The Great Escape: World Cup Special Edition [DVD]
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A 2002 World Cup DVD special edition of the film from which the theme tune is sung by football fans across England. During World War Two, a collection of hardened Allied prisoners are kept in an 'escape-proof' German camp. Led by the 'Big X' (Richard Attenborough), the men formulate a plan for a mass breakout, digging three tunnels - Tom, Dick and Harry. The team behind the escape includes a near-blind forger of passports (Donald Pleasance), a claustrophobic tunnel-digger (Charles Bronson) and the independent American 'Cooler King' (Steve McQueen). With men like that on their side, how can they fail?
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For years this was considered a great World War II action adventure film, but John Sturges' reaches far above that mundane distinction. His style and ease of direction glosses over his own profound statements that he makes in this film. For example, James Garner cleverly befriends a German guard for the sole purpose of stealing his wallet so he can extort a 35-mm. camera and film from the guard. On the surface the audience is very amused at Garner's sly tactics, after all the Germans are the bad guys. However, subconsciously Sturges gave us enough personal information about the guard that we almost feel sympathy for him. This is reinforced by Sturges' choice of James Garner, one of the most likable actors in Hollywood, to perpetrate the deception on the unknowing guard. How can a nice guy like James Garner do this? As it works out Sturges lets the guard redeem himself. It is this guard that discovers the first tunnel when he spills some coffee on the floor and it disappears through the cracks. Now you the viewer are faced with a moral dilemma. Do I still feel sympathy for the guard? Do I still think that James Garner is a scoundrel? Or do I think that in war I have to do what is necessary? Garner's character did what he had to do and so did the guard.
Editor Ferris Webster did an excellent job of putting this complex story together giving it coherence and drive yet never sacrificing any of the wonderful characterizations that is the backbone of this film. Daniel Fapp's cinematography brilliantly gives us a feeling of claustrophobia while in the prison camp. Once the escape begins he gives us panoramas of landscapes, which have a dual symbolism. On one emotional hand we are free and the far-off horizons elusively symbolize that freedom. On the other rational hand we know that we are still not free and the vastness of those landscapes only strengthens the reality that ultimate escape and freedom is improbable for the majority of the escapees. Composer Elmer Bernstein also has more to say than meets the ear. This film contains one of his two most recognizable themes in cinema history, but that is an understatement. His main title theme is as much a tribute to the prisoners in this story as it is to all men who must overcome the odds through their own perseverance and unwillingness to bend to defeat to whatever noble end they strive for. Bernstein's complex score complements the theme by giving us passages and statements on the diversity of the individuals as well as their singular overall objective. Once "on the road" the music reaches exhilarating proportions unlike that of traditional action Hollywood scoring. Bernstein wants to put the audience through the same suspense and anticipation that the escapees feel and then unleashes our pent up emotions in a crescendo of rousing orchestrations that has us cheering them on. This was the same brilliant technique he employed in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. I don't think many people give Elmer Berstein the credit for being the musical innovator that he was back in that period in his career.