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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #3 - April/May 2004

This edition of the Classic Reviews Round-Up looks at three two-disc special editions that are currently gracing some of our favourite classic titles. On tap are The Ten Commandments, The Great Escape, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.


The Ten Commandments: Special Collector's Edition (1956)
(released on DVD by Paramount on March 9th, 2004)

Paramount has always recognized that The Ten Commandments is one of the prestige items in its catalog. It gave us a very attractive three-disc letterboxed laserdisc version for the film's 35th anniversary and provided a nice-looking if somewhat sparse two-disc DVD version several years ago. Now comes another two-disc version, designated a Special Collector's Edition, that goes a long way towards rectifying the omissions of the first.

The Ten Commandments was the culmination of director Cecil B. DeMille's career in Hollywood, one that extended back to the early days of silent films. It was also typical of the sort of large-scale extravaganzas that became DeMille's trademark. One has only to look at this film to see the embodiment of the old Hollywood aphorism, the cast of thousands. The film was not new ground for DeMille as he had produced and directed a silent version in 1923, also for release through Paramount. This earlier version had been a two-part film, the first of which had told the story of Moses, and the second an application of the commandments to modern life. The 1956 version, filmed on location in Egypt, stuck strictly to the biblical tale and devoted 3 hours and 40 minutes to recounting it.

The Ten Commandments: Special Collector's Edition

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The film's cast is a sort of who's who of the 1950s with a truly impressive array of talent including Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch, Marsha Scott, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, and John Carradine. Most of them come off quite well, particularly Heston, Brynner, Scott, and Price. Less persuasive are Edward G. Robinson and particularly Anne Baxter. But it's not really the actors that one is focusing on in this film, it's the spectacle - the mammoth sets, the detailed set decoration, the masses of people (all fresh and blood, no CGI here), and the special effects, especially the renowned and still quite effective parting of the Red Sea. The broad outline of the story of Moses and exodus of the Israelites from Egypt of course is quite familiar to most, but the film fills in much of the background and if this causes the film's first half to drag somewhat, it's more than made up for in the exciting second half. Everyone should see The Ten Commandments at least once. It's classic filmmaking of a type you'll never see again.

Paramount's new collector's edition presents the first two hours of the film (up to the intermission) on the first disc, with the entr'acte and the remainder of the film on the second. Cecil B. DeMille provides an on-screen introduction to the film and there is an optional audio commentary by Katherine Orrison (author of Written in Stone - Making Cecil B. DeMille's Epic, The Ten Commandments) which is truly a remarkable effort as commentaries go. Orrison speaks virtually continually and entertainingly for the whole almost 4-hour length of the feature and is truly a fountain of knowledge on every aspect of the production. As for the presentation itself, this would appear to be the same transfer that graced Paramount's original DVD release. That's not a problem because the first one looked very good indeed. It's a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer of the VistaVision and Technicolor picture that looks incredibly colourful and detailed with only some slight bleeding of reds and occasional softness to quibble about. Blacks are deep and glossy and whites are very clean. Edge effects are minimal. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is quite effective as such remixes go. Elmer Bernstein's sweeping and majestic score benefits substantially from this as there is some definite punch to the new mix. Use of the surrounds is limited as it usually is in such efforts, but what exists is effective. Front separation is good. Otherwise, dialogue is clear with no background hiss. English Dolby surround and French mono tracks are also provided as are English sub-titles.

In addition to the excellent commentary already mentioned above, the second disc contains a six-part documentary (almost 40 minutes in total) on the making of the film that is moderately interesting, but merely scrapes the surface for such a massive film undertaking. There is a newsreel covering the film's New York premiere, a making-of trailer from 1956 and reissue trailers from 1966 and 1989. Recommended.


The Great Escape: Special Edition (1963)
(released on DVD by MGM on May 25th, 2004)

I well remember the first time I saw The Great Escape at the old Carlton theatre in Toronto. As a youngster, I devoured books on World War II prison camp escapes and Paul Brickhill's The Great Escape was one of my favourites. So to have it turned into a movie was a pleasure indeed. Pleasure too was what the film version provided. All the basics were there and if the story was embellished somewhat for dramatic and box office purposes, I wasn't going to complain too much. It was tremendously entertaining and I returned to see it at least a couple more times. When I later got into collecting laserdiscs, I was delighted to have the Criterion Collection add the title to its list, so that I could see the film in widescreen once again and also learn about some of the background to the filming. After a throw-away version on early DVD, MGM has now delivered a very nice two-disc anamorphic widescreen version that's much more in line with what fans of the film deserve.

