I caught yesterday afternoon’s TCM Classic Film Festival screening of The Great Escape, and I’m sorry to say that it was a pleasant but no-great-shakes experience. John Sturges‘ classic World War II action drama has been remastered for a forthcoming Bluray (due May 7th) and I was assuming that the DCP version would make this 1963 film look and sound a little spiffier and brassier and more eye-filling than it did the last time I saw it in a theatre, which was sometime in the ’80s.

Steve McQueen between takes of Ther Great Escape.

Especially, you know, if the DCP guys scanned the original negative and were given the funding from MGM Home Video to do an extra nice job.

I’m kidding, of course. MGM Home Video is renowned as a bargain-basement outfit. They don’t want to spend a dime more than they have to. If MGM Home Video ran an airline you wouldn’t want to fly with them, trust me. The result is that they probably scanned an inter-positive rather than the original Great Escape negative with an order to do the best job they could within a tight budget. I don’t know any budgetary facts but what I saw on the big Chinese screen looked like a handsomely-shot film that had been mastered by the Mrs. Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company.

I’m presuming that the Bluray will look much better but that’s another story.

The Great Escape looked reasonably okay on that huge curved screen, but that’s all. Good color, at times smothered in Egyptian grainstorm, a little murky in certain scenes, not that sharply focused, kinda hazy looking. And the sound levels were way too soft. Elmer Bernstein‘s score is supposed to hit you across the chest and lift you up and make you want to march and get out your M1 carbine so you can shoot Germans. Yesterday I felt as if I was listening to his score with earmuffs on. (And I had seen the last half-hour of Bonnie and Clyde in the same theatre an hour earlier and the sound was clear and full and strong so don’t tell me.)

If you want to be generous you could say The Great Escape looked a tiny bit better than the 2004 DVD. But only here and there. It often looked as if the 2004 DVD was being projected on a white wall in the back room of a bar. The source material wasn’t that extraordinary to begin with, remember. Daniel Fapp‘s cinematography is clean and professional but strictly average by 1963 location-shoot standards. It wasn’t shot in 70mm or VistaVision or Todd-AO but plain old reliable 35mm. Again, as is often the case, the Bluray, a down-rez from the DCP, will probably be another story. Professional compression almost always delivers sharper results.

On top of which the movie itself is starting to seem a little too smug. Bonnie and Clyde hasn’t been diminished by the decades, not in the least, but The Great Escape is starting to feel a little too calculated and even a bit sentimental. For my money it indulges in far too much winking. It’s almost played on a Hogan’s Heroes level…too much jaunty humor. We’re a bunch of cool-attitude 30something actors and the Germans are mostly schmucks, and we can pretty much do anything we want within reason. (Including making our own potato vodka and throwing a 4th of July party.) It’s like high school, this prison. The German guards and officers behave like hugely irritated geometry and math teachers…”Who’s throwing spitballs? Apparently some people in this room want detention!”