The Great Escape - Complete Original MGM Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

by Chris McEneany
Movies & TV Review

The Great Escape - Complete Original MGM Motion Picture Soundtrack Soundtrack Review

Cheesed off?

Work getting you down?

The kids giving you grief?

Whatever your problem may be, whatever infernal set of circumstances have conspired to tick you off … there's one very easy solution … one sure-fire way to immediately raise your spirits and cheer you up. One remedy that will vanquish those doldrums and get your old indefatigable self right back on track and ready to take on all-comers.

Stick Elmer Bernstein's Main Title from The Great Escape on your player, and then just sit back, feel the grin spread across your face and watch as all those pesky troubles just fall away.

The great, late Elmer Bernstein, besides composing some of the best music to ever grace the movies over six decades, created two of the most uplifting, soul-enriching themes in the history of Hollywood … and he came up with the pair of them for the same director. The opening title theme to The Magnificent Seven is so damn rousing that you're halfway to Mexico, with a Winchester rifle slung over your shoulder before the piece has even come to an end. That was one of them. And then there's this, John Sturges' other ultra-classic motion picture, 1963's seminal war-flick, The Great Escape, and the second absolutely guaranteed smirk-inducing, heart-swelling main theme that Cinema has ever produced.

Super bold, bulging with patriotic confidence and imbued with that instantly identifiable “us against them” camaraderie, the Main Title for the film is known and loved even by those who have never even seen the motion picture, itself. Taken to the football terraces as the England team's unofficial national anthem, utilised in comedy sketches, TV commercials, pantos, plays and union rallies and universally recognisable as a tune that embodies the doggedness and resilience of the human spirit and its abject refusal to bow-down and give in to the face of oppression, Bernstein's cherished title tune will surely live forever in the cultural lexicon of underdog joie-de-vivre.

“You fool! You crossed ze vire of death!”

“What wire?”

Zat vire!

“Ohhhhh ...”

We surely don't need to give a synopsis of the plot.

Richard Attenborough's stiff-upper-lipped Big X pledging to cause as much mischief behind enemy lines as is humanly possible with the mass breakout from Hitler's new top security prison-camp, and the plan to dig three tunnels - Tom, Dick and Harry. Gordon Jackson's big “D'oh!” moment when he, of all people, lets his verbal guard down at a crucial moment. Charles Bronson's Tunnel-king freaking out in the dark confines of the passage he has just excavated. Angus Lennie's ferret-like Ives making that heartbreaking run for the wire after the frivolities of the Independence Day celebrations. Donald Pleasance as the master-forger who just happens to be blind-as-a-bat, and James Garner's silver-tongued “Scrounger” who simply refuses to leave his friend behind. David McCallum's Aryan looks not enough to save him from a train-platform act of self-sacrifice to buy his buddies some time. James Coburn's wonderfully laconic bicycle-ride down country lanes and into the hands of the French Resistance. And that uber-cool blond kid in chinos and a blue sweatshirt vaulting over border fences on a stolen motorcycle … when he isn't bouncing a baseball off the cooler-wall, that is. You know them all. You know what happens. You know who makes it and who doesn't. You should do. A thousand Bank Holiday showings have instilled the scenes, the wonderful dialogue and, of course, the music deep into your soul.

By now, these characters should seem like family members … and Bernstein's score like a nostalgic lullaby from your childhood.

In a lavish and pleasingly unlimited three-disc boxset, Intrada bring Bernstein's cult classic score out from under the fence in its complete form, for the very first time in the same package as the original 1963 highlights album presentation from way back in 1963. The first two discs contain the full score, in film chronological order, whilst the third disc carries the 1963 album from United Artists, itself a wonderful encapsulation of the music as arranged by Bernstein, and happily cleaned-up for this release. Intrada, themselves, were responsible for unveiling the first CD release of the score, and then Varese Sarabande put out the full score as a 2-disc set. But now, for those who may have missed out, here is everything in one very special package.

