Criterion Review: THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)

John Sturges’s WWII adventure tunnels its way into the Criterion Collection

After the critical and commercial acclaim of The Magnificent Seven, director John Sturges leveraged his way into making a long gestated project. Enlisting some of his stars from that previous effort, notably Steve McQueen, and bringing in the cream of British talent, he brought to life another stirring tale, one based on the real-life events surrounding the Stalag Luft III prisoner of war camp in World War II. The result was inspirational — not just as a story, but also in terms of its impact to filmmakers — and a fine piece of entertainment too. The Great Escape barrels over that barbed wire fence and into the Criterion Collection.


One of the most exciting adventure tales ever told, this action epic recounts the planning, execution, and aftermath of a daring true-life escape from a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, in which 250 men attempted to tunnel their way to freedom. In the role that cemented his superstar status, Steve McQueen plays the motorcycle-racing daredevil who sets out to foil the Nazis, alongside an all-star cast that includes Charles Bronson, James Coburn, James Garner, and Donald Pleasence. The expert direction of John Sturges, eminently hummable Elmer Bernstein score, and rip-roaring stunts come together in what may just be the most spectacularly entertaining prison-break movie of all time, a rousing ode to the determination, camaraderie, and courage of everyday heroes.

The Great Escape feels like a very British production, albeit one made within and tilted towards the American studio machine. Perhaps my view is tinged by my association with it as being traditional Bank Holiday fare, a film that offered a different kind of escapism from that we sought though viewings of Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, or James Bond. It’s more than just the healthy representation of British thespians; it has more to do with the themes of the film, which revolve around grit, perseverance, and a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. The script by James Clavell and W. R. Burnett draws from a book written by one of the camps inhabitants, Paul Brickhill, a real life story of a prison camp specially built to house a collection of special POWs. An assortment of characters, each with their own skill or interest, are individually trapped, but together they might just stand a chance of getting out of there.

The American tilt I alluded to earlier is largely embodied by one man, the US Captain Hilts (McQueen), later nicknamed “The Cooler” after spending so much time thrown in solitary confinement. He’s a defiant and disruptive element that sparks activity as the rest of the camp resolutely works on their escape tunnel plans. It was the film that solidified the star quality of McQueen, a cool, easy grit that stood out all the more against the staid gravitas of notable British actors such as David McCallum, Donald Pleasence, William Russell, Angus Lennie, and Richard Attenborough. The Hollywood leanings also come across in the overall tone of the film, which is more action than period piece, more humor than horror. The standout contributor to this is in the softening of the Nazi forces, not just in shying away from the true evils that occurred during prisoner confinement, but small tweaks to attitudes, showing the reticence of one Commandant to respond to a “heil Hitler” for example, or generally making then more inept to aid entertainment value. The true drama of WWII takes a back seat to the stirring themes of perseverance, ingenuity, and teamwork. The film undeniably puts humanity into the war by focusing on these characters, their strengths, their weaknesses, and their shared goal.

Escape clocks in at 172 minutes, and suffers from it at times, but the final hour is when everything coalesces and the film truly earns its plaudits. Sturges’s direction shines through, with marvelously sustained ace energy and tension, inter-cutting the efforts of these characters to make their final push for freedom before a sobering final act. Cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp (West Side Story) helps craft a bold and memorable look, while Elmer Bernstein’s score adds a undertone of defiance throughout. All combine with the talent on screen to secure the iconic status the film deserves.

The Package

This Criterion release is the result of a new 4K digital restoration from MGM. The transfer showcases a natural palette, well represented with a warmer tinge to it than the old Blu-ray release (which I took off my shelf for comparison). Detail, density, and overall quality of image also show a marked improvement. There are no noticeable compression or artifact issues. The release truly stands out from the previous when it comes to extra features:

  • Two audio commentaries, one from 1991, featuring director John Sturges and composer Elmer Bernstein; the other, from 2003, featuring actors James Coburn, James Garner, and Donald Pleasence: Rather subdued commentaries, but plenty of insightful information, in the first detailing production aspects, and the second tilting more to recollections of the actors involved. Other notable participants include production manager Robert E. Relyea and stuntman Bud Ekins on the first, and Jud Taylor, production designer Fernando Carrere, Bud Ekins again, and Steve McQueen’s manager Hillard Elkins on the second commentary
  • New interview with critic Michael Sragow: One of the highlights of the release, as it dips into the true-life story that inspired the film, a critique of the movie, and a quality dive into the works of director John Sturges.
  • “The Great Escape”: Heroes Under Ground, a four-part 2001 documentary about the real-life escape from the Stalag Luft III prisoner-of-war camp during World War II, including interviews with POWs held there: A stirring and well put together featurette, narrated by Burt Reynolds.
  • The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones, a 2001 program on the United States Army Air Forces pilot David Jones, the inspiration for Steve McQueen’s character in the film: A 25 minute character piece on the man himself, narrated by James Coburn. It actually goes some way to showing how the actual events and people were translated/amalgamated into the movie version.
  • Return to “The Great Escape,” a 1993 program featuring interviews with Coburn, Garner, and actors David McCallum and Jud Taylor: An archival addition that gives some quality time to the supporting cast to share their tales of the production.
  • Trailer: Remastered by the looks of it.
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Sheila O’Malley: In the liner booklet, which also contains details on the restoration and transfer for the film.
  • New cover by Sean Phillips

The Bottom Line

The Great Escape may skim over the true horror of WWII, but it admirably shifts focus to a stirring and very human tale of survival and brotherhood. An iconic feature that remains supremely entertaining, and there’s not too many movies about Nazis you label as such. Criterion have put together a wonderful celebration for this cherished film.

The Great Escape is available via Criterion from May 12th, 2020.

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