In honor of the 50th Anniversary Blu-Ray release of The Great Escape, I’m going to discuss the film and its legacy on popular culture. I’ll also include a discussion of the Blu-Ray and announce a contest so that you can win your own copy!
The Great Escape follows a ragtag group of POWs known for their continuous escape attempts. With the German guards aware of their plans, the group must assemble to find a way out of their confinement, once and for all.
The Great Escape is considered one of the best war movies made, and I’m glad to finally get a chance to experience it. Ironically, the war story doesn’t actually have a battle; the events of the war have taken place and the prisoners are already captured. In a way, the group create their own breed of war focused on patience, ingenuity, and guile. The moment the first prisoners are introduced, including Steve McQueen and James Garner, they’re analyzing the various methods of escape. It’s not until Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) arrives that events become organized and the process of tunneling out of the camp is explored. There’s a fair bit of humor within the story, as we learn that it’s the officers “sworn duty to escape,” and based on the number of failed attempts, we see the futility inherent.
I was surprised at the bleakness throughout the film overall. I won’t spoil things, but let’s just say you can’t predict who will make it out. Anyone can die, and while I can’t say I’m an expert on war films, I found it to be far more realistic than the patriotic war movies that say America, or whatever other country, can achieve great things. With The Great Escape, it’s the fact that there’s hope; that the group can hope and wait for another day, another escape, which makes the movie work.
Allow me to give my thoughts on why I believe this movie has endured for so long: For one, the amount of fantastic actors assembled. The 1960s saw many ensemble pieces, but the sheer amount of machismo here is staggering. Steve McQueen, the self-title “King of Cool” glides through the movie, culminating in a motorcycle chase (much of which he did himself) that mimics the car chase in Bullitt. The motorcycle sequence is a fantastically shot sequence, and startling once you factor in all the elements that could have gone wrong (McQueen wasn’t able to make a second jump and had to have a stunt double). McQueen isn’t the grand organizer of the escape, that honor goes to Attenborough, but he’s a leader without taking charge. His laconic cool exudes out, and no matter how many times he’s caught he never lets it get to him. The other actors including the aforementioned Attenborough, Garner, and Donald Pleasance are all fantastic. Pleasance’s character specifically affected me. He’s the forger who slowly starts to lose his eyesight. As if living in the camp isn’t bad enough, he’s slowly losing the ability to see any beauty in the world. The characters aren’t given in-depth histories, in fact many of them don’t have any background aside from one trait, but they all bond together as a group and do create well-rounded bunch of misfits.
The Blu-Ray release is worth purchasing. The picture quality is gorgeous, as all Blu-Rays are, although the sound does become a taste loud at times. While the bonus features have been on past releases, for me they were all new and infinitely fascinating. The commentary with director John Sturges, cast and crew, isn’t a sit-down commentary but various interviews cobbled together and played over the movie. Almost all the actors are present, director Sturges, and the crew, and all the interviews are moderated by Steven Jay Rubin. It’s a fascinating way to present commentary and details a lot of the making-of process. There’s four featurettes that were made for the History Channel in 2001 and they all detail different facets of the movie from the real story, escape, and the movie’s reception. If you want a historical overview of the movie, I recommend watching these four vignettes. Similarly, there’s a 2001 British TV documentary called The Great Escape: The Untold Story. It doesn’t reveal anything significantly different from the other four, but it’s interesting in exploring the war side. Other features include a documentary on the real man behind the character Steve McQueen played, additional interviews, and the movie’s trailer.
The Great Escape has cemented its place in cultural history. One only has to start humming the theme song for someone to recognize the reference. The various movies and television shows (including a hilarious plot in The Simpsons) that have included tributes to it proves it’s a seminal film worth picking up.
WHICH LEADS US TO OUR CONTEST: The fine folks at 20th Century Fox have offered one (1) Blu-Ray of The Great Escape for me to give to a lucky reader. All you have to do to be entered is comment below and include your FULL name, email address, and who your favorite character is in the movie. One winner will be picked at random to receive the Blu-Ray. Sadly, this contest is open to residents of the U.S. AND Canada only. The contest closes May 14th.
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.