As any weary DVD enthusiast can testify, the featurettes and documentaries slapped onto most super-deluxe special editions are disposable spin jobs, effectively advertisements for a product that the viewer has already rented or bought. So it's a pleasant surprise that the new two-disc edition of 1963's The Great Escape, while still angling aggressively for canonization, doesn't hide the discrepancies between the film's thrilling story of wartime derring-do and the more sobering truths of historical record. It's especially telling to discover that the most rousing passages in John Sturges' workmanlike adventure epic hew closest to the facts, while the embellishments often whiff of phony triumph.
For most of its lumbering duration, The Great Escape plays like a classic heist sequence in reverse—a breakout instead of a break-in. Based on Paul Brickhill's memoir, the film takes place in the meticulously re-created Stalag Luft III, a German maximum-security POW camp designed to house Allied officers with a reputation for escape artistry. The German feel confidently that they have "all the rotten eggs in one basket," but in their hubris, they underestimate the collective cunning of this brain trust, which will do anything to flee the camp and rejoin the front. Led by commanding officer Richard Attenborough, a team of crack specialists—including James Garner, James Coburn, Donald Pleasence, and Charles Bronson, among other marquee names—joins an audacious effort to construct three tunnels (each one 30 feet deep and 300 feet long) and liberate 250 Allied prisoners. The wildcard in this mostly British effort is Steve McQueen, a rebellious American loner whose escape attempts repeatedly land him in the cooler.
Operating under Geneva Convention rules (remember those?), Stalag Luft III doesn't look like a terrible place to sit out the war, but the Germans and the Allies have a civil, gentlemanly understanding: The POWs are duty-bound to try to escape, and their keepers will make every effort to stop them. In this regard, The Great Escape operates in the tradition of Jean Renoir's humanist war classic Grand Illusion, or the 1957 Robert Mitchum submarine showdown The Enemy Below, both of which emphasized the commonality between enemies. During the first (and better) half of the film, the minor diversions and fake-outs that the Allies use to cover the larger operation are irresistibly lighthearted and funny, as if escaping from prison were just the last in a long series of practical jokes. Brickhill was brought on as an advisor, and the authentic depiction of the breakout, in all its myriad delegations and strategies, is a prime example of crackerjack Hollywood entertainment. But later, history presents Sturges and company with a real headache: Of the 76 escapees, only three made it to freedom, and 50 were gunned down in cold blood by the Gestapo.
How to handle such a drastic tonal downswing? With Elmer Bernstein's memorably chirpy score behind him, Sturges turned to McQueen, who accepted the role on the condition that he could show off his motorcycle skills. McQueen speeding across the German countryside and leaping over the first of two barbed-wire fences leading into Switzerland may be the film's most iconic and enduring image. Dubious or not, it's a triumph of sorts that a tale that ends in war crimes could have such a rousing conclusion.