Music Album Review: ‘The Great Escape: Complete Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – Music Composed and Conducted by Elmer Bernstein’

(C) 1963, 2011 MGM and Intrada Records

In 2011, the San Francisco Bay area-based record label/store Intrada Records released The Great Escape: Complete Original Motion Picture Soundtrack – Composed and Conducted by Elmer Bernstein. This 3-CD set collects two versions of the score for producer-director John Sturges’ 1963 The Great Escape, the classic action-adventure film based on the biggest escape attempt by Allied airmen from a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II.

Photo Credit: RetroGraphik. (C) 1963 MGM and The Mirisch Company

Intrada packs this nicely-priced collection (48 tracks in all, for a total of 2 hours and 2 minutes’ worth of music for $19.99 plus S&H) with two different takes on Bernstein’s memorable score.

As producer Douglass Fake writes in his Doug’s Notes for the album’s listing on the Intrada site, “Although this legendary film score has been available in some form from its LP origin in 1963 right on through the present day, this is the first presentation of both the original re-recorded album released by the United Artists label when the film opened and the actual soundtrack recorded for the picture in a single package. Both versions are valuable listening experiences and certainly compliment each other”

As Fake explains in his notes, the first two CDs contain Bernstein’s complete score, reconstructed from ” the same ¼” 7 ½ ips two-track tape sources used for the (2004) Varese Sarabande release – but restored and re-mastered to address the annoying tape print-through that plagued certain tracks of that release,” This is a boon to soundtrack fans, because not only is that recording out of print, but it’s also expensive and of inferior quality compared to Intrada’s. (Varese Sarabande made only 3000 units, and resellers want an arm and a leg for one. One third-party seller is asking $179.95 for a new – meaning “never opened,” I assume – copy.)

Disc One consists of 19 tracks, most of them surprisingly brief, that underscore The Great Escape‘s first act. The longest selection here is The Scrounger/Blythe (3:50), which we hear when James Garner and Donald Pleasence’s characters are introduced on screen.The famous (and popular) Main Title, which presents Bernstein’s oft-covered Theme from The Great Escape is short, with two and-a-half-minutes’ worth of music, but as orchestrated by Leo Shuken and Jack Hayes, it’s a classic march that is both militaristic and jaunty….and quite hummable, too.

The reverse side of the package from Intrada’s 2011 3-CD set features stills from the film, the tracklist, and the usual indicia and copyright fine print. (C) 1963, 2011 MGM and Intrada Records

Disc Two presents nearly 51 minutes’ worth of music from the film’s second and more action-packed half. Once again, the 16 tracks tend to be brief, although once “the great escape” begins, Bernstein does have three action cues with running times that are over five minutes long: Released Again/Escape Time, The Chase/First Casualty, and More Action/Hilts Captured.

The disc ends with a mix of solemnity, defiance, and jauntiness as Bernstein underscores The Great Escape’s denouement in Finale/The Cast. In this brief section, the music underscores Steve McQueen’s character – Virgil “Cooler King” Hilts – as he starts yet another stint in solitary confinement as punishment for his escape attempt, then segues into a fast-paced rendition of Bernstein’s The Great Escape march played over the presentation of the film’s major stars and the film’s dedication – “To the Fifty,” a reference to the 50 recaptured POWs executed by order of Adolf Hitler himself in retribution for the March 1944 breakout from Stalag Luft III.

Intrada’s original 1980s era CD presentation of the 1963 United Artists soundtrack album. (C) 1963 MGM-United Artists

The third disc is the nearly 33-minutes long United Artists soundtrack from 1963. Like most soundtracks of the vinyl era, The Great Escape’s platter is a condensed presentation of Bernstein’s suspense, environmental, and action cues for Sturges’ dramatization of Paul Brickhill’s 1950 eponymous book.

As Douglass Fake writes in Doug’s Notes: “The LP re-recording from 1963 is presented here as CD 3, mastered from the ½” 15 ips three-track stereo album masters vaulted courtesy of MGM. These were preserved in mint condition and remain amongst the most dynamic and well-engineered album masters of the era.”

Interestingly, the Main Title track of the 1963 album is 23 seconds shorter than the version of that same cue on Disc One. Conversely, the Finale here is longer (3:14 vs. 2:47) than the remastered version released in 2011 by Intrada. One wonders what prompted Elmer Bernstein, who in addition to composing and conducting the music, prepared the material in the soundtrack album.

(C) 1963, 2011 MGM and Intrada Records

In addition to the three CDs,The Great Escape: Complete Original Motion Picture Soundtrack comes with a booklet with behind-the-scenes commentary by the late Nick Redman (1955-2019). Redman was a Renaissance man who not only wrote, produced, or directed documentaries about classic movies, but was also a music producer in his own right. He specialized in film scores and their restorations, and produced various “Expanded Edition” soundtrack albums and soundtrack box sets. (Star Wars fans who own the Special Edition soundtracks and the 1993 Star Wars Trilogy: The Original Soundtrack Anthology box set owe a debt of gratitude to Redman, who was the executive producer for those reissues, as well as the uncredited music producer for Jerry Hey’s Jedi Rocks for the 1997 Special Edition of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi soundtrack.)

Interestingly, although Redman chronicles how The Great Escape and its score by Elmer Bernstein came to be, he doesn’t dissect each track in The Great Escape: Complete Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. He does tell us how the late, great Bernstein (no relation to composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein) had just 12 weeks to write the approximately 90-minutes-long score, which Redman describes thusly:

There’s no fat here; no waffle; no filler. He had twelve weeks to write it. Nine weeks to record it. 62 musicians to play it. And, oh, yes, he had another theme. A theme that could blow off the roof from a cinema….A theme to thrill, a theme to engage, a theme to just plain love.

Nick Redman, The Great Escape: Complete Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

I first saw The Great Escape in a Bogota movie theater in 1969. I was six then, but two of my relatives took me to see it. It was, I am sure, a re-issue, as the movie had been released on July 4, 1963 (almost four months after I was born!) Although it’s likely that The Great Escape is not the first film I saw at a movie theater, it is the first one I remember watching at such a public venue.

John Sturges’ action-adventure might have been “a bit over my head” at that young age, but it definitely made a lasting impression on me. It awoke in me a life-long interest in the Second World War, mainly by its exciting action set-pieces and the performances of Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, Gordon Jackson, Charles Bronson, David McCallum, James Coburn, and, of course, Steve McQueen.

But I strongly suspect that Elmer Bernstein’s score played a large role in etching The Great Escape into my six-year-old self’s subconscious. Like most young children who are still seeing the world through young and naive eyes, I looked around to see where that awesome music was coming from; my theory was that the people playing the jaunty march from The Great Escape were hiding somewhere behind the movie screen. (Don’t judge! I was six, okay?)

As Redman wrote nine years ago, Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Great Escape is spare and filler free. It “is approximately 90 minutes, and every minute feels necessary.” And its highlight is that wonderful blow-the-roof-of-a-cinema theme “that, like the spirit of man itself, will never die.”


Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Disc 1

  1. Main Title (2:30)
  2. At First Glance (3:07)
  3. Premature Plans (2:28)
  4. If 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)
    Disc 1 Time: 39:24

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Continued)
Disc 2

  1. Various Troubles (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 (2:09)
  12. More Action/Hilts Captured (6:07)
  13. Road’s End (2:06)
  14. Betrayal (2:20)
  15. Three Gone/Home Again (3:13)
  16. Finale/The Cast (2:47)
    Disc 2 Time: 50:56

Original 1963 United Artists Score Album
Disc 3

  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)

Disc 3 Time: 32:34

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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