What is necessary to remember, and far too easily overlooked in the excessive brevity of that main theme is that the rest of the score is an absolute classic of the very highest order. Bernstein slips his primary and secondary themes under and over the fence time and time again, bending and folding them to the whims of the story and the direction that the characters are heading in, whether physically or emotionally. I've always found many elements in his writing for this soundtrack that add up to a rich and varied experience. There are the conventional militaristic and action tropes of the War Film, the suspense and tension of the POW saga. There is a certain darkness to some of the earlier scenes when the new arrivals at Stalag Luft III get their bearings and the lay of the land, suggestive of the stillness of the camp at night under the watchful eyes in the guard towers and from the shadows. There is also wistful melancholy and noble defeat, the grace with which many of the men meet their fate and the stark brutality with which it is often dealt them. And, of course, there is that quite unique Western flavour to a lot of Bernstein's writing. This last ingredient is what gives The Great Escape that essential rip-roaring quality, that certain bonhomie that makes it zip along with so much ease and brevity. Bernstein had, of course, just come off the back of The Magnificent Seven, but he had already scored Drango, The Tin Star, The Commancheros and the modern Western, Hud, that starred Paul Newman. In fact, for much of its running time, the score could actually be taken for a horse-opera, if you didn't already know what the story was about. And the reason for this is relatively simple – the film has a surprisingly lightweight and knockabout atmosphere to it for a great deal of the running time that often flies in the face of the conventions of the genre, and especially the harsh realities of the scenario, itself.

So let's take a good long look at that glorious Main Title theme, shall we?

Commencing with brusque, angular and deliberately discordant ambuscades of overbearing brass that sound like an orchestra tuning-up, the theme strikes a sudden, attention-grabbing stance that, fittingly enough, takes no prisoners. (Interestingly, Ron Goodwin's famous main title for Where Eagles Dare apes this hard-line opening with a similarly stern barrage of intense brass and bass.) Bernstein cracks the austerity asunder with the final two belches of the 8-note title intro, the last couplet colliding together and then giving way to a brisk military drum cadence that totally lightens the tone. But then he repeats the motif, the last two notes rising a little higher this time before the drums. Straight-away he has duped us with this approach – ferocity followed by an almost sprightly denouement. And then we are into the main chorus of the title theme, and this completely derails our suspicions about brutal prison camps, nasty Nazis and valiant Allied officers, for now Bernstein delivers a jaunty, rakish march for woodwinds that couldn't be upbeat if it had a thousand bright red balloons attached to it, and wore clown-pants. The motif is supremely catchy – it's running through your head right now, isn't it? - with a very English air of strutting arrogantly, left-right, left-right, through a host of hostiles without turning a hair. It is aloof. It is superior. Bernstein said that it was “about the character played by Steve McQueen,” and although this may well be the case, it is certainly maverick enough for the Cooler King, but there can be no denying, also, that it plays perfectly in-synch with the typical and clichéd stiff-upper-lippedness of the quintessential British officer marching off to war in the firm belief that he is absolutely impervious to any form of enemy attack. John Barry may have created the ultimate musical evocation of steadfast confidence and courage-under-fire, with that cavalier twinkle in the eye, with the awesome Bondian secondary theme of 007 (heard in From Russia With Love, You Only Live Twice, Thunderball, Diamonds Are Forever and Moonraker), but Bernstein got just about got there first. If James Bond went on a mission with 007 playing inside his head, then the march from The Great Escape would, perhaps, have been the battle-cry of John Steed. Maybe. Substitute your rifle for a brolly or a cane, your tin-hat for a bowler … and you're away. It is also very descriptive of handlebar moustaches, don't you think? I can imagine a gruff Sgt. Major puffing his chest out, swinging his mighty pugilist's arms in time to the beat and tickling his chin-strap with his wire-wool whiskers when I hear this. It may be a very precisely British tune, but there is universal appeal to it.

