The Great Escape
MGM Home Entertainment's Special Edition of The Great Escape (1963) is a total-immersion experience of the John Sturges movie. The Special Edition release offers a much cleaner and sharper transfer (letterboxed at 2.35:1), with few of the anomalies that marred the film's earlier DVD release. The 32 chapters are a proper breakdown of the 172-minute movie, and the layer-transition is so smooth that one will scarcely notice it. The most prominent of the supplementary materials is an informative and entertaining commentary track featuring director John Sturges and associate producer Robert Relyea, and other members of the crew and cast (including James Garner, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence, and Jud Taylor). Sturges' commentary was retrieved from a 1974 interview that author Steve Rubin did with the director, so his words are shoe-horned into the overall track, whereas the other participants were all addressing the shots and scenes directly. The movie playback also comes with an optional "trivia track" function which offers observations and facts about the film, actors, real-life German POW camps, and other aspects of the movie that are not addressed in this commentary. The movie's sound, including the superb Elmer Bernstein score, has been cleanly remixed to a reasonably loud and full Dolby 5.1 Surround. The menu is easy to maneuver around through multiple layers. Disc two is devoted exclusively to special features, including a string of short featurettes originally produced in conjunction with The History Channel and devoted to the film and its actual history. "The Great Escape: Bringing Fact to Fiction" starts reconciling the fact with the fiction of the movie -- it goes into the distillation of the real people into the various characters. "The Great Escape: Preparations for Freedom" goes into the actual details of the historical escape, comparing and contrasting the actual events with their depiction in the film. "The Great Escape: The Flight to Freedom" delves into the depictions of the various escapes, including the historically inaccurate motorcycle sequence, and the issue of how to impart something positive to the ending of a story in which 50 men were executed. "The Great Escape: A Standing Ovation" goes into the initial response to the movie, both by participants who saw it at the time of its release as well as film critics. Much more interesting and engrossing than those short documentaries is Steven Clarke's Grenada Television documentary, The Great Escape: The Untold Story, narrated by Derek Jacobi, which combines interviews with participants in the escape, survivors of the camp, relatives of those executed by the Gestapo, and archival materials with new footage of actors in costume playing British investigators and postwar German prisoners. The actual escape, the details of the flight of the escapees, and the German reaction to the event are delved into during its 50-minute running time. This material is supported by a supplement featuring further interviews for the film that were not included in the original documentary. Finally, the best part of this disc is the short film The Real Virgil Hilts: A Man Called Jones. This film tells the story of David M. Jones, the American prisoner of war who was the inspiration for the character played by Steve McQueen in the movie. It's built around an extensive interview with Jones, who tells of his early life and introduction to flying in the late '30s, and his experiences on General James H. Doolittle's raid on Tokyo, and then in North Africa, where he was captured after being shot down. His recollections are beautifully organized and add immeasurably to the understanding of the events depicted in the film; this is one of the finest supplemental films ever included on a DVD. The disc also contains Return to The Great Escape, the featurette that appeared on the original late '90s MGM/UA DVD. It has nothing that's not on the other, newer support materials, but it's still a nicely paced and well put together account of the movie. Watching this edition, one gets the sense of the movie's historical, moral, and philosophical permutations (as well as its fine example of filmmaking), all expanded geometrically by the supplementary materials -- kind of the movie "squared," as opposed to doubled or tripled in impact. The film itself retains its emotional impact, and with a picture as good as this, one can now fully appreciate the decision to shoot in Germany and the full impact of what Sturges and company originally intended.