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The Great Escape: Special Edition

As an antidote for any squishy rom-com starring Julia Roberts' teeth, The Great Escape sure fills the guy-stuff checklist. This 1963 adventure showcases an all-star cast as Allied prisoners conniving to bust out of an escape-proof prison camp in the heart of Hitler's Germany. Top-billed Steve McQueen is at his image-making and motorcycle-zooming peak, the most handsome component in an ensemble cast that includes Charles Bronson, James Garner, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, David McCallum, and Donald Pleasance. But lest we're mistaken into thinking that this is just another Rambo-ized thud and blunder affair, what we have instead is one of the best "guy movies" that doesn't include the hero being propelled toward the camera by a screen-filling fireball. This almost quaint actioner gradually pulls its bow strings taut during its nearly three-hour running time, and shares a zodiacal sign with caper films like Ocean's Eleven rather than other WWII rousers such as Saving Private Ryan. It didn't get much love from the critics in its day, but The Great Escape has endured to become an all-time favorite war picture from the years before Vietnam took the fun out of the genre and replaced it with broody self-reflection.

Based on an historical account, The Great Escape dramatizes the largest attempted Allied escape from a German POW camp during World War II. The Nazis, frustrated by the number of escapes from their prisons by a crack league of Allied officers, place "all the rotten eggs in one basket," the über-impervious Stalag Luft III. Naturally, the accumulated skills and brainpower now housed together will test the Third Reich's mettle. Their British mastermind (Attenborough) plots to free not just a handful of his fellow prisoners, but 250. So begins an ingenious strategy to engineer the jailbreak while keeping the Germans off their scent. Up to the task are a wily procurer (Garner), a Polish tunneler (Bronson), the ace forger (Pleasance), and an Aussie (Coburn, miscast and underused). McQueen is American loner Virgil Hilts, whose near-escapes keep landing him in a solitary-confinement cell. Watching the resourceful band come together, formulate the intricacies of the operation (three tunnels, re-tailored clothing, fake ID's, the works), and set it ticking like a Swiss watch is one of The Great Escape's rewatchable pleasures. The high adventure slams into gear once the break begins, as we follow escapees taking trains, planes, boats, and one famous motorcycle to slip out of occupied Europe with thousands of Gestapo soldiers on their tail.

Three years after John Sturges handed Hollywood a Western classic with The Magnificent Seven, he directed The Great Escape as if the studio bosses had begged "Please do that again." Reuniting with Magnificent vets McQueen, Bronson, and Coburn, he made good with another large-scale, slickly crafted drama punctuated by scenes of gung-ho heroics. (Both films are so precisely drawn and vividly if shallowly populated, with the narrative energy and simplicity of a boys' adventure paperback, that their ongoing popularity may come from the way they aim for the same inner bull's-eye where we plant the darts labeled Star Wars and Indiana Jones.) This time both sides of the Atlantic are so well represented that The Great Escape is a favorite weekend TV staple in the U.S. and a Christmastime bank-holiday standard in the U.K. The screenplay (co-written by James Clavell) Hollywoodized a memoir by Paul Brickhill, a Luft III detainee involved in the real escape. Numerous true-life participants were compressed into each sharply beveled character we root for, and the events were refined for onscreen impact. (It was motorcycle-enthusiast McQueen who insisted on adding the cross-country chase that's now the film's best-remembered sequence.) But it hews to the facts with rousing fidelity. Remaining faithful to history also prevented an unequivocally happy ending. To say that not all of our never-say-die freedom-fighters get away puts it gently.

What keeps it all shooting forward is the immensely likable bravado the cast bring to their roles. While none of this feels egregiously prefabricated, Sturges' unpretentious directing plus moments of paint-by-numbers scripting make The Great Escape a blockbuster that's a little too made to order. Nonetheless, the plot's episodes of mainspring tension, accented by Elmer Bernstein's bracing score, click the pieces together to drive the well-oiled tragedies and triumphs. It's as blow-dried as McQueen looks even on a bad day, but The Great Escape's mix of suspense, humor, and old-fashioned derring-do pitched by a dream-team cast is so enjoyable that only a lout would complain about it.

*          *          *

MGM's Special Edition treatment of The Great Escape offers an excellent picture in its original 2.35:1 (anamorphic) ratio. It's clean and sharp with good color; however, expect moments of dodgy saturation. The DD 5.1 soundtrack is clean with fine dynamics for this vintage, though the "5.1" comes across more as hearty 2.0 stereo with nominal rear support.

Outstanding fluff-free bonus features begin with a first-rate audio commentary by author and mega-fan Steven Jay Rubin, who emcees a well-produced assemblage of archive interview clips from Sturges, cast members (some now deceased), and production personnel. We get actors Coburn, Garner, McCallum, Pleasance, and Judd Taylor, as well as assistant director Robert Relyea, art director Fernando Carrere, McQueen's manager Hilly Elkins, and stunt rider Bud Ekins. Rubin links the informative and gossipy clips with his encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm. A separate pop-up video Trivia Track augments the audio commentary.

On Disc Two, Burt Reynolds narrates a handsome four-part documentary (totaling 47 minutes) that chronicles the production from its development to the location shooting in Bavaria to the reaction of real POWs when they saw it. Its best segments spend quality time comparing/contrasting the film with the actual incident and people, enhanced by input from Luft III ex-detainees who lived it. A British TV docudrama from 2001, Great Escape: The Untold Story (50:41), features interviews with survivors of the camp and recounts England's post-war prosecution of German soldiers involved in the resulting war crimes. Equally fascinating are interviews shot for Untold Story but not used (9:35).

The American who inspired McQueen's character gets his own spotlight in 2002's The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones (24:50). Cast members and others return for Rubin's 1993 retrospective, Return to The Great Escape (24:08). We also get an exhaustive annotated Photo Gallery, the original theatrical trailer (minus its narration), and an eight-page insert. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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