The Great Escape: Special Edition

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Seeing the film again confirms its high entertainment value, the fine ensemble acting, Elmer Bernstein's tremendous score, and John Sturges' brisk direction that just makes the film's three-hour length fly by. It also, however, reminds me more forcefully of the aspects of it that have become somewhat more irritating over the years. Chief among these is the film's emphasis on its three American characters - Hendley (James Garner), Hilts (Steve McQueen), and Goff (Jud Taylor). While it was true that Americans played important roles in the building of the escape tunnel, all of them were moved to a different compound of the camp before the escape could take place and so no Americans were among the 76 who escaped that night in March 1944. There was no escapee who stole a motorcycle and led the Germans on a merry chase to the Swiss border, nor was a plane stolen and then forced to crash-land due to lack of fuel. While one can understand the filmmakers' desire to ensure its American box office by casting popular American stars and altering events to fit such casting, it's still hard to accept when it's a story you know and love. Interestingly, some of the actual tunnel workers and escapers seemed relatively unbothered by the dramatic license. But it bothered me and I suspect others, and remains one of the irritations that prevented the film from being all it could have been.

Setting that concern aside, I'm a sucker for anything with James Garner in it and he delivers very capably in the scrounger role that fits him quite comfortably both as a film star as well as in real life (his experiences during the Korean War). Less comfortable-looking is Steve McQueen. His performance is somewhat of a self-conscious one in which he at times either overacts (as in the hut scene where Bartlett and MacDonald ask him to escape and bring back information about the camp's immediate surroundings) or looks embarrassed to be on camera (when he speaks with Ramsay during the July 4th celebration). The real class of the film, however, is Richard Attenborough's work as Bartlett. For anyone familiar with the book, he seems to embody one's image of the escape's mastermind, Squadron Leader Bushell, to a "t". (Bushell's name was altered to Bartlett for the film.) The rest of the international cast is well chosen and includes the likes of James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, Hans Messemer, James Donald, and Donald Jackson.

After initial thoughts of shooting in California (using a location where six pine trees were going to stand in for the forest outside the prison camp), saner heads prevailed and the film was made on location in Bavaria where an exact replica of the prison camp was constructed. A separate set replicating the tunnel was also developed. To ensure authenticity, the escape's original tunnel king, Canadian Wally Floody, was brought in to provide advice. The company also managed to secure plenty of German cooperation in shooting the various train sequences. The result was a production that looked realistic from beginning to end and really conveyed the flavour of being on the run in a hostile country. The film's mass murder of 50 of the escapers conveyed the essence of what happened historically although the actual technique was to take out the captured men in small groups of anywhere from 2 to 8 and shoot them in the back. The film ends with the return of the surviving escapees to the prison camp, but there was much more to the story as the British government undertook a detailed investigation of the murders immediately after the war, resulting in resolutions of all the cases of the murdered prisoners and war crimes convictions of at least 18 Germans. MGM's new DVD addresses this aspect of the story through inclusion of a very fine British documentary from 2001 entitled The Great Escape: The Untold Story (not to be confused with The Great Escape II: The Untold Story, a 1988 made-for-TV film with Christopher Reeve which tries to cover some of the same ground but not very successfully).

The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer presented on the first disc of MGM's new special edition certainly does right by the film on DVD. Using source material that is obviously in good condition (there are merely a few speckles from time to time), the resulting image is very sharp and clear with vibrant, accurate colours. Blacks are deep and pure, and shadow detail is very good. There are no edge effects. The sound is a new Dolby Digital 5.1 track that has decent presence. There's modest front separation and quite effective bass, but virtually no use of the surrounds. Elmer Bernstein's marvelous score is well served. This disc also provides mono tracks and sub-titles in each of English, French, and Spanish. Also contained on the first disc is an audio commentary which has been fashioned out of past and present interviews with many members of the cast and crew and is woven together by connecting comment by writer Steven J. Ruben who has had a long-time interest in the film and is also director/co-writer of a documentary on the film. The approach works quite effectively. It's not quite what the John Sturges/Elmer Bernstein commentary was for the Criterion laserdisc, but it's a decent substitute given that the Criterion commentary was unavailable to MGM. The first disc is rounded out by a second track that provides trivia in text messages on the screen. Some of the information is interesting, but the messages do obscure part of the image whenever they pop up during the film.

The highlight of the second disc is the 50-minute British documentary/drama from 2001, The Great Escape: The Untold Story, which focuses on the attempts to bring the prisoners' murderers to justice after the war. This is fascinating stuff narrated by Derek Jacobi and well supplemented by interviews with actual participants in the escape. Some interviews not used in the final documentary are available on the disc as outtakes. Supplementing this are five featurettes (some 50 minutes in total) on the making of the film narrated by Burt Reynolds that are merely adequate and a bit repetitive at times. The interviews with surviving escapers are interesting, but there is excessive use of clips from the film padding out the time. Another featurette on an actual American prisoner who participated in the escape preparations and which suggests that he is the inspiration for the Steve McQueen character is not persuasive. Rounding out the disc are a photo gallery and the original theatrical trailer.

Fans of The Great Escape should be pleased with this new special edition from MGM. It provides a very fine presentation of the film itself and certainly enough supporting material to put the film in context. The Great Escape heaven is reserved for those who have both this DVD and the Criterion laserdisc. Highly recommended.


