Digital Music Review: ‘The Great Escape Soundtrack Suite’ (Original Soundtrack Theme from ‘The Great Escape’)

(C) 1963 Metro Goldwyn Mayer Music

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

How many you taking out?

Two hundred and fifty.

Two hundred and fifty?


You’re crazy. You oughta be locked up. You, too. Two hundred and fifty guys just walkin’ down the road, just like that?

The trailer for The Great Escape (1963)

Elmer Bernstein (1922-2004) was one of the most prolific and respected composers of film music in the modern era. During his 53-year-long career (1951-2004), the New York City-born Bernstein (no relation to composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein) composed over 200 scores for feature films and television shows, including The Man With the Golden Arm, The Ten Commandments, The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, National Lampoon’s Animal House, Airplane!, Cape Fear, and The Age of Innocence.

In 1963, Bernstein was reunited with producer-director John Sturges, for whom he had composed the score for 1960’s The Magnificent Seven. Now he, as well as several actors from the classic Western’s cast (Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn) would collaborate with Sturges on his latest project, The Great Escape.

Based on a book by Australian writer (and WWII pilot) Paul Brickhill, The Great Escape is a dramatization of a daring attempt by Allied prisoners of war (POWs) to break out of Stalag Luft III near the German city of Sagan (now in Western Poland, it’s known as Zagan) in March of 1944.

In the movie, Squadron Leader Roger “Big X” Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) instigates a “great escape” that, if it goes according to plan, will allow 250 Allied – mostly British and Commonwealth – airmen to break out from the remote POW camp and make their way to neutral countries such as Sweden, Spain, or Switzerland.

In the process, Bartlett also hopes that the resulting manhunt will tie up German forces and resources that are badly needed in the fighting front. Even if only a few of the prisoners make it to freedom, the escape attempt will throw a wrench into the German war machine and cause the “Jerries” a lot of frustration and embarrassment.

A live performance of the Main Title theme from The Great Escape by the Film Symphony Orchestra, a Spanish ensemble based in Barcelona.

For The Great Escape, Bernstein wrote almost 90 minutes’ worth of music for the score. Unlike, say, movies such as Star Wars, The Great Escape doesn’t have underscore for almost every scene. There are quite a few sequences with no music in the background. Nevertheless, most of the major action scenes do have Bernstein’s music to thrill and chill the avid movie watcher.

Before I bought Intrada Records’ 2011 3-CD set with two versions of the soundtrack – a presentation of Bernstein’s complete score reconstructed from the original master sessions, plus a CD reissue of the 1963 MGM Music original soundtrack album – I tried purchasing a digital album instead on Amazon Music.

Unfortunately, Amazon Music does not sell either the extended 2-CD album or the abridged soundtrack from 1963. However, the digital music seller does offer The Great Escape Soundtrack Suite.

Essentially,The Great Escape Soundtrack Suite is a collection of cues composed and conducted by Bernstein presented in a nearly 15-minute-long single track. It includes the famous Main Title theme, along with short cues that include First Glance, Cooler, Premature Plans, More Action/The Chase, and Finale.

To connect the various atmospheric and tense action cues, the Suite uses the recognizable and jaunty Main Title march as the musical ligament that holds the other themes together.

Soundtrack Fred’s fan edit of Bernstein’s The Great Escape score.

In a way, The Great Escape Soundtrack Suite (which is credited on Amazon Music to JB Production CH) is reminiscent of a Soundtrack Fred fan edit of movie music material. It’s worth listening to if you just want a “sampler” of Bernstein’s brilliant and catchy music and don’t want to buy the complete soundtrack.

I was disappointed when I couldn’t buy a digital album with the complete score, but I’m a big fan of The Great Escape; it’s the first film I remember watching at a movie theater (I was six years old and living in Bogota at the time), and Bernstein’s world-famous (and popular) score is one of my favorite elements from John Sturges’ action-adventure film.

The music in the Suite is catchy, extremely hummable, and unforgettable. If you have the Amazon Music app, you can get it for $1.29 as a MP3 file. For casual listeners, this is a good option, especially if they just want a sampler and not the complete score.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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