick. All lines remained within the realm of acceptability for such an old movie, however.
Effects also sounded a bit flat and thin but they appeared reasonably clear, and the music was similar. In general, the audio was somewhat dense and a little heavy on low-end.
Bass response occasionally came across as moderately heavy and boomy, though the low-end remained pretty decent for its age. Overall, the audio of Escape appeared good for something from 1963.
This release also included the film’s LPCM monaural soundtrack. In terms of quality, it felt a bit more natural than the 5.1 affair, as the latter could demonstrate some unnecessary reverb that went absent in the mono mix.
That made the mono track more satisfying from my POV. While I did like the 5.1 effort for what it was, I generally prefer original audio, and the high quality of the mono mix made it more pleasing.
The mono track showed smoother speech, and both effects and music seemed more concise. Of course, the mix still showed its age, but it came across as a better representation of the souce.
How did the Criterion Blu-ray compare to the prior Blu-ray? Both shared the same DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio, but visuals became a different story.
I thought the old Blu-ray looked muddy and soft, factors that some believed simply were endemic to the source. Given its greatly improved sharpness, colors and general smoothness, the Criterion release proves that perspective incorrect. It turned into a massive upgrade over the flawed 2013 release.
This Criterion Blu-ray mixes old and new extras, and we find two separate audio commentaries. From 2003, the first features author Steven Jay Rubin, director John Sturges, assistant director Robert Relyea, actors Donald Pleasence, James Garner, James Coburn, Jud Taylor and David McCallum, production designer Fernando Carrere, Steve McQueen’s manager Hilly Elkins, and motorcycle stuntman Bud Ekins. Rubin narrates the piece, which consists of his remarks plus many separate interviews edited into the whole.
While some may dislike the non-screen-specific format, it doesn’t bother me, and this track presents a good breadth of material. We learn about the book’s path to the screen, Sturges’ interest in it and how he got onto the project, casting and the actors’ work together and relationships, locations, and various challenges. We get a lot of interesting anecdotes and encounter a nice feel for the production and the creation of the film.
Rubin does a great job as master of ceremonies; he connects the various snippets well and provides plenty of facts of his own. In fact, his material really dominates, as the other comments pop up somewhat sporadically. The track moves briskly and presents a fine examination of matters.
Recorded for a 1991 Criterion laserdisc, the second commentary involves director John Sturges, composer Elmer Bernstein, 2nd unit director Robert Relyea and stuntman Bud Ekins. Hosted by film historian Bruce Eder, this edited piece covers historical elements/influences, story and characters, sets and locations, cast and performances, music, editing and connected elements.
Whereas the host played a major role in the first commentary, Eder takes a relative backseat here, as we don’t hear much from him until a good 40 percent of the way into the film. Sturges does most of the heavy lifting up until that point, though we hear plenty from Bernstein and Relyea as well.
The filmmakers continue to pop up a lot as the movie progresses, though we get more from Eder, presumably because the others fade. Whatever the case, we get a good collection of thoughts in the commentary. Inevitably, some of the info repeats from the first track, but the older discussion still comes with plenty of useful material.
Footnote: after Eder introduces himself at the movie’s start, the track never identifies the other participants. Although we can figure out who’s who pretty easily, it still seems odd that the commentary forces the listener to do the work.
The four-part Heroes Under Ground fills a total of 43 minutes, 39 seconds. Narrated by Burt Reynolds, we hear from Stalag Luft III ex-POWs John Weir, Alex Cassie, Albert Wallace, and James J. Cullen, wife of ex-POW Betty Floody, authors Jonathan Vance and Arthur Durand, and assistant director Robert Relyea.
We learn about the origins of the tale and its path to the screen, adapting the historical tale and characters, the sets and locations, the realities of the actual prison camp and the escape, the elements of the individual flights and liberties taken, the prosecution of those responsible for some of the story’s atrocities, and the film’s reception.
While “Heroes” give us a decent look at some parts of the filmmaking process, the elements connected to the real story offer the best moments. We get a good look at what actually happened and the change made for the movie. “Heroes” could use a little more depth, but it provides a pretty concise and efficient look at the material.
After this we discover a program called The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones. It uses 25 minutes, one second to combine historical materials, movie clips and interviews as it lets us know about David Jones, the inspiration for the Hilts character.
After a short intro from James Coburn, we hear exclusively from Jones himself, as he tells us about his early life, actions in WWII, the escape and his role, his remaining time in the War and his post-War experiences.
Jones offers a relentless barrage of interesting stories, as he proves to be a lively and entertaining speaker. This featurette gives us an informative look at the person behind one of the film’s key characters, and it’s a solid extra for this disc.
We follow with the 24-minute, nine-second Return to The Great Escape. In this piece, we hear from David McCallum, John Sturges, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence, James Garner, Jud Taylor, Robert Relyea, art director Fernando Carrere, Steve McQueen’s ex-wife Neile McQueen Toffel and son Chad, and motorcycle stuntman Bud Ekins.
”Return” offers a basic examination of the production. We learn a little about its path to the screen as well as casting, locations, sets, and the shoot.
Much of this information appears elsewhere, and not a lot of unique notes pop up here. We do find a better than average look at McQueen’s work on the film, though. “Return” is a decent program, but it feels somewhat redundant after all the prior pieces.
In addition to the film’s trailer, we get a new Interview with Critic Michael Sragow. It spans 23 minutes, 11 seconds and provides notes about the life and career of John Sturges, with some emphasis on Great Escape. Sragow brings a good overview.
A booklet completes the package. It provides a map of the POW compound, credits and an essay from critic Sheila O’Malley. The booklet completes the set on a positive note.
A very entertaining movie, The Great Escape doesn’t come without flaws, but its problems seem greatly outweighed by its positives. The film tells an intriguing story in a lively and involving manner. The Blu-ray offers good picture, audio and bonus materials. This becomes easily the best home video rendition of the movie to date, one I expect could be improved only if via a 4K UHD version.
To rate this film, visit the Special Edition review of THE GREAT ESCAPE