It is hard to imagine that once upon a time there existed a Hollywood that would Americanize a true story to make Americans the heroes and then release this blockbuster on the 4th of July to capitalize on American patriotism. But that is exactly what happened in 1963 with United Artists’ timeless classic, “The Great Escape,” which is thankfully available on Bluray for the very first time.
If culturally, you can’t imagine that that Hollywood once existed, try to imagine a Hollywood capable of making a blockbuster piece of entertainment that still manages to convey the dark side of Nazism. But director John Sturges and his three screenwriters (including James Clavell) accomplished just that, and more. Fifty-years later, the fictionalized story of an actual World War II POW escape is still an absolute blast to watch for each and every one of its 165 minutes.
For some inane reason, the Nazis decide that the best way to contain their most unruly POWs is to bring them all together in a single prison camp. Supposedly, the camp has been built with all the escape tactics the prisoners have already used in mind. At first, the idea seems to work. But as soon as “Big X,” Richard Attenborough, arrives, the undaunted British officer plots what is still considered the most daring POW escape in history. It is not about getting a few men out, but 250, with forged papers, money, rations, civilian clothes, and train schedules.
The real delight of the story is not so much in the escape itself, but in watching the extraordinary ingenuity that goes into its planning and execution. But if Attenborough is the brains of the film, James Garner is its heart.
In real-life, Garner was a scrounger in the Korean War (he was also wounded). In “The Great Escape,” he not only plays “The Scrounger,” but a man willing to sacrifice his best chance at escape (and survival) by taking with him “The Forger,” Donald Pleasance, who loses whatever was left of his eyesight forging those 250 travel papers. It is a wonderful subplot with an unforgettable conclusion.
Garner shines in a role tailor-made for his unique gift to convey a cunningly effective con man with a huge, beating heart. It’s the role he cut his teeth on in the 50’s TV classic “Maverick” and would perfect a decade later in “The Rockford Files,” which is still the best one-hour television show ever produced.
In the end, though, “The Great Escape” is all Steve McQueen. As “The Cooler King,” McQueen represents that irrepressible, optimistic, unselfish American spirit that drives the rest of the world (and the political left) crazy. We want to be free; we don’t want to be told what to do; and if need be, we will risk everything for our God-given right to liberty. That is McQueen’s “Cooler King” from head to toe.
Within twenty-minutes it is obvious “The Great Escape” had made McQueen a star. But it is the climactic motorcycle chase (where McQueen did all but one very dangerous stunt) that made him an instant superstar, and eventual legend.
Charles Bronson and James Coburn (reuniting with Sturges and McQueen from 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven”) have memorable and colorful support roles. But what a pleasure it is to watch McQueen and Garner (two friends in real life) nail the personas that would eventually give us decades of cinematic pleasure.
The Bluray transfer of the 2.5:1 Panavision picture is, as expected, a revelation. Elmer Bernstein’s unforgettable score is splendid in 5.1 DTS, and there are literally hours of extras to dive into.
“The Great Escape” is available at Amazon.com for the ridiculously low price of $9.99 — which is as close to stealing as you can get without stealing.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC