Director John Sturges’ hefty World War II epic debuts on the ultra-high definition disc format almost six decades after theatrical release and is packed with an educational overview of the real breakout in The Great Escape (Kino Lorber, not rated, 2.35:1 aspect ratio, 172 minutes, $39.95).
Based on Paul Brickhill’s nonfiction book of the same name, the film traps viewers in Stalag Luft III, a maximum-security German prisoner-of-war camp built to house a group of crafty Allied officers with a chronic determination to flee their confines.
A dynamic all-star cast led the way including James Garner as Flight Lt. Bob Hendley (The Scrounger); Richard Attenborough as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Big X, ie, the master planner of the escape); Charles Bronson as Flight Lt. Danny Welinski (Tunnel King); Donald Pleasence as Flight Lt. Colin Blythe (The Forger); James Coburn as Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick (The Manufacturer); David McCallum as Lt. Cmdr. Eric Ashley-Pitt (Dispersal); and Steve McQueen as Capt. Virgil Hilts (The Cooler King), who is eventually driving a motorcycle in one of the most famous chase sequences in cinema history.
The story explores the intricate plan to simultaneously sneak out 250 prisoners that was thwarted by German guards. Only 76 men got away from the camp.
Roughly the last hour of the movie then covers the key members of the group’s subsequent fate as they roamed Germany looking for an out without much luck as the realities of war and retribution closed in.
Well worth the time investment, “The Great Escape” does a great job chronicling an unbelievable actual event almost too Hollywood to believe and also highlights a musical score from Elmer Bernstein that I am still humming.
4K in action: Originally filmed in glorious Panavision, the film’s new presentation in the UHD format is a mixed bag.
The digital restoration from Kino Lorber is culled and re-color graded from the MGM restoration from last year for the Criterion Blu-ray release.
Film grain can be a bit thick at times and some occasional soft images especially in a few night scenes and, most surprisingly is an occasional line and scratch remnant that slightly detract from what is a very detailed and colorful effort.
Especially look to Capt. Hilts covered in various shades of caked wet and dry dirt from a failed escape or the opening scenes of military trucks driving down a road with flowers and greenery on the sides for the subtleties of color shading.
And, for welcomed visual clarity, examine the textures of the various period costuming, especially the German and British officers uniforms (notice even the fine detail of the medals on some of the characters), the sweat on Bronson’s face as he enters the tunnel and some impressive views of the Swiss Alps.
Best extras: Kino Lorber starts with a pair of optional commentary tracks on the 4K disc, one new and one vintage.
First, the exclusive offers filmmakers Steven Jay Rubin (known for making the documentary “Return to The Great Escape”) and film historian Steve Mitchell. The pair toot their own credentials while taking a deep dive on the movie’s background and production with a historical perspective and lots of on-set stories as they talk nearly nonstop over the three-hour epic.
Next, viewers get a legacy track moderated by Mr. Jay Rubin that provides a selection of interviews with cast and crew (not watching the film) including Sturges (from 1974), Garner, Coburn, Pleasence, Mr. McCallum and even McQueen’s buddy and favorite motorcycle stuntman Bud Ekins.
While talking legacy, viewers also get a Blu-ray disc containing most of the previously released extras from the 1993 Blu-ray version of the film.
Start with the 2001 History Channel, four-part, 44-minute overview of the production narrated by Burt Reynolds that covers topics such as the differences between the real and the movie escape; the passionate push by Sturges to get the movie made; a look at consultant Wally Floody (who actually engineered the real escape tunnels); and plenty of interviews, including ex-POW from Stalag Luft III, John Weir.
Follow that up with a 24-minute-long, 1993 Showtime documentary from Mr. Jay Rubin that reinforces much of the information from the 2001 History Channel presentation and offers more details on the film, such as Mr. McCallum talking about putting together plastic barb wire between takes on the set.
Next, the disc has a nearly hourlong British documentary from 2001 that focuses on the Allies’ strategy of wasting Germans time by escaping from camps but also covers the tragic events of the Stalag Luft III escape and the eventual execution of members of the Gestapo for their murderous crimes.
Finally, and most inspirational, is a 25-minute look at the real man that the character Capt. Hilts was based on, American Army pilot David Jones. Coburn narrates and viewers learn about how Jones was one of Doolittle’s Raiders; even more detail on the tunneling system (he was one of the diggers); and how he went on to become a test pilot, worked with NASA and retired from the Air Force as a two-star general.