There is that genuine “bounce” to the theme that is so addictive. It plays out once and then enters into a much more expansive clatter and roll that does feel like something of a tip of the Stetson to the Yanks, before, utterly delightfully, returning with even more of a swagger for another run-through. Now the tuba makes more of an impression, farting merrily away at the core of the march alongside the trombones. The drums rattle in, the strings slice and saw, cymbals clash, trumpets hoot and the whole thing marches into the history books and the collective soul of film fans everywhere. It may be the theme tune for a story about incarceration and captivity, but it speaks of never, ever submitting. It is a dream-anthem, a musical pill to be popped whenever the bastards try to grind you down. With this theme in mind, you simply cannot lose.

After the Main Title, the next couple of tracks denote the first impressions of the camp as out terrific roster of character arrive, and the awesome slew of initial escape attempts. Bernstein breaks the routine by alternating tense long-lines and distant slow drumming with gentle, tentative hints of the main theme as each of the characters is presented to us, and various individuals waste absolutely no time at all in trying to break out. Trombones issue a forlorn statement in Track 3 to imply the uselessness of any further thoughts of escape for these repeat-offenders, but a more confident and steady variation of the march comes in the following track, reflecting the die-hard nature of the men being held in Stalag Luft III. But Bernstein is hugely in favour of see-sawing from one mood and one outlook to another, a brilliant device that has the score, even in individual cues, veer from side to side – optimistic, then downbeat, then spirits raised once again. Track 5, the appropriately titled Forked, brings in a couple of jarring stingers from brass, bass and percussion as the chipper (but ultimately unhinged) Scotsman, Ives, is almost skewered by a pitchfork as he hides under a pile of pine branch cuttings in the back of a leaving truck. As the wily little urchin surrenders, his comical stance is rewarded with a bright retelling of the main march. These stingers would be employed very powerfully in Bernstein's score for True Grit (CD and BD reviewed separately). This then continues on through Cooler, as both Ives and McQueen's opportunist Hilts get themselves banged-up in isolation for twenty days – the first of many such visits. Bernstein does some playful mickey-mousing as the guard realises that his keys have gone missing and opens the cell-door to take them back from the light-fingers of Hilts. He is also able to convey, very subtly, the deep-rooted fears and anxieties that reside within the otherwise jovial Ives.

This pattern is repeated until James Garner's Scrounger meets his room-mate, Pleasance's short-sighted Forger, Blythe, when Bernstein develops another theme in Track 9, an altogether more poignant and bittersweet one. Heard first on mournful woodwinds, this peaceful lament almost ponders on how tranquil life could be at the camp if the prisoners weren't so determined to break out. Listen to the lilting of a flute as it takes up the theme, backed by the plucking of a harp. This is both a reflection of how things are and a premonition of how things will turn out. Once again, this is excellent writing, with a true ear for character and situational context. Harsh militarism comes in to disrupt the harmony, much as the guards frequently do, with the brisk German lines for brass and drums, but the cue returns to the soft, delicate phraseology that will come to refer to this diverse yet devoted pair of POWs.

The score seems to settle into a tit-for-tat series of main theme interpretations and more edgy material as Big X's plan to extricate 250 prisoners in one go hits the usual trials and tribulations in conjunction with the continual failure of Hilts and Ives to make their own escape … and their subsequent and now regular trips to the Cooler. Various scrapes and antics are dealt with, the music keeping playful tabs on everything.

A rather shrill rendition of the Main Title comes in Track 15's Cave In, before we hear a sort of collage of brassy, low string fed cues as the tunnel work continues with mixed fortunes. A hasty piano and some whistling flutes cater for the concerns of the Restless Men in Track 16, and then we get some wonderful otherworldly fun in Booze, as Hilts and his fellow Colonials set about manufacturing some of the good stuff by illicit means. Bernstein reacts by using the tuba for bellicose comical effect, whilst the harp and glissandi magically cavort to recreate the spell of the fire-water that they have distilled.