The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Special Edition (1966)
(released on DVD by MGM on May 18th, 2004)

To complete his so-called "Man with No Name" trilogy, director Sergio Leone painted a much broader canvas with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly than he did with A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Taking a little-known Civil War episode that occurred in New Mexico as his background, Leone created a long, stylish, action-filled western saga that has been variously described as "the best western ever made", the best directed movie of all time", and "pure cinema". Many would disagree with such absolute comments, including yours truly, but there is no doubt that it is certainly within the top-drawer of the genre. Where exactly one places it there depends upon one's reaction to the Leone style, a style that rewards those who believe that patience and attention to detail are virtues.

The story concerns a search for a shipment of eight bags of gold coins that have been hidden in the grave of a Confederate soldier. The three searchers are Tuco (the Ugly - Eli Wallach), Angel Eyes (the Bad - Lee Van Cleef), and Blondie (the Good - Clint Eastwood). One knows where the cemetery is; a second knows the name on the grave; and the third knows neither, just that he wants the gold regardless of what he must do to get it. The three must variously deal with hangings, shootings, assorted beatings, a desert trek, a Union prison camp, and a Union-Confederate battle over a strategic bridge until the film reaches its climax at the Confederate cemetery.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Special Edition

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The version presented on MGM's new special edition DVD is the recently restored cut that includes 18 minutes of footage from the original Italian premiere version that was later cut for North American distribution. As no English track had ever been created for these extra minutes, Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach returned to the recording studio to recreate their lines. Another actor voiced Lee Van Cleef's lines as he had already passed away. With this new footage added, resulting in a running time just one minute shy of three fours, the film still just flies by. The story itself is consistently entertaining and the three principal characters are all distinctive enough that we're always interested in what they're doing and how they're doing it. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach all obviously cared about the project and offer characterizations that remain in one's memory long after the film is over. Eli Wallach's is the most effective in this sense; who can watch him in any other film without having his work in this film come to mind at least fleetingly?

The real keys to the film's hold, however, lie in three other areas. First, there's the incredible attention to detail that Leone brings to every scene. Things such as costume variety and accuracy, the food on a table, the wreckage of a shattered town, the incredible array of interesting faces (and physical reactions) that Leone assembles in his supporting players - all are intrinsic parts of the experience. Second, there's the manner in which Leone's camera lingers on things so that we really absorb everything there is to see. Leone has no qualms in focusing very closely on a face for extended periods in order to heighten suspense or just to allow us to appreciate a situation or a character's reaction. He has a wonderful way of juxtaposing the idea of small events occurring on a big stage by cutting between panoramic views (here, of Spain, standing in quite capably for the American west) and close-ups of individual characters. The opening sequence in which we are introduced to Tuco is a good example. For those also familiar with Once Upon a Time in the West, one can see in this scene the genesis of the protracted opening scene of that later Leone saga. Finally, there's the little matter of the score by Ennio Morricone.

Morricone had started writing film scores in 1961, but brought a background in both classical and pop music that resulted in a rather eclectic approach to his film work. It was on A Fistful of Dollars that Morricone first collaborated with Leone. For The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the two worked together early on in the production so that much of the film's music was written before shooting began with only minor fine-tuning thereafter. The unique sound of off-beat instrumentals punctuated by animal-like sounds that Morricone came up with would come to be often imitated, but never duplicated. The main theme is one that immediately and unmistakably evokes its film.

MGM gave this restored version of the film a theatrical release in 2003 and now has delivered a very nice-looking two-disc DVD special edition. The packaging consists of a small sturdy cardboard box that houses one disc in the bottom and the other in the lid. Included are an eight-page booklet containing a background essay by Roger Ebert, and a collection of 5" x 7" reproductions of the English, French, Italian, German, and Japanese versions of the film's poster. The first disc contains a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of the film that looks splendid. The picture is remarkably crisp and colourful with excellent shadow detail. This is far and away the best the film has ever looked on home video. The source material still betrays some imperfections in the way of occasional speckling and a few instances of softness, but those are minor compared to the overwhelmingly positive impact of the transfer. The audio is a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track shines in its presentation of the Morricone score; it's not aggressive, but does offer a clarity and pureness that makes the music sound better than it ever has. A mono Italian track and English, French, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin sub-titles are provided. The other feature of disc one is an audio commentary by the ubiquitous Richard Schickel. His talk is thorough and interesting, but although I suspect he has an enthusiasm for the film, that's not really conveyed in his voice.

Disc Two contains the bulk of the supplements, most of which are quite good with new information or perspectives we're not generally aware of. Three featurettes focus on the making of the film: Leone's West (20 minutes), The Leone Style (24 minutes), and Il Maestro: Ennio Morricone (8 minutes), while another, The Man Who Lost the Civil War (14 minutes), provides some historical background to the Texas/New Mexico Civil War campaign. An 11-minute featurette tells about the reconstruction of this longer version of the film. Other supplements include the complete Tuco beating scene (shortened in the restored film due to damaged source elements) and a reconstruction of the Socorro town scene, along with a small poster gallery, English and French theatrical trailers, and four Easter eggs easily found on the Special Features menu page.

MGM has come up with a very fine package that serves as an excellent tribute to the film. Very highly recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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