Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn
Director:  John Sturges
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  See Review
Length:  172 Minutes
Release Date:  May 18, 2004

“I haven’t seen Berlin yet, from the ground or from the air.  And I plan on doing both before the war’s over.”

Film ***1/2

Take an actual historic wartime event, embellish it a little for modern audiences, assemble a terrific ensemble cast and take them on location, and you’ve got a mix for surefire entertainment.  The Great Escape has remained a cinematic classic for over 40 years now, and for good reason.

Based on the novel by Paul Brickhill, which in turn was an examination of a true story that occurred for Allied Forces behind enemy lines in World War II Germany, the film nevertheless bore the singular vision of producer/director John Sturges.  He had a great piece of history on his hands…and, as is often the case, the problem of history not being enough for Hollywood.

Certain details were altered…for example, in real life, most of the Americans had been moved from the German prison camp prior to the great escape…though they helped plan for it, they didn’t take part in it.  Studio officials worried that a lack of Americans present for the climactic event would disengage the audience…not to mention, it would require a reduction in screen time for star Steve McQueen.

But apart from a few name and personnel changes, the details of the break are by and large accurate.  It was a striking tale of a bold attempt to tunnel 250 prisoners out of a German stalag…if they couldn’t make it all the way to freedom, at least being scattered throughout the country would tie up enemy resources in looking for them.

As in all great escape pictures, the meat of the story is in the planning and methodical execution.  Led by British officer Roger Bartlett (Attenborough), the prisoners hatch a bold plan for their break.  It involves the digging of no less than three tunnels (if one was discovered, another could be completed) no less than thirty feet down (to avoid being picked up by the camp’s ground sensors).

One by one, the obstacles are addressed and dealt with.  How do the prisoners dispose of the dirt they dig from the tunnels?  Their method is ingenious, and seen before in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion.  How do the men breathe while they dig?  With a makeshift air pump.  Once they get out, how will they blend in with the German population at large?  Teams of men are designed to turn ordinary clothes and fabrics into the costumes that will do the trick.  And so on.

The film’s strangest plot point involves the master digger Danny Velinski (Bronson), who manages most of the dangerous heavy work of tunneling, only to become inexplicably claustrophobic when time to make the run for it.  Did the scriptwriters feel that one more dramatic element, however forced, was essential?

When it comes time to make the escape, suspense and tension are at a high.  Everything we’ve seen, every well coordinated effort, every bit of backbreaking work and sweat has led to this point…what will happen now?

What happens in the film is pretty much historically accurate.  I won’t spoil the details for you in case you’re unfamiliar with the story, but there came an interesting follow up to the drama:  because of the popularity of this film, a new investigation into an atrocity committed against some of the prisoners was launched, and many of the perpetrators brought to justice.  If you think the current Iraqi prison photos are horrifying, you may think again after what you see done to some of the Allied prisoners here.

The film works best when it’s leading up to and executing the escape.  Some of the aftermath is a little uneven and feels out of rhythm.  The best part is the famous motorcycle chase with Virgil Hilts (McQueen), who insisted on such a sequence as a condition for doing the picture.  He actually does all but one of his own riding stunts in the film…it probably won’t be hard to figure out exactly which one (he actually tried it once himself, but crashed).

The ensemble cast is a good collection of names, each making up a small part but collectively creating a unit greater than the sum of the individual parts.  In addition to those mentioned, there’s James Garner playing the man who can get you anything, Donald Pleasance, who gets inflicted by a surprising handicap that might make him a liability to the escape, and James Coburn, playing an Australian, amusingly enough.

Despite one or two minor flaws, The Great Escape still makes for great movie entertainment, mixing action, drama, suspense and history to chronicle the story of a group of men who dared to try the impossible.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Steve McQueen doubled the part of one of the German motorcyclists in the big chase sequence, so in some parts, he was actually chasing himself!

Video ***1/2  

MGM delivered a solid anamorphic presentation of a classic film here.  The DeLuxe color has held up well over the years.  Images are generally sharp and clear, even in the many darkened sequences (night and underground), and there’s very little in the way of visible wear and tear on the print.  High marks.

Audio ***

The 5.1 audio mix is a nice addition, though the full surround effects only come into play in a few of the key action sequences.  Most of the audio is presented on the front stage, but the dialogue, effects and music by Elmer Bernstein are all well mixed, offering clarity and fair amounts of dynamic range.

Features ****

There are so many goodies on this special edition DVD that they’re practically busting out (pun intended).  Disc one features a special commentary track, featuring compiled audio clips from the late John Sturges and other cast and crew members, plus a subtitle “trivia track” feature…watch ‘em both together and you’ll learn plenty about the construction of this classic film.

Disc two features a five part documentary narrated by Burt Reynolds that details the history, development, making-of, release and aftermath.  You can watch them separately or choose the handy ‘play all’ feature.  There are two more separate documentaries as well:  “The Untold Story” follows up on the quest to bring the war criminals depicted in the movie to justice, while “A Man Called Jones” tells the story of the American prisoner who became the basis for Steve McQueen’s character.

Rounding out are a photo gallery and the original trailer, plus a cool cover box with a flip open front.


The Great Escape is a great American classic, and MGM has treated it as such with this red carpet special edition treatment.  The new transfers are a boon, and the terrific collection of extras are more than enough to please both movie and history buffs alike.  Highly recommended.