An abrupt change of pace and style comes with the 4th July celebrations set in motion by Hilts and the US contingent, when the score takes on the whistle and flute and drums of Yankee Doodle. But the frivolities of Hilts' hellish hooch come to a tragic end when the Germans stumble upon one of the tunnels in the doom-laden Discovery. Eerie and suspenseful chords occupy the first section, with glassy percussion and an apprehensive voice from the woodwinds. A bullish rush of urgent strings and muted trumpets is cheated by yet more suspenseful SF-like tinkles from harp and vibraphone, and a swell of menacing strings. A fragile woodwind rendition of the main theme hovers tentatively, but hopes are dashed when some spilled coffee also spills the beans on the secret tunnel. With the jig up, poor Ives can't take the agony of another failure and makes an ill-fated run for the fence. Bernstein's theme for the character takes on a high Scottish lilt, violins keening almost as though driven by a breeze from across the loch. Fierce stabbing chimes and woodblock percussion inform us of the bullets that rip into the diminutive figure caught on the fence like a fly in a spider's web. Low bass rumbles in the distance, a doom-bell tolling as Hilts, whose unusual “back-barge” into a guard failed to save his friend, slowly gets to his feet and watches as Ives' body droops, dead, from the barrier. But Bernstein and McQueen reach a sort of epiphany, here, too. The main theme makes itself felt, rather than heard, as Hilts accepts Big X's deal and offers to fly the coup that very night on an information-gathering mission. By denying the theme its full rendition, the composer isn't forgetting the price that these men are paying, but still showing their undefeatable attitude … even if it is best kept under wraps for the time being.

Over on Disc 2, we have the majority of the action … namely the pulse-pounding bid for freedom that Hilts makes on that stolen German motorcycle. Beyond the Main Theme, it is probably this section that people recall the most, Bernstein's music accompanying the action, rev for rev, and helping to propel McQueen to fully fledged iconic super-stardom in the process. But the really clever thing about the score is how Bernstein actually flips it end over end, butting-up the individual motifs for each of the main escapees and their separate endeavours against one another. In this way, over the course of four or five tracks, he continually wrong-foots us, pulling the rug from underneath us and quietening things down just when the blood has become to pump a little quicker, and then dragging us to our feet again and stamping on the gas before the pulse has properly settled down. This is the musical equivalent of being on the run, breathless, frightened, always on the look-out and never allowed a second to relax. Bernstein knows that the odds are stacked against our boys, so he wants us on our toes, as well, and constantly looking in all directions.

But, for now, the second disc begins with Various Troubles. To the sound of muted tom-toms in the film, Hilts rolls beneath the searchlights and cuts his way out through the fence. Bernstein, as heard here, then scores a montage of relentless digging, offering a thunderous volley of military drumming as Hilts is delivered back to the camp and a two-fingered salute to the Huns with a great reprise of the main theme (in cooler-mode), then furious activity as the tunnel collapses on Danny's head (followed by Bronson's own psychological collapse). Even Pleasance gets uppity when poor Smithy leaves out an entire eagle from the forged passports, to a wavering flutter of agitated strings. This then turns ethereal, with soft plucking of the harp, as the Forger then realises that he can barely even see the damn things without a magnifying glass. Tired, but nervous strings then play out. Again, the composer has thrown everything into what seemed like a deceptively simple track.

Panic, Track 2, surveys the camp at night, with that serene phrase of hushed scheming. Melancholy woods and strings dominate, with only a couple of brief passages of urgent brass activity to break up the cool and dark atmosphere of pre-breakout jitters.

“Colin's not a blind man as long as he's with me … and he's going with me!

