The Great Escape (1963) Criterion Collection LaserDisc audio commentary with host/film historian Bruce Eder, director John Sturges, composer Elmer Bernstein, second unit director Robert E. Relyea and stuntman Bud Ekins.
According to Sturges, The Great Escape screenplay went through six writers and eleven versions, and was still a work in progress during the actual shooting. “I’m not proposing that’s a good way to make a picture, but it was the right way to make this one,” he later said. In July, Sturges showed the rushes of the first six weeks shooting, and McQueen decided his part was minor and undeveloped. He was particularly upset that his character virtually disappears from the film for about 30 minutes in the middle so he walked out demanding rewrites. Sturges admitted the half-hour gap was likely a problem, but with the production already behind schedule due to the heavy rain, he felt he couldn’t take time out to do rewrites and rescheduling.
Co-star James Garner said he and cast member James Coburn got together with McQueen to determine what his specific gripes were. Garner later said it was apparent McQueen wanted to be the hero but didn’t want to be seen doing anything overtly heroic that contradicted his character’s cool detachment and sardonic demeanor. At the same time, McQueen never really liked his character’s calm acquiescence to his time in the cooler or the famous bit with the catcher’s mitt and ball. Sturges considered writing the character out of the story altogether, but United Artists informed him they considered McQueen indispensable to the picture’s success and would spring for the extra money to hire another writer, Ivan Moffit, to deal with the star’s demands. McQueen returned to work.
Reacting to McQueen’s walkout, cast member Donald Pleasence later said, “I hadn’t realized things like this go on in Hollywood, being an obedient English actor from the theater mostly.” “McQueen was an impossible bastard,” Burnett said. “Oh, he drove you crazy.” —Behind the Camera on THE GREAT ESCAPE
After the war, Sturges returned to film work, eventually signing on with MGM as a contract director. In the summer of 1950, he picked up a copy of Reader’s Digest and began reading the serialization of Brickhill’s book, The Great Escape. He was immediately fascinated. “It was the perfect embodiment of why our side won,” he later said. “Here was the German military machine, the sparkling uniforms and the absolute obedience to orders. On the other side of the wire, there were men from every country, every background, makeup and language, doing everything they pleased. With no arbitrary rules, they formulated an organization which eventually clobbered the German machine.” Convinced the story would make a great film, Sturges dogged MGM head Louis B. Mayer, finally getting an appointment to sell him on the idea. Mayer and studio executives quickly rejected the project, insisting the ending was too tragic and downbeat. They also felt the story was too big, with too many characters and plot details that would run the production costs sky high. —The Big Idea Behind THE GREAT ESCAPE
John Sturges and Clint Eastwood on the Joe Kidd location.
You can learn more from John Sturges’ audio track on the ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ laserdisc than you can in 4 years of film school. —Paul Thomas Anderson
Steve McQueen, director John Sturges and technical advisor Wally Floody between scenes of The Great Escape. August, 1962
Previously on Cinephilia & Beyond:
The holy grail of filmmaking: John Sturges’ audio track on the ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ laserdisc
Paul Thomas Anderson claims that everything he knows about directing he learned from John Sturges’ commentary on the Bad Day at Black Rock LaserDisc. This is an exclusive, it’s never been released on any DVDs of the film, it stayed on the Criterion LD for ages — until it was ripped a while ago. So the only way anyone could ever hear this is if they had a LaserDisc player. Well, not anymore. (NOTE: For educational purposes only)
This was the first MGM film to be shot in Cinemascope. According to director John Sturges’s commentary track on the Criterion Laserdisc release, it was also filmed at the same time in the standard 4:3 ratio version because studio executives still weren’t sure how well the wide screen format would work. That version was never released.
—Behind the Camera On Bad Day at Black Rock
The film itself is an hour and 21 minutes, when I got done splicing up the bits I marked as informative – I had about 50 minutes of material from Sturges. After the split, I left out about 20 minutes that was good, but mostly outdated. So what you’ve got is essentially 30 minutes of some really great fucking filmmaking discussion. I am thankful that this great man left us with some insight before he left this earth. —filmschoolthrucommentaries
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John Sturges’ audio track on the ‘Bad Day at Black Rock’ laserdisc, part I.
Most would simply upload the entire thing and not waste time. But not me, to quote Pesci in Casino ”‘Cause I’m fuckin’ stupid. That’s my business. That’s what I do.” But no lol… I guess this is my obsessive, detail-oriented nature, where I have to have everything done right. But then again, I’m doing this for myself anyways, so in the long run the time spent on all of this benefits me regardless. Also, it’s training. Training to be precise, just like a director, DP, or an editor. So I spent some time going through the commentary (PTA didn’t disappoint, it lived up to the hype) and I split it in two halves, one mostly that has to do with storytelling, and the other is about the filmmaking process which I’m uploading first. The other half I’ll up tomorrow or the day after. The film itself is an hour and 21 minutes, when I got done splicing up the bits I marked as informative – I had about 50 minutes of material from Sturges. After the split, I left out about 20 minutes that was good, but mostly outdated. So what you’ve got is essentially 30 minutes of some really great fucking filmmaking discussion.
I am thankful that this great man left us with some insight before he left this earth. — filmschoolthrucommentaries
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