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THE GREAT ESCAPE – Elmer Bernstein

December 28, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Director John Sturges had long desired to bring the amazing true to life WWII novel The Great Escape by Paul Brockhill to the big screen but could never secure financial backing. All this changed in 1960 following his stunning critical and commercial success directing The Magnificent Seven. He secured financial backing from the Mirisch Company and United Artists, and would produce the film, as well as direct it with a budget of $3.8 million. A legendary cast was assembled, which included Steve McQueen as Virgil Hilts, James Garner as Lieutenant Robert Hendley, Richard Attenborough as Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, Charles Bronson as Lieutenant Danny Velinski, James Donald as Captain Ramsey, Donald Pleasence as Lieutenant Colin Blythe, James Colburn as Flying Officer Louis Sedgwick, David McCallum as Lieutenant Commander Eric Ashley Pitt, and Hannes Messemer as Kommandant Oberst von Luger.

The story reveals that a frustrated German High Command has created a high-security POW internment camp, Stalag Luft III, in southeast Germany, intending it to tightly secure officers who had successfully engineered multiple escapes from other camps. What they failed to consider was the ramifications of housing all these innovative and creative minds together in one camp. Well, the outcome was not unexpected, as they masterminded the most audacious POW escape in the annals of war fare. Three tunnels were dug, over two hundred men were outfitted in civilian clothes with forged identity papers, and engineered a breakout in which 76 men escaped before a man stumbling out the tunnel exit alerted the guards. Well, the Germans were relentless and systematically recapture 73, with only three successfully escaping. On orders from Hitler 50 prisoners are massacred and von Luger is relieved of his command. The movie was a commercial success earning $11.7 million or nearly three times its production cost of $3.8 million.[3] Critical reception was mostly positive and the film received one Academy Award nomination for Best Film Editing.

Sturges was very pleased with his collaboration with Elmer Bernstein on “The Magnificent Seven” and there was never any doubt he would score the film. Sturges also trusted Bernstein’s instincts and so once again gave him free reign to compose. After receiving a broad stroke description of the story from Sturges, Bernstein understood that he needed to speak to the drama of imprisonment, the on-going tension of planning the escape, outwitting the Germans, and lastly, the claustrophobia of the tunneling. But foremost he needed to reprise what he had done with “The Magnificent Seven”, he wanted a memorable main theme to capture the film’s spirit. Bernstein related; It’s about indomitability. It’s about spirit. It’s about the character played by Steve McQueen”. So in a masterstroke of conception he composed one of the most memorable marches in the cinematic experience, one which has made an indelible mark on humanity’s collective conscience, earning him immortality.

For his soundscape Bernstein provided an astounding sixteen themes including; the Great Escape March, which serves as the score’s main theme. It emotes as a jaunty march, which is associated with Virgil Hilts’ personal identity, but also transpersonally as the indomitable spirit of the camp’s POWs. There is a complete absence of militarism, instead offering optimism, confidence and cockiness. I would also say there is a subtle mocking quality to it as well. The march is long-lined at thirty-three notes, and propelled by woodwinds or horns animato set to a tuba-cello-bass cadence along with snare drum percussion. The Victory Theme supports moments of triumph by the POWs and offers a four-note horn declaration answered proudly by horns bravura. The Cooler Theme supports the repeated captures of Hilts and Ives (the mole) for their hapless tunneling efforts to escape. The melody accompanies them as they are escorted to solitary confinement in a cell (the cooler). There is defiance and irrepressibleness in the notes with the message from Hilts that you can imprisoner me, but not break my spirit.

