Fifty years after the release of the iconic 1963 World War II POW movie The Great Escape, which permanently etched the rebellious screen image of Steve McQueen in moviegoers’ heads, it is still easy to see why this film was so revered back in its day.
Director/producer John Sturges‘ (who also did The Magnificent Seven) epic adventure film is nearly three hours long — and sometimes it feels that way — but its underdog mentality and triumph-of-the-spirit narrative make it virtually irresistible.
A new Blu-ray presentation of the The Great Escape is out now, featuring all of the insightful extra features from the 2004 two-disc Collector’s Edition DVD set.
The setup is brilliant in its simplicity, and surprising ultimately in how tragic it can be. Nazis have rounded up all of their Allied problem prisoners into one prison camp, including US Air Force Captain Steve McQueen, Royal Air Force officers James Garner, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, and Royal Australian Air Force officer James Coburn. The idea is that they will all be held under the strictest security possible, but inadvertently, this also means all the best escapists are in one spot.
Adapted from the nonfiction book by Paul Brickhill about a 1944 escape, the characters in the movie are composites of the ones in the book. This is startling because one of the things that the screenplay — written by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett — gets so right are the characters. If a movie like this were filmed today, perhaps it would ramp up the action and leave some of the rousing character development on the cutting room floor, but Sturges employs classic Hollywood film language and takes time with his ensemble to to this story.
Each group of characters get their own riveting planning sequences, all skillfully told. This is one “heist” film where knowing the details of how the escape is supposed to go down before it happens only strengthens the suspense further, especially when things go wrong. McQueen infamous motorcycle chase scene, which also gives the film its defining moment, is its own mini-chapter, and it’s still exciting as hell.
Of course, this all leads up to the big event, but The Great Escape has one more trick up its sleeve. Following the events of the escape itself play out, the movie continues and takes on a more somber tone. After all the time invested in the story of the POWs and all their careful planning, the straighforward storytelling takes on a cumulative and emotionally resonant tone.
- A 1974 John Sturges interview edited into a commentary track with other crew interviews
- Four 2001 History Channel featurettes that talk about the real escape
- A 25-minute Showtime doc
- A 50-minute British doc from 2001
- A 20-minute doc about David Jones, the real-life inspiration for Steve McQueen’s character.