172m (film)
2m45s (supp)

 Aspect Ratio (Theatrical):

Panavision - 2.35:1

  Aspect Ratio (Disc Transfer):




The Voyager Company / The Criterion Collection / MGM/UA

Film Credits

Screenplay by: James Clavell and W.R. Burnett

Directed by: John Sturges

Starring: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson, John Leyton, Angus Lennie, Nigel Stock



Last May, MGM/UA released an all-time favorite, The Great Escape, in a very nice letterboxed disc edition (reviewed in issue #22, June 1991). Shortly thereafter, Voyager announced their forthcoming "Criterion Collection" edition of the same, and ever since then the talk around town has been "Since MGM/UA's disc is so terrific, what could Voyager do to their's to make it better?" Well, the answer to that questions is "a lot" - MGM/UA's laserdisc was certainly good, but Voyager's is better in more ways than one.

The first difference you'll notice is with the original anamorphic Panavision aspect ratio. MGM/UA's disc had an enormously wide aspect ratio of about 2.59:1, while Voyager's disc is only around 2.30:1. But as has been stated by director John Sturges, the framing on the Voyager disc is the proper one. We've been told two different stories as to why MGM/UA's disc is too wide: 1) that The Great Escape was filmed with a wider-than-normal aspect ratio, allowing Sturges to do slight framing adjustments, if necessary, in the final editing stages before transfer to a 2.35:1 release print; and 2) that MGM/UA simply transferred the film from a print which did not contain a soundtrack, thus the wider image. Although we cannot be certain, #2 seems the more plausible choice, especially since MGM/UA's disc has more picture information on only the left side of the image, which is where the soundtrack information would normally be (the top, bottom and right sides of the frame are identical on both the MGM/UA and Voyager discs).

With regard to print and transfer quality, the MGM/UA disc looked terrific, especially after having seen the film in those dreadful television prints. But even so, MGM/UA's picture quality was inconsistent - the focus was always sharp, but while some reels were fine, others were fairly grainy; the colors were fairly strong, but often became paler than they should be. Voyager's transfer is definitely the better of the two, and it is doubtful that the film could look any better - the focus is again sharp, but Voyager's print/transfer has a consistent quality and the colors scheme appears correct.

As for the digital Westrex mono soundtrack, Voyager's disc again appears to be the better of the two. When MGM/UA did their transfer, the original magnetic tracks could not be found and the audio had to be taken off of an optical soundtrack and cleaned up as best as possible. Even so, some background hiss, slight harshness, and a couple of audio pops/fluctuations were left. These problems still exist to some degree on Voyager's disc, only they've apparently been cleaned up better since they aren't as noticeable.

The Voyager disc also includes a wonderful audio commentary on Analog Track 2 (right) hosted by film historian Bruce Eder. Aside from Eder's comments, director/producer Sturges, production manager/2nd unit director Robert E. Reylea, stuntman Bud Ekins and composer Elmer Bernstein all have their say on the making of the film. As you can imagine, Sturges talks about his directing responsibilities, script problems, locations, actors, etc. Reylea and Ekins concentrate mostly on the stunt and action-related aspects of the production, and finally settle once and for all the mystery of who jumped the motorcycle over the fence at the end of the film (was it Steve McQueen, or not?). Lastly we have Bernstein, and while we respect him as a composer, his "discussion" and "insight" into the musical themes present in the film is extremely tedious at best; he doesn't impart any real information and basically sticks to stating the obvious, such as the fact that threatening scenes are made more threatening by adding threatening music, etc. Because of these commentaries, the disc has not been CX-encoded.

And if all this weren't enough to convince you to pick up Voyager's disc, then maybe the fantastic supplementary section will convince you. With The Great Escape, Voyager finally did something we've been hoping they'd do for a long time: put the movie in CLV and the supplementary section in CAV, thus allowing people to get the best of both worlds. Opening up the supplementary section is an index to its contents, followed by an original 2m45s theatrical trailer, letterboxed at 2.30:1 (apparently due to an error on the disc master, the audio for the trailer appears only on the analog tracks, and Voyager has included a small notice with each disc notifying viewers of that fact). Next is an audio introduction by Sturges talking about the physical settings for the film, accompanied by 11 behind-the-scenes and production photos. Many of these photos feature Sturges' production office, one wall of which was covered by numerous detailed photos of the settings, towns, countryside, etc., and are shown in close-up over the 52 still-frames following the introduction. After that, 75 publicity photos and 241 production photos appear. A "from script to screen" section details script excerpts from scenes not included in the final film, and includes 12 photos from one deleted sequence. Next up are a series of 111 still-frames featuring a multitude of continuity photos used for editing purposes. Lastly, some background information on the real Stalag Luft III is given, along with a complete list of the fifty men executed after the escape and a total of 25 photos of the camp and the executed men.

The two-disc set comes in a neat gatefold jacket, the interior brilliantly featuring the original pencil sketch map of Stalag Luft III that Sturges used to help him visualize camera angles and locations during filming. It's a nice thing to have around while watching the film, since you can get an idea where everything is: the prisoner's buildings, all three escape tunnels, the guard towers, the cooler, the forest, etc. The Great Escape was pressed at Sony DADC, is Table of Contents encoded, and contains 45 listed chapter markers (36 for the film, nine for the supplementary materials).

Voyager's The Great Escape is a great disc in every respect and well worth picking up. However, of the several copies of the disc that we've taken a look at, every single one of them featured an identical pressing-related problem at the very beginning of side one and side three. On side one, the opening Voyager and MGM/UA logos are riddled by a large, rolling band of glitches and speckles, ending shortly before the film credits appear. At the beginning of side three, in the few seconds of black appearing before the film resumes, a similar though much-less-severe band of glitches and speckles show up for a couple of seconds.


Supplementary Recap

  • Audio Commentary with director John Sturges, composer Elmer Bernstein, production manager and second unit director Robert E. Relyea, stuntman Bud Ekins and film historian Bruce Eder.
  • Introduction by Director John Sturges on the Making of the Film
  • Publicity Photos
  • Production Photo Gallery
  • Script Excerpts of Scenes Not Included in the Final Film
  • Continuity Photos
  • The Real Stalag Luft III (background and photos)



Review by Jeff Krispow
Originally Published in "Pond Scum" #26

Original Review: 11/91
Last Updated: 05/16/97