The Resistance Theme is derived from the opening six-note declarations, which launch the Main Title. It embodies the spirit of resistance and duty of POWs to escape. Its articulation is generally temporized offering a repeating six-note construct by horns nobile and woodwinds tranquillo. Pitt’s Theme offers a calm repeating five-note string line with bass counters, which speaks to his calm demeanor and ever-calculating mind. Blythe’s Theme offers the score’s most beautiful theme, which perfectly captures the gentle soul of this sweet man. What we have is a tender pastorale by solo oboe and later solo flute with harp adornment. Hendley’s Theme fully embraces his role as the conniving and resourceful “Scrounger”, offering a repeating five-note phrase by determined strings, contrapuntal woodwinds and bass cadence. Ives Theme offers a solo oboe delicato attended by strings tenero and harp adornment. The diminutive man has a wounded psyche from imprisonment and the music speaks to his longing for his Scottish homeland, and to be free. Velinski’s Theme offers a repeating four-note construct borne by clarinet or strings doloroso with harsh bass counters. He suffers from P.T.S.D., claustrophobic trauma from being buried alive multiple time while building eleven escape tunnels and his theme speaks to this. Sedgwick’s Theme offers a repeating cycle of a five-note A and B Phrases, which are kindred to phrasing drawn from the Great Escape March. Emoted by woodwinds and cyclic strings it offers a calm traveling motif, which supports his bicycle ride to freedom.

The Tunnel Theme supports the subterranean digging. It offers a six-note construct carried by strings energico buttressed by snare drums, shrill piccolo, with three chords by contrapuntal horns. The Escape Theme supports the actual escape and offers an eight-note construct by strings of suspense cloaked with woodwinds, which rises and falls, undulating tension. The Nautical Theme supports Velinski and Dickes’ river escape in a row boat and offers one of the score’s most lyrical themes. Soothing strings tranquillo with shimmering harp adornment grace us with music as serene as the waveless river waters. The Aerial Theme supports Hendley and Blythe’s escape flight. It abounds with hopeful optimism carried by refulgent strings and warm French horns, which resound with joy. The Motorcycle Theme offers an action powerhouse, which propels Hilts’ ride to destiny. Bold staccato horns fieramente emote a repeating four-note phrase followed by an equally charged five note phrase. Luger’s Theme offers a grim, repeating three-note construct borne by menacing strings underpinned by snare drums of doom, which speak to his authority and determination to ensure no one escapes from his camp. His theme by extension supports also Captain Posen and his other senior officers. The Prison Camp Theme supports visuals of the camp, its barbed wire fencing and guard towers. Its conception is brilliant, emoting feelings of hopelessness, a bleak and dark soundscape borne on minor modal chordal string ascents with harp arpeggio adornment.

“Main Title” offers a defining score highlight, which earned Bernstein, immortality. It supports the roll of the opening credits as we see a German caravan transporting POWs to the new Stalag Luft III camp. We open boldly with a call to arms atop two ascending six-note horn declarations buttressed with snare drums, followed by four fortissimo major modal chords. At 0:16 the film title displays and we segue into the jaunty Great Escape March propelled by woodwinds set to a tuba-cello-bass cadence. The statement reprises with snare drums reinforcing the tuba cadence as shifting strings harmonize. At 0:53 proud horns declarations launch the Victory Theme. We next segue at 1:10 into the defiant Cooler Theme, which boldly resounds and is crowned by fortissimo major modal chords. At 1:21 the Great Escape March resumes, carried by French horns, now augmented by lyrical contrapuntal strings. We again have bravado major modal chords, which launch the six-note opening declaration, concluding on a diminuendo of snare drums as they arrive at the camp. Bravo!

“At First Glance” offers a very complex cue where Bernstein introduces several of his primary themes. The scene opens with Ives walking to the barbed wire fence carried by the dark, foreboding auras of the Prison Camp Theme. A woodwind borne variant of the Main Theme enters at 0:09 as he inspects the no go zone in front of the fence. Repeating statements of the Prison Camp Theme support visuals of menacing guards looking down. At 0:20 a nascent fragment of the Victory Theme supports Hendley’s inspection of the perimeter. At 0:56 Pitt’s Theme supports his inspection of the terrain underneath his prison building. At 1:18 Velinski’s Theme enters on clarinet doloroso with harsh bass counters as he reminisces with Dickes about a fallen comrade. We segue with menace at 1:49 as the Prison Camp Theme resounds with grim finality as the camp gates are closed. At 1:56 Colonel Ramsey is escorted to meet the Kommandant carried by the tranquil nobility and determination of the Resistance Theme. We close at 2:15 with a menacing Kommandant Luger’s Theme as Colonel Ramsey is introduced to the Kommandant and his adjutant, Captain Posen.