And Track 3, Pin Trick, is when the Blythe tries to convince Big X that he can see just fine, and should still be allowed to join the mass escape, by retrieving a pin he has previously positioned on the floor. Big X and the Scrounger, though, spot the ploy and Bernstein's beautiful, yearning music breaks the heart with delicately forlorn strings and undulating, almost medieval oboe. Bernstein will return to this theme several times more over the ensuing cues, and as Hendley accepts the role of vouching for Blythe and looking after him during the break-out and the cross-country trek that will follow, we hear possibly the most tender version of the title theme. But it is slow burn dread and apprehension that comes to play a large part as the men put their disguises on, gather their fake documents and await their turn to go into the tunnel. With Hilts released from the Cooler again and the topographical details of what lies immediately beyond the camp relayed, the escape is on schedule. Little instances of martial drums play chase with glimmering harp and nervous woods and then edgy strings interrupt the steady beat of muted brass and bass that tries to gee spirits up. The overriding theme here is of apprehension, and it is remarkable how spacious and luxurious Bernstein allows it to be. At the end of Track 5, he provides a slow and stately phrase from the main title to sweep through the serene phrase that denotes the stillness of the camp at night under the gliding eyes of the spotlights. Even divorced from the visuals, you know exactly what is happening … and you are on edge, as well … yet the hauntingly sinuous cue is also quite bewitching.

There is more from the harp in Track 6's 20 Feet Short, when the alarming discovery is made that the tunnel has come up far short of the covering tree-line beyond the range of the prison searchlights. The spectral eeriness of the shadows and the silver-cast of the lights sweeping the area is strung-out with similar glassy and magical effects as heard in the earlier Booze, although there is understandably less of a free-wheeling attitude here. The music captures the necessity for quiet, but also the drastic need for action. Bernstein has the bass drums wobble out an exotic climbing beat of nervous energy, like a coiled spring, slight shimmers from the cymbals helping to ignite the tension. The thing is, it is now or never … but the composer matches the characters anxieties as they agonise over what to do next.

“See you in Piccadilly.”

“Scot's Bar ...”

As well as more worrisome moments for woods and drifting strings of meandering doubt, as well as a great electric bass-thrumming ascent (aided by a hint of tuba and chimes), Track 7, Foul Up, includes a fantastic variation on Calvera's theme from The Magnificent Seven, but in an inspired fashion, Bernstein is actually able to combine its urgent galloping rhythm with a spirited and flouncy string rendition of the Main Title from The Great Escape too, as the game is up and the Germans open fire. It is a brief, but wonderful moment of very clever writing … and, hey, a good few have got away!

Commencing in At The Station and progressing through the next series of tracks, the various fugitives dotted about the countryside take their chances with the roving Germans, each team or individual opting for a different course of action, a different disguise, a different means of transportation. What Bernstein does is unite them all beneath one colourful and energetic musical umbrella, urging them onwards and wishing them all Godspeed. The Krauts are on the look-out, but Bernstein is going to do all that he can to help our lads-on-the-lam. Interspersed with each of these individual themes, you will hear patriotic swells of the main title.

For Coburn's naffly accented Aussie, Sedgwick, there is a pleasant rustic pastoral. As he cycles nonchalantly down quiet country lanes and through picturesque villages, Bernstein smooths over all thoughts of war with a delightful easygoing charm and a breezy lilt that denotes Coburn's attitude of having not a care in the world. Listen to the harp and the softly crooned strains of the main theme that float lightly over the proceedings.

This translates into the slightly more emotionally-imbued theme for Garner and Pleasance who, having leapt, cowboy-like, from a train filled with inquisitive Germans, have now found their way to an airfield. Bernstein doesn't want us to forget that Blythe is a handicap and that Garner's Hendley is taking a huge gamble with his own chances by sticking with him. Their theme now carries a bit more sweet earnestness.

For Bronson and his buddy Daniel Craig lookalike, John Leyton, this becomes even more lilting and leisurely as they punt gently down the stream.

Heavy low chords anchor the more difficult situation that Attenborough and Jackson find themselves in as they board a train and have to undergo that never-ending “Papers, please” scenario from every passing Jerry.

