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Reviewed March 1st, 2003 by David Nusair


The Great Escape is one of the more celebrated entries in the “bunch-of-guys-get-together-and-do-something-brave” genre. Other films included in that category, like The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone, are equally deserving of kudos, but it’s always The Great Escape that’s thought of as the pivotal guy flick.

Set in the final years of World War II, The Great Escape takes place at a Nazi prisoner of war camp. This particular one has just been built, and purports to be impossible to escape from – which is precisely why a large group of high-risk prisoners have been sent there. Among the inmates, we meet: Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen), Bob Hendley (James Garner), Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough), Danny Willinski (Charles Bronson), Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence), and Louis Sedgwick (James Coburn). Each has a particular skill (which is utilized in nicknames like “The Tunnel King” and “The Scrounger”), so when it comes time to plan that titular great escape, each man is given a specific job to do. Hilts, known as “The Cooler King” due to his propensity for winding up in an isolated cell, initially seems to be a rebel whose only interest is for himself. But he eventually ends up helping out the escapees on their mission.

As tended to be standard for movies of this ilk, The Great Escape’s got an incredibly long running time (close to three hours) – and though the majority of the film is quite entertaining and exciting, the film would’ve been far more successful had it topped out at around two hours. Having said that, there are a number of sequences that are just go-for-broke exhilarating – with the climactic escape an obvious highlight. Director John Sturges, without the constriction of a truncated running time, is allowed the opportunity to set up the characters and gives us a chance to get to know each one of them (all the actors receive at least one scene of character development, such as Willinski’s speech about his hatred of enclosed spaces). In doing that, we come to care about these people and desperately want them to succeed – and when several of them inevitably die, their loss is certainly felt.

But those action sequences would mean nothing without some stellar acting, and the film certainly has that going for it. Though his face is prominent on the film’s promotional material, McQueen’s role is just about equal to the majority of his co-stars. As Hilts, the self-centered soldier who eventually becomes a team player, McQueen seems completely at home playing this cool and rebellious guy. Among the other actors, both Bronson and Pleasence are probably the two standouts – with the latter demonstrating that there was a time when he didn’t just play Dr. Loomis.

The Great Escape is one of those rare movies that warrants a recommendation despite being tremendously overlong. It’s a solid little adventure, and there’s just not enough of those around.

Audio: This Dolby Digital soundtrack is pretty effective, though not amazing. It gets the job done, though, and should please fans of the film.

Video: Faring slightly better is this non-anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. For such an old film, this transfer is remarkably free of film-related artifacts.

Extras: Aside from a trailer, the sole extra here is a 24-minute featurette on the film. This is actually quite interesting, and covers the major details of the production. Containing interviews with the major actors, we learn a lot about what went into constructing the sets, etc. We even find out about how difficult Steve McQueen could be.

Conclusion: Films like this are pretty rare. Check it out.


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