'The Great Escape' Blu-ray celebrates 50th anniversary
05:00 AM, May 11, 2013
By 1943, the German Army had grown tired of expending manpower tracking down escaped Allied POWs and returning them to prison. So they built the maximum security Stalag Luft III in Poland and stocked it with their biggest headaches. They probably should have seen what came next coming a mass breakout that became known as the Great Escape.
The true life episode inspired one of Hollywood’s most beloved war movies, the star-studded The Great Escape (1963, MGM/UA, unrated, $20), which celebrates its 50th anniversary with a first time on Blu-ray release. The film is based on the 1950 non-fiction book of the same name by Australian writer Paul Brickhill.
Though nearly three hours long, director John Sturges keeps it suspenseful with the help of an incredible cast and Elmer Bernstein’s moving score. The movie is stocked with a camp full of colorful characters who try to engineer the escape of 200 men at once by digging three tunnels under the fence and into the surrounding woods and slipping away under the cover of darkness. In order to pull it off under the Nazis’ noses, they have to not only dig, they have to cleverly dispose of the dirt, improvise implements, procure all the wood they can find and overcome myriad problems that crop up in such an unprecedented operation.
And, in addition to the tunnels named Tom, Dick and Harry they also have to obtain civilian clothes, forge official documents, maps, train schedules, etc., to facilitate the second part of the escape, which is getting away before they can recaptured. That’s assuming that everything goes right but, of course, a whole lot doesn’t. There is triumph and tragedy, but the real marvel is in the audacity of it all.
The plot is masterminded by RAF Squadron Leader Roger “Big X” Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), who has organized prison escapes before, but nothing on this scale. But once he realizes he has some of the best escape artists in the war at his disposal, he moves forward despite a warning from the commandant (Hannes Messemer) that he’ll be shot if he ever tries to get out.
Most of his recruits are fellow RAF officers, including Bob “The Scrounger” Hendley (James Garner), Capt. Ramsey the SBO (James Donald), Danny “the tunnel king” Velinski (Charles Bronson), Colin “the Forger” Blythe (Donald Pleasence), Louis “the Manufacturer” Sedgwick (James Coburn) and Eric “Dispersal” Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum).
And then there was Virgil “the Cooler King” Hilts (Steve McQueen), an American loner who has escaped more than anybody and whose guard-irritating antics keep him in and out of solitary confinement. McQueen, who stole the show in another star-studded Sturges classic, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, is once again the brightest light. When it comes time for everyone to move, the coolest actor ever has possibly his most iconic moment a hair-raising, barbed-wire fence-jumping race for freedom with the Germans in hot pursuit.
The Blu-ray comes with the same extras that were packaged with the 2004 DVD release, but the nearly three hours of material are still worthwhile. There is audio commentary by Sturges and cast members, the hour-long feature “The Great Escape: The Untold Story,” which looks at the real events with insights from survivors; and a look at the real inspiration for McQueen’s Hilts.