And then, of course … yes, you've guessed it … there's our rebel, good old Steve McQueen. Bernstein is going to have a whale of a time with the Cooler King. This is where the score really comes alive with super-charged action. Freeing his need for speed, the maverick aviator sets up a trap across a road and inelegantly removes a passing German biker from his vintage muscle-machine with that clothesline trick that would actually decapitate another Kraut in Force 10 From Navarone. Commandeering the motorcycle and the Nazi's uniform, McQueen roars off down the road to the electrifying four-six brass pounding ostinato that Bernstein orchestrally guns for him in salute. Powerful rapid-fire four-note bursts from the trumpets and percussion propel Hilts through enemy held territory, the strings sizzling in response to his sheer audacity. An unfortunate lack of communication at a cross-roads results in the Cooler King's cover being blown, and the chase is on.

“Colin! I'm sorry I fouled things up.”

“That's all right. Thankyou … for getting me out ...”

The galloping motif continues, lurching with adrenaline-fuelled swagger. Xylophone and percussion highlight each heavy brass lunge, the heroic speed of the cue roaring around the whole ensemble. Then the most emphatic statement of Hilts' ride to glory bomb-bursts through the score – really heavy brass impacts in savagely quick succession rip across the top of an even swifter percussive syncopation from the drums. Hilts ditches his uniform and heads off over Heidi-like hill-meadows, the film and the score furiously intercutting between the fugitives and their separate dilemmas. Remorseless military drums seek to trip up David McCallum as he flees from the enemy on a crowded train platform, fostering the German stance further as he is gunned down in The First Casualty. In Flight Plan, Track 11, to a nice variation on the “still camp” theme, Hendley and Blythe steal a German plane from an airfield and head off towards the Alps, and then their own theme returns to take on a splendid new vigour of airborne optimism. The following action-packed track, will see them crash back to earth and reality with a nasty bump. Their theme pivots from the serenity of hopefulness to the tragic realisation that Big X was probably right all along about their chances. Pleasance struggles to make out the blur on the horizon as he stumbles from the burning wreckage of the plane, woodwinds and then strings detailing the horrible twist of fate as a single shot cracks out across the hill. Garner's wounded incredulity and shock is as strangled as Bernstein's imperious statement from woods and horns.

Over to you, Steve.

Drums, xylophone and Dervish-like trumpets bounce across the hills alongside Hilts, Bernstein's music ensuring that we feel every bump and every stomach-jolt that McQueen does. He's reached the border fences, but he's got about a hundred Germans right behind him. The music blisters with the wild rebelliousness of the soon-to-be-star, the man who caused so much trouble for his director during the production, icon and composer completely in-tandem with one-another. Those four-note clusters become a singeing tempest of reckless abandon. Trombone and tuba greet the arrival of truckloads more enemy soldiers, violins riding the percussive wave of the theme like scurrying white-caps as Hilts rides up and down the border looking for a way through. How about goin' over, Steve?

Of course, legend has it that McQueen did the awesome jump over the first barbed-wire barrier. The truth is that his stand-in, Bud Ekins, is probably the one we see doing it in the film … but, just to clarify things a touch further and to help cement McQueen's status, the star did perform the stunt, himself, as well. And on more than one occasion. Both men, as well as another daredevil-biker, did the jump. But be that as it may, Virgil Hilts makes the triumphantly doomed flight to the ferocious beat of Bernstein's rambunctious motif, hitting the deck in the no-man's land between the first and the second, much larger, barrier. Bernstein prepares him for another spectacular leap, but it is one that we all know he cannot make. Drums and percussion weigh him down as machine-gunfire ruins his chances of landing in Switzerland, Hilts becoming enmeshed in the coils of the barbed-wire. Bernstein doesn't drown the moment of capture with dark disillusionment, though. With McQueen's wry, bloodied grin and one-armed surrender, he ends with a suggestive ripple of the snare drums.

