The Great Escape is an epic classic and it’s even more beautiful now that the film is available on 4K Ultra HD by way of Kino Lorber.
The film is based on Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book about the British POWs making their mass escape from a German POW camp, Stalag Luft III. Some characters are a composite of multiple people and the filmmakers compress the time down. In any event, the details of the escape are the same. However, they’ve increased the American efforts because of wanting to appeal to the US audience. This is one of the downsides of Hollywood but please don’t let it take away from your viewing. If you want to know the true story, all you need to do is pick up a book!
The film features a star-studded cast but the main focus is on Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen), Flight Lieutenant Bob Hendley (James Garner), and RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough). Group Captain Ramsey (James Donald) is basically the commanding officer of the prisoners and ends up supporting Bartlett’s plan. Flight Lieutenant Danny Welinski (Charles Bronson) decided to fight for England after escaping Poland. He has a major fear of claustrophobia, especially in the tunnels. Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) is a master forger and ends up escaping with Hendley after beginning to lose his eyesight. Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick (James Coburn) plays a prominent role in constructing items for their escape. Both Hilts and Hendley are two of the three Americans in the POW camp.
The film gets it right in showing the three escapes that go well. But again, they make changes in terms of nationality and such. It makes you wonder how these moments play overseas when Hollywood filmmakers are making films for American audiences. Canada really gets the short end of the stick because of their involvement in the actual escape. But upon watching the film, you would have no idea! Because of safety concerns for future POWs, the film omits some key details. You can’t blame filmmakers for honoring the requests of former POWs because it’s the right thing to do. In real life, only one American actually survived the escape–the rest had already been transferred before it took place. Just some food for thought.
This film plays home to one of the great action stunts of all time when Steve McQueen’s Hilts is riding a motorcycle during the last third of the film. Stunt double Bud Ekins is on the bike for the biggest jump, not McQueen. For what it’s worth, it could have been a number of people doing the stunt. It’s a moment that I wish I could watch on the big screen but the small screen will have to do. McQueen also plays some of the Germans chasing Hilts, too. Without this film, the King of Cool probably wouldn’t have become a superstar. Sadly, we lost him far too early in November 1980.
Musically, Elmer Bernstein pens the score. He gives the film its own patriotic march and the major players get their own recurring motif throughout the film. The score is everything you want in a film of this nature. The legendary film composer could have retired after this film and he would have been set for life! Thankfully for film lovers, this did not happen. It just speaks to how popular the score is.
What surprises me the most, looking back on the film after almost 60 years, is that it only picked up a single Oscar nomination for film editing. Nothing for the cast, direction, or even Best Picture. Nearly 60 years later, the film is one of the best of 1963. My only regret is that it took me until this weekend to watch it. It’s been on hand since Kino Lorber’s 4K Ultra HD release but finding time is easier said than done. But anyway, with the film airing over Memorial Day weekend on TCM, I decided it was better late than never. In terms of bonus features, two carry over from the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release in 2020.
My first real introduction to Richard Attenborough came by way of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. I had a similar moment upon seeing Alec Guinness when I watched The Bridge on the River Kwai a few years ago. When you’re used to seeing them in the latter part of their career, it’s so different seeing them a few decades earlier! It’s so weird seeing Richard Attenborough on screen without white hair or a beard! Interestingly enough, this is the film that first brought him major attention in the US.
Audiences might know The Great Escape because of an epic motorcycle student but this film is a must-watch epic classic. Even though the filmmakers make changes to benefit an American audience, the memory of the 50 executed airmen will never be forgotten.
DIRECTOR: John Sturges
SCREENWRITERS: James Clavell & W.R. Burnett
CAST: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn
United Artists released The Great Escape in theaters on July 4, 1963. Grade: 5/5
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