“Premature Plans” opens grimly on strings minacciosi and snare drums, which give way to the Main Theme as Hendley inspects an unattended car. He is caught by the guard Werner, and snare drum menace interplays with the march as he con’s his way out with humor. At 0:49 a reserved, yet determined Victory Theme supports Hilts’ discussion with fellow American Goff as they walk alongside the no go zone. The theme darkens at 1:13 as Hilts locks eyes with two of the Guards aloft. At 1:37 the music darkens as Velinski observes Russian POW work team assembled to leave and cut wood. He asks Dickes to create a diversion and at 2:10 the first phrase of the Victory Theme repeatedly sounds as Dickes asks Sedgwick and Haynes to stage a fight diversion so he and Velinski can escape. They begin a brawling and Velinski joins the Russians, donning a coat and Dickes buries himself in a truck filled with cut branches. “If At Once” opens darkly, and transitions to a determined Victory Theme, which evolves into a march as Hilts plots a possible escape after he notices a blind spot between the towers. At 0:39 tension mounts as he throws his ball into the zone, and then walks to retrieve it by the exterior fence. At 1:09 a grim march of dread supports the Russians departing. The Great Escape March joins at 1:18 to support Sedgwick also joining the Russians. Interplay between the two marches carry Velinsky and Sedgwick towards the camp gates. At 2:10 a descent motif supports more men jumping from a barracks roof into trucks hauling tree trimming, where they bury themselves. Yet Lieutenant Stratwitch recognizes Sedgwick and Velinski among the Russians and orders them out.

We open darkly in “Forked”, which reveals Lieutenant Strachwitz armed with a hay fork. Beginning at 0:05 each thrust into the tree trimmings is supported by a fierce stinger. The second thrust elicits Ives to pop out and surrender, supported by the perky Main Theme. A third thrust at 0:41 triggers a whistle by Ives and the surrender of four more men, which is supported by comic muted trumpets. We shift scenes with menace as Hilts, supported by tense statements of the opening phrase of the Victory Theme is discovered and shots are fired. In “Cooler” when questioned, Hilts’ impertinence offends the Kommandant who sentences him to 20 days in the cooler. A cocky rendering of the Cooler Theme supports his defiant walk to the cooler. A grim interlude supports the sentence of 20 days for Ives for disrespecting the Kommandant. The Cooler Theme reprises to support his walk, yet it lacks the energy and defiance heard with Hilts. At 0:33 the theme transfers to proud horns to support their entry into the cooler complex. We then boldly transition to a jaunty Great Escape March, which supports their lockup in their cells. A diminuendo of sadness speaks from the perspective of Ives who dreads his 20-day sentence.

“Mole” offers a beautiful score highlight, which supports a special moment where Hilts and Ives bond. After Ives relates that he was a jockey in Scotland, the wheels turn in Hilts’ head, which is supported with distress by woodwinds and strings. Yet at 0:18 as Ives reminisces of good times with girls the music warms, becomes tender and we are graced by one of the score’s must lyrical moments. A solo oboe delicato attended by strings tenero and harp adornment blossoms into a beautiful soliloquy of his theme. We close on hopeful strings as the two commits to tunneling their way out when they are released. “X” supports the arrival of Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, who is remanded to Kommandant von Luger by the Gestapo. He is threatened with death is he escapes again. As he exits and enters the camp Bernstein supports his progress with a number of variants of the Great Escape March. We close with statements of the Resistance Theme as he greets, and then meets with Ramsey in his quarters. We flow seamlessly into “Tonight, We Dig” with interplay of the Resistance Theme and a variant of the Main Theme as Ramsey informs Bartlett that Project X will be restarted. At 0:15 the eerie Prison Camp Theme supports a nighttime view of the camp, buttressed with dire horns as we shift to a meeting where Bartlett informs the leadership team of his audacious plan to dig three tunnels called Tom, Dick and Harry so as to liberate 250 men.