Bernstein doesn't forget the Brits and their lack of “Good luck”. With another Allied failure to convince German officials that they aren't the escaped POWs they are looking for, Attenborough and Jackson go on the run through the cobbled streets, Dickie even doing a Jason Bourne and going over the rooftops. For this exciting sequence, heard in Track 13, Road's End, Bernstein brings in a hammered piano to underscore the pulsating rhythm that drives the two men out of the clutches of the Gestapo. And then woodblock, high strings and percussion add to the excitement of the last-ditch getaway. The piano jangles the nerves with rib-prodding vitality and then descends into a weird, bass-ruffled rendition of the main title theme … as Big X, now on his own, meets up with the barrel-faced Tiger-Tank commander from Kelly's Heroes and realises that his escape is now over.

Events come to their terrible conclusion in Betrayal. With only three of the 76 who got out of the camp still on the loose – all of whom succeed in their bid for freedom – fifty of those caught are sadistically executed by the Gestapo to appease the ranting of an embarrassed Hitler. Reunited, Big X and Jackson's MacDonald, together many of their men are being driven back to the prison camp, or so they think. Stopping to allow them to stretch their legs in a lonely field, the Germans turn their guns on the men. Brisk martial drums signify the might and power of the Germans. Keyboards skitter uneasily as the gate is dropped to allow the men out of the truck and a doom-laden bass drum hammers out the toll. The men may be fooled by this apparent act of compassion, but Bernstein's music is much wiser. Violins squirrel about, horns and woods murmur in warning. Attenborough and Jackson muse about their achievements to a soft and reflective interpretation of the main title march, but they, as well as the whimsical jaunt of the cue, are viciously cut short by the cocking of the guns and a sudden orchestral crescendo that ends the reverie.

“Fifty of your officers were shot vhilst trying to escape.”

“How many were wounded?”

“Here are zuh names of the zuh dead.”

How many of the fifty were wounded?

“... none ...”

Three Gone/Home Again, Track 15, has the pastoral that Bernstein so eloquently set up observe Bronson and Leyton as they row out to a ship in the docks and climb aboard, and Coburn, escorted by Resistance Fighters, make it down to the safety of Spain. The main title, light and airy, greets him, and it rises to a semi-crescendo before falling away to the sting of regret and sadness as James Donald's Senior British Officer Ramsey comes to understand the news of the executions and the recaptures. But you can count on Elmer Bernstein to bring back the glory of it all as the massed prisoners on parade watch the arrival of Hilts, the Cooler King, and the Main Title comes strutting back into the score in another full rendition. Hilts grins at the new camp commandant, getting the measure of him, collects his baseball and glove and takes himself off to his second home. The Great Escape comes to a close with one of those joyous recaps of the cast, and that theme-tune marches deep into your heart and your imagination.

Only three got away, but with Sturges, McQueen and a barnstorming ensemble cast, and Elmer Bernstein's never-say-die score … we all win, don't we?

All that is missing is the comforting dum-dum-thwack! of Hilts' baseball being bounced and caught in the Cooler.

As always, it is fun to spot the material that would crop up again in other scores from the composer. Naturally, there is some thematic and action motifs that suggest the rugged Boy's Own yarn of Magnificent Seven, but it is interesting to hear strains that would be developed further in scores as diverse as Saturn 3 and Zulu Dawn and even Heavy Metal. That pensive, anticipatory lull that features quite prominently would also evolve into the eerie East Proctor theme from An American Werewolf In London. Alongside The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape was Bernstein's defining moment and something of a crowning glory. He would receive an Academy Award in 1967 for Thoroughly Modern Millie, and be nominated many times over for the Oscar as well as other awards and become a much-loved figure and luminary even amongst other composers who would take immeasurable inspiration from him, but it is for these two scores, primarily, that he is so well known and probably best remembered.

