The Great Escape

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Details At A Glance

Category War Theatrical Trailer(s) Yes, 1 - 1.85:1, non 16x9, Dolby Digital 2.0
Rating Other Trailer(s) None
Year Released 1963 Commentary Tracks None
Running Time 165:01 minutes Other Extras Booklet
Featurette - Return to The Great Escape (24:08) 
Main Menu Audio and Animation
RSDL/Flipper RSDL (95:39)
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region 2,4 Director John Sturges

Warner Home Video
Starring Steve McQueen 
James Garner 
Richard Attenborough 
James Donald 
Charles Bronson
Donald Pleasance
James Coburn
Case Amaray
RRP $34.95 Music Elmer Bernstein

Pan & Scan/Full Frame None MPEG None
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Dolby Digital 2.0
16 x 9 Enhancement No Soundtrack Languages English (Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, 192 Kb/s)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
Macrovision ? Smoking Yes
Subtitles English
English for the Hearing Impaired
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or
After Credits
Yes, in credits

Plot Synopsis

    How do you know you are watching a great film? To me great films are distinguished by a number of things but two important ones are that no matter how many times you watch the film, you still enjoy it, and the film always seems to be over before it feels like it should be over. I would hate to think how many times I have watched The Great Escape, but it would have to be numbering well in the twenties (despite never owning it on video), yet I have never tired of watching the film. And no matter how often I have watched it, it never seems to last 165 minutes. By my reckoning this is a great film, and the Internet Movie Database agrees as it is listed in their Top 250 of all time. This film was eagerly awaited from when it was first announced for release in Region 4, and through several delays in its release date. Was it worth the wait? Yes and no.

    For the few who have never seen the film, this is based upon the true story penned by Paul Brickhill, of the prisoner of war camp at Sagan (or Zagan more correctly) in Poland. Gathered together in one supposedly inescapable POW camp are the escape artist creme de la creme of Allied POWs, who promptly plot the biggest mass escape of prisoners of the war. Led by "Big X", Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), and with such diverse characters as "The Cooler King", Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen), "The Scrounger", Bob Hendley (James Garner), "The Tunnel King", Danny Velinski (Charles Bronson), "The Forger", Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasance) and "The Manufacturer", Sedgwick (James Coburn), all under the watchful eye of Ramsey (James Donald). The name of the film says it all, and this is the gripping story of how they built a tunnel that resulted in the escape of 76 POWs into the night, and the eventual capture and execution of the bulk of them.

    A very simple plot that holds you to your chair for the full 165 minutes, mainly due to the superb performances of the entire cast under the very watchful eye of master director John Sturges (whose previous effort was the no less classic The Magnificent Seven). There have been many great war films made with many great casts, but there is arguably none better than this. Steve McQueen in arguably his most famous role is suitably cocky as the brash American, but everywhere else in the cast are great performances. Donald Pleasance, most unusually playing an Allied soldier this time, is superb as the terribly British forgery expert, Charles Bronson suitably rugged as the Polish tunnel king. But even beyond the main cast there are great performances, such as Angus Lennie as Ives "The Mole" and the ever reliable Gordon Jackson as "Intelligence" Macdonald. Indeed about the only weak link here is the appalling Australian accent of James Coburn as Sedgwick. This is the first time I have seen the film in its widescreen glory and a magnificent opening up of the grandeur of the film it is too. The screenplay came from the pen of James Clavell, better known for Shogun, and W.R. Burnett, and a superb effort it is. Across the board this film exudes quality and authenticity, let down only by some minor glitches, most notably the appallingly too modern ships and cranes in the harbour scene towards the end of the film. But if you want gripping war drama then there are very few films that can rival this one, let alone better it.

Transfer Quality


    All of which makes the transfer all the more disappointing, most notably for the lack of 16x9 enhancement. For such an important film to be denied this treatment is inexcusable, and it does contribute to a number of problems with the transfer.

    The transfer is presented at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and as I said is not 16x9 enhanced.

    The transfer was generally sharp throughout, although there were a few lapses of soft focus, that partly would be explained by the age of the film. What struck me though was the lovely clarity to the transfer, especially in the daylight scenes. The shadow detail was very good, and belies the age of the transfer. There did however appear to be a number of instances where low level noise was a problem in the transfer, most notably around the 4:28 mark and between 125:28 and 126:00, which ultimately did detract a little from the transfer. There was also a rather nasty glitch in the video transfer between 85:18 and 85:20, where the transfer went very over bright and lost some deal of detail.

    The colours were very nicely rendered throughout the film, and in general this came up a lot brighter and vibrant then I was expecting. There were the odd lapses in the standard but this would be attributable to the age of the film rather than any inherent mastering problem. There was some noticeable bleed in the red colour of the opening credits, but this is offset by the lack of flare that usually plagues this sort of red titling. There was no hint of oversaturation of colours at all throughout the film.

    There were no significant MPEG artefacts noted in the transfer. There were however quite significant film-to-video artefacts noted in the transfer, notably a fair degree of aliasing. Whilst it was never exceptionally gross, it was nonetheless noticeable and reasonably distracting. This is disappointing and most of the problem would have been resolved I would suspect with 16x9 enhancement. Obviously there are film artefacts throughout the film, although only a few were especially distracting or noticeable, and on the balance I felt that this was quite clean for a 36 year old film.

    This disc is an RSDL disc, with the layer change coming at 95:39. Whilst the layer change is noticeable, it is reasonably well placed and is not disruptive to the film.


    I would suspect that we have the original soundtrack here, which nicely preserves the classic status of the film: a 5.1 remaster would not have made any greater contribution to the film in my view.

    There is only the one audio track on the DVD, an English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono soundtrack.

    Dialogue was always clear and easy to understand.

    There were no apparent audio sync problems with the disc.

    The score by Elmer Bernstein is quite superb and amongst the best that he has done. The film theme is especially memorable, but the entire score makes such a wonderful contribution to the film. There are not too many better film soundtracks around, especially ones so instantly recognizable as belonging to a particular film.

    Even though we have only a mono soundtrack, and therefore no use is made of the surround or bass channels, this is a nicely detailed soundtrack that you do feel a part of.


    As is usual for a MGM releases, the extras package is not over the top but is adequate.


    With some nice main menu audio and animation, this is not too bad an effort.

Featurette - Return to The Great Escape (24:08)

    This is a reasonably interesting, retrospective look at the making of the film, including interviews with most of the surviving main cast, that debunks at least one myth about the film. Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound, this is worth a look.


    The usual informative effort from MGM.

Theatrical Trailer (3:07)

    Be warned, it is quite dark and riddled with film artefacts, but other than that is a worthwhile inclusion.

R4 vs R1

    The Region 1 and Region 4 releases appear to be identical, therefore the preference would be the Region 4 release owing to the inherent superiority of the PAL system.


    The Great Escape is a classic film, and despite the less than acceptable treatment it has been given video transfer wise, a worthy addition to any collection.

    But why oh why did we not get a 16x9 enhanced video transfer? Other than that, very acceptable.

    Audio quality is acceptable.

    Extras are adequate.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Ian Morris
5th December 1999

Review Equipment
DVD Pioneer DV-515; S-video output
Display Sony Trinitron Wega 84cm. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Audio Decoder Built in
Amplification Yamaha RXV-795. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Speakers Energy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL