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The Great Escape (Blu-ray)

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Actors: Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, James Garner, James Coburn / Director: John Sturges / Studio: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment / Released: 3 Jun 2013 / Run Time: 172 minutes

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      20.06.2013 10:22
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      A classic adventure film but a disappointing blu-ray

      This blu-ray is currently £10 on amazon.

      Most of the obvious old films are out on Blu-ray now. The really popular stuff is widely available, and while there are still plenty of gaps to be filled, they're mostly at the artier or cultier ends of the spectrum. Certainly, the blokey stuff is almost all out there - the kind of films that lad mags like Loaded used to rave about: James Bond, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and most of the still-famous war films and Westerns. It's probably only Get Carter left unreleased now (and I wish someone would get onto that). The Great Escape (1963) has been a surprisingly long time coming given its status as probably the most famous old war film. Unfortunately, now it's here, it's a little disappointing.

      The film has been shown on TV so many times there's probably not a lot of point in describing it too much. It tells the true story of a mass breakout of Allied airmen from a German POW camp - an impressive number of people escaped. It also led to one of the more famous war crimes perpetrated by the Germans, although in terms of scale it's dwarfed by other Nazi atrocities.

      It comes from a tradition of war films that emphasise the idea of war as a great adventure, a test of manhood and ingenuity. These were popular in the 60s, as Guns of Navarone, Von Ryan's Express, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly's Heroes and many more attest. The ultimate example is Where Eagles Dare, still one of my favourite films. These films, despite paying lip service to tragedy and horror, clearly regard war as actually quite fun. This is rather incongruous in the Great Escape, which is enormous fun and still expects us to cheer along with one of the most downbeat endings of any adventure film ever.

      The director was John Sturges, known for directing adventure movies with largely male ensemble casts (The Magnificent Seven was his other really big hit). Most of the best adventure and caper films of the era spend as much time on the preparation for the mission as the mission itself. And The Great Escape is no exception - it's almost three hours long, and the escape doesn't happen until two hours have already elapsed. But in spite of its excessive running time - it's longer than The Godfather - it never drags and never quite loses its sense of urgency.

      It meticulously follows every stage of the escape, and seems to follow the reality pretty well (although the characters themselves are fictional, and many more people were involved than the film is able to show). My goodness they were clever, these guys. All that business with the soil in the trouser legs, the forgeries, the well-constructed tunnels - it follows what actually happened. It always amuses me how driven these guys are - literally the first thing they do on arrival is start looking for opportunities to escape, and that is pretty much all they talk about throughout. I've a feeling I'd have been a far lazier POW.

      The note-perfect cast is probably the main reason this film is so well liked. Although the real great escape was carried out by British or Commonwealth airmen, the film has some prominent Americans in the cast - James Coburn, Charles Bronson and Steve McQueen all return from Sturges's Magnificent Seven, joined by TV star James Garner (they get around the nationality in two cases by having Coburn and Bronson play an Australian and a Pole). All four actors are very likable, especially the always-great Coburn.

      The British contingent is led by Richard Attenborough as the obsessive leader of the escape committee. My favourite character is Blythe the forger, played with fussy pathos by Donald Pleasence. Pop star John Leyton acquits himself well, and Angus Lennie is wonderful as the poignant little Scot who cannae take it anymore. A terrific line-up of British character actors rounds things off: David McCallum, Nigel Stock, Gordon Jackson, James Donald and future Dr Who companion William Russell. There aren't any women in the film at all, except maybe in crowd scenes after the escape.

      The other main reason that the film is so beloved is the great soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein (who also did The Magnificent Seven). The main theme is unfeasibly catchy (and constantly chanted by football fans when England play), but the music for the whole film is superb. It can be a little unsubtle - certain characters are always accompanied by a sad theme, so you can be pretty sure they won't be making it home. But it helps keep the film going along nicely.

      They don't make them like this anymore. If they remade this there would almost certainly be more scenes in which characters pined for their families and some Holocaust references clumsily shoehorned in. And that's fine - they probably shouldn't make films quite like this anymore. There can't be anyone sensible who thinks the war was a good time for everyone, and these wartime capers are period pieces. But it does what it does better than most, and deservedly remains very popular.

      Unfortunately the Blu-ray doesn't really do it justice. Apparently it would have been too expensive to do a full restoration. They've taken what was available and blown it up to HD, but I don't think anything else has been done to it. Some scenes look pretty good, others look muddy and a little hazy. One or two shots look worse than DVD quality. Overall, it's probably an improvement on earlier versions, but not the huge leap in quality you might hope for. It's cheap, anyway, and perhaps it was decided that not enough people would buy it since it still gets shown on TV fairly frequently. The lion in the MGM ident at the start looks horribly over digitised.

      There are lots of extras, probably ported over from the last DVD release. All seem to be in standard definition. They mostly consist of little documentaries, narrated by Burt Reynolds. It's really one documentary that's been needlessly chopped up into lots of shorter ones to make it seem like more effort has been put in than is really the case - I wish they'd stop doing that with classic films on DVD. Taken together, these short pieces amount to a decent enough 'making of', including a lot of detail about the real escape. The 'commentary' is actually no such thing, it's snippets of various cast and crew talking about aspects of the film, but they were clearly not watching the film when they were recorded, and they were all recorded separately.

      If you're a huge fan of the film it's probably worth getting this as it's cheap, and the best you'll see it until someone does a proper restoration job (I wouldn't hold my breath on that if I were you). If not, you can just wait until Christmas, when it'll probably be on telly again.

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