‘The Great Escape’ 4K UHD Blu-Ray Review – Steve McQueen’s Action-Packed Classic Receives Its Definitive Release

Screen legend Steve McQueen (Bullitt) slams his motorcycle into high gear and leads the way in this action-packed classic about a group of Allied POWs who attempt one of the largest and most daring breakouts in history. A masterful collaboration between director John Sturges (Bad Day at Black Rock), screenwriters James Clavell (The Satan Bug) and W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar), and composer Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven), The Great Escape is one of the most ingenious and suspenseful adventure films of all time! As World War II rages on, the Germans open Stalag Luft III, a maximum security prisoner-of-war camp, designed to hold even the craftiest escape artists. In doing so, however, the Nazis unwittingly assemble the finest escape team in military history. Together, under the guidance of the brilliant Bartlett (Richard Attenborough, Brighton Rock), the resourceful Hendley (James Garner, Support Your Local Sheriff) and the steely, determined Hilts (McQueen), the men plot, scheme and dig their way to freedom…at any cost! Charles Bronson (Breakheart Pass), James Coburn (A Fistful of Dynamite), Donald Pleasence (The Black Windmill), James Donald (The Bridge on the River Kwai) and David McCallum (Mosquito Squadron) fill out the iconic cast of this spectacular, true-life blockbuster. The Great Escape received a 1964 Academy Award nomination for Best Film Editing (Ferris Webster, The Manchurian Candidate) and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture—Drama.

For thoughts on The Great Escape, please check out our discussion on The Video Attic here

Video Quality

Kino Classics presents The Great Escape with a glorious 2160p transfer for the first time on 4K UHD Blu-Ray sourced from a 4K restoration of the Original Camera Negative conducted by MGM with an Interpositive used as a secondary source plug in any missing elements. For a number of reasons, the disc lacks the HDR for increased color output typically found on 4K UHD discs, but the disc does not suffer for it. It actually likely helps the numerous optical and dupe negatives not stand out so blatantly. The new color grading on this disc finds an excellent middle ground between the warmer Criterion pass on this film and the very cold look of the older MGM Blu-Ray. This Kino master strikes a balance that delivers incredible nuance that brings out the beauty of this film that you did not realize was compromised on previous releases. The black levels are very impressive with little left to be desired in shadow detail and in resolving crushed blacks. There is even a day-for-night scene which is corrected from the overly bright Criterion when a German plane is stolen from a hangar. White levels are solid as a rock with no evidence of blooming as the highlights dazzle. 

The level of detail and clarity is stunning with a pleasing amount of natural film grain intact. The grain resolves extremely well with it looking sharp and compact throughout. The texture on display in the costumes and within the landscapes are a revelation. Even facial details such as dripping sweat present with impressive clarity. This transfer does feature a few stray specks that do not amount to much in the long run. This presentation is as true to the original look of the film as it can get with the added resolution making elements seem more immediate. There does not appear to be much in the way of jarring digital anomalies such as compression artifacts, banding or any other such nuisances. This presentation is a stellar effort from the good people at Kino Classics, and it serves as the definitive version of the film on the market. 

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Audio Quality

The 4K UHD Blu-Ray disc comes with both a DTS-HD 5.1 and 2.0 Master Audio track in English that handle this material well. While I do not have the previous Criterion release for comparison, it is my understanding that this 5.1 track may be slightly different from what was on that release. The result is pleasing enough for those solely looking to engage all of their speakers, but the go-to track for most fans will be the 2.0 mono track that captures the original intention of the film. The track does not feature constant kinetic activity, but it comes alive when it makes sense in a brilliant way. The iconic score from Elmer Bernstein is used perfectly to establish the mood of the story, and this track handles it elegantly throughout the duration of the film. There is never a moment where it threatens to overwhelm competing sounds, and it maintains a good balance so that dialogue comes through clearly. The environmental sounds such as the wind and gunshots are rendered well alongside everything else. There does not seem to be any majorly noticeable instances of age-related wear and tear. Kino Classics has given this film a perfectly preserved audio presentation that brings the movie to life in an exciting manner. 

Special Features

  • Audio Commentary #1: Filmmaker/Historian Steve Mitchell and Combat Films: American Realism Author Steven Jay Rubin deliver a really informative new commentary track in which they discuss the decision to shoot in Germany, various production details about the film, their own experience with this feature, the relationship to the truth, the background of the performers, the direction of John Sturges and so much more that enhances your appreciation for the story. While the film may approach three hours in length, there is rarely a substantial bit of silence throughout. 
  • Audio Commentary #2: In this older archival commentary track, Rubin pops up again to moderate a conversation with Director John Sturges, Actors James Garner, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, Jud Taylor and many other crew members who all contribute a lot of great information that brings a more personal feeling towards the making of the film. Since all of these interviews are edited together, there is not a lot of dead air which is always good. Many of these anecdotes will make you smile since many of the key participants seem eager to share any information they have been holding onto. 
  • The Return to The Great Escape: A 24-minute documentary special featuring vintage interviews with James Garner, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, and Jud Taylor, and others as they help trace the production history of the film. This was made in 1993 but it holds up as a good overview. 
  • The Great Escape – Bringing Fact To Fiction: A 12-minute piece produced by The History Channel in 2001 and narrated by Burt Reynolds which delves into the differences between real-life and what we have in the film along with the importance of the insights from technical advisor Wally Floody.
  • The Great Escape – Preparations For Freedom: A 20-minute documentary which details the escape of the prisoners of Stalag Luft III and why the filmmakers decided to change some of the particulars. This gives even more insights than the previous piece with some invaluable interviews. 
  • The Great Escape – The Flight To Freedom: A nine-minute piece which once again details some of the difference between fact and fiction when it comes to what happened after exiting the tunnel. The real-life facts are nearly as gripping as what is depicted in the film. 
  • The Great Escape – A Standing Ovation: A six-minute piece at how the film was received upon its release and its legacy over the years, especially as it concerns the reactions of the POWs. 
  • The Real Virgil Hilts – A Man Called Jones: A 25-minute featurette on the man who served as inspiration for the Steve McQueen character featuring an interview conducted in 2001 with David Jones. The list of accomplishments that can be attributed to him is simply astounding which makes this one of the better supplements on this disc. 
  • Great Escape: The Untold Story – Documentary: A 51-minute documentary from 2001 made for British TV which utilizes interviews and reenactments to chronicle the efforts to bring the Gestapo responsible for casualties among the escaped prisoners to justice. 
  • Great Escape: The Untold Story – Additional Interviews: Ten minutes of interviews not used in the previous supplement which provides even more context and detail to the efforts. 
  • Trailers: The nearly three-minute trailer for The Great Escape is provided here. There are also trailers provided for The Train, 633 Squadron, The Devil’s Brigade, Mosquito Squadron, and Force 10 From Navarone.  
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Final Thoughts

The Great Escape is simply one of the great films that lives up to all of the laurels heaped upon it over the years. The film may be dramatized more for the silver screen compared to the real-life events, but that does not lessen what an amazing achievement it is. Steve McQueen shows off his movie star qualities throughout, but equal respect should be paid towards the unforgettable ensemble. This is the type of film where the epic runtime goes by in a flash. Kino Classics has released a 4K UHD Blu-Ray featuring a terrific A/V presentation and a fantastic array of supplemental features. If you are a fan of the film, this is by far the best it has ever looked on physical media. Essential 

The Great Escape is currently available to purchase on 4K UHD Blu-Ray.

Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the 4K UHD Blu-Ray.

Disclaimer: Kino Classics has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.


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