The following two cues offer wonderful melodic highlights. “The Scrounger” reveals Hendley waiting to meet with Blythe in their room, which Bernstein supports with a tender rendering of Blythe’s theme by solo flute and then solo oboe. At 0:29 we segue into “Blythe” as he arrives and advises Hendley of his love of bird watching, and duress of drinking tea without milk. They bond and he tasks Hendley to obtain camera and film to support his job as forger. The transfer of the melody to solo flute delicato with harp adornment is wondrous. At 1:23 we shift to a confident Hendley’s Theme as we see him procuring wood for Blythe’s stove as well as a can of condensed milk from his stash. At 2:20 menacing horns and snare drums support the arrival of guards who begin slamming closed the barrack’s window shutters, culminating with the grim darkness of the Prison Camp Theme after the last window is shuttered. Undeterred, Hendley resumes collecting wood supported by his theme. We close with a warm rendering of Blythe’s Theme after he thankfully accepts the can of condensed milk and savors it with his tea.

In “Water Faucet” the men are doing their morning walk supported by deconstructed variants of the Victory Theme. At 0:52 tension enters as they spring a trap, causing a water faucet to fail and spray Germans loading a truck. We close with a tension pizzicato and woodwinds as the diversion allows Hendley to steal metal tire jacks from the jeep. “Interruptus” reveals Velinski ready to resume tunneling at night. We open with dire strains of the Prison Camp Theme as search lights scan the camp. Tension mounts on a violin tremolo with forlorn oboe as Velinski begins his work. At 1:15 snare drums erupt when they see the approach of a night time inspection patrol heading towards them. They barely manage to cover the shower drain as the guards enter the shower room. In “The Plan” Hilts is called in to meet with Bartlett and Ramsey when they get wind of his escape plan. A plucky rendering of the Main Theme supports with tension interludes as they fear unforeseen ramifications affecting their three tunnels. Permission is granted however as they believe some escape attempts need to happen to avoid suspicion of their grand design. We flow into “The Sad Ives” atop jaunty Main Theme as we see the dirt covered Hilts and Ives being locked into the cooler. Ives is devastated and slides to the floor in mental torment supported by strings affanato. At 0:31 we change scenes atop strings energico, augmented with phrases of the Victory Theme, which support the team’s tunneling efforts.

“Green Thumbs” opens with a martial snare drum propelled six-note marching motif, which supports the men trampling the darker dirt dumped from bags in their pants. The Main Theme enters at 0:24 as we see many men dumping their dirt in garden plots that are then raked to obscure the darker tunnel dirt. At 0:40 comic woodwinds enhance the deception. At 1:10 a martial march motif with snare drums support the arrival of Kommandant von Luger who engages in repartee with Bartlett and Ramsey. We close with Bernstein sowing tension with dire horns and bass as they worry that the Germans may be on to their plan. “Hilts And Ives” reveals them again being released from the cooler. They emerge supported by a spritely Cooler Theme. As they pass the gate and enter the camp the Victory Theme carries them to their comrades. In “Cave In” we open with the determined energy of the Main Theme as we see Bartlett visiting the dig. At 0:32 Bernstein sow tension as a tunnel collapse buries Dickes. Velinski rescues him, yet we close darkly as Dickes is traumatized by the event. “Restless Men” reveals Velinski moving on a cart over tracks, spooling a line to obtain a measurement of the tunnel’s length. We open with woodwinds of unease with pizzicato bass, which launches at 0:10 a vigorous exposition of the Tunnel Theme.

In “Booze” Hilts has bought up all the potatoes in camp to make bootleg vodka. A new motif of a three-note