The full 2-disc score, in stereo, was culled from ¼ inch 7 ½ ips two-track tape sources, and sounds terrific now that the original tape print-through has been eradicated and the music beautifully and faithfully restored. As Douglass Fake states in his informative tech-talk in the liner-notes, the stereo image may seem slightly weighted more towards the right. This is no mistake, for this is now Bernstein wrote and orchestrated his score with the emphasis on the brass and low strings that are grouped within that channel. The third disc, containing the original album presentation, has been minted from pristine ½ inch 15 ips three-track stereo album masters from the MGM vault, and sounds bravura and dynamic.

If I had any complaints at all about at all about this release, it would be that the extensive liner-notes in the accompanying 20-page booklet, whilst fact-packed and informative about the real events, real-life “guest” of Stalag Luft III Paul Brickhill's book (on which Sturges' film was based) and the production of the film, may lack a lot of detail about the score, itself. Personally, I would have loved to have read a bit more about what Bernstein put into the writing and how the score all came together. But this is only a very small caveat in what is, otherwise, a superlative package that comes with my highest recommendation.

Track Listing

CD 1

  1. Main Title 2.30
  2. At First Glance 3.07
  3. Premature Plans 2.28
  4. It At Once 2.31
  5. Forked 1.28
  6. Cooler 1.58
  7. Mole 1.28
  8. “X”/Tonight We Dig 1.30
  9. The Scrounger/Blythe 3.50
  10. Water Faucet 1.23
  11. Interruptus 1.33
  12. The Plan/The Sad Ives 1.43
  13. Green Thumbs 2.28
  14. Hilts And Ives 0.38
  15. Cave In 2.01
  16. Restless Men 1.56
  17. Booze 1.47
  18. “Yankee Doodle” 0.55
  19. Discovery 3.40

CD 1 Time 30.24


  1. Various Trouble 3.52
  2. Panic 2.05
  3. Pin Trick 0.59
  4. Hendley's Risk 1.43
  5. Released Again/Escape Time 5.25
  6. 20 Feet Short 3.06
  7. Foul Up 2.37
  8. At The Station 1.33
  9. On The Road 3.27
  10. The Chase/First Casualty 6.49
  11. Flight Plan 2.00
  12. More Action/Hilts Captured 2.06
  13. Road's End 2.06
  14. Betrayal 2.20
  15. Three Gone/Home Again 3.13
  16. Finale/The Cast 2.47

CD2 Time 50.56

CD3 Original 1963 UA Score Album

  1. Main Title 2.07
  2. Premature Plans 2.08
  3. Cooler And Mole 2.26
  4. Blythe 2.13
  5. Discovery 2.54
  6. Various Troubles 2.40
  7. On The Road 2.54
  8. Betrayal 2.05
  9. Hendley's Risk 2.24
  10. Road's End 2.00
  11. More Action 1.57
  12. The Chase 2.48
  13. Finale 3.14

CD3 Time 32.34

Impossible to ignore, and downright ignoble to miss out on, Intrada's sumptuous and, indeed, superlative 3-disc release is an absolute treasure. And it is not limited in any way, shape or form … so there's no excuses not to add this absolute classic to your collection.

Film scores come and go, trends shift and morph. But the bonafide masterpieces always remain the linchpins of the medium, filtering from one generation to the next and only gathering up new fans and disciples in the process each and every time. The Great Escape is one of the founder-members of this unique and extremely elite club, vastly influential and much emulated, though never bettered. It is the music of character, of heart. The film would have been great without Elmer Bernstein's ebullient and rousing score … but, with it, it is magnificent.

Telling the story without images – although the scenes from The Great Escape are so indelible that will surely play in your mind's eye as you listen – this is a magical experience of sensory rapture. So, climb out of that tunnel for a bit, dust yourself down, and be transported to a time when combined effort and valour and pride really meant something.

Intrada's release of Elmer Bernstein's The Great Escape gets top marks, through and through.

Lock yourself in, grab that baseball and crank up the sound! Even the neighbours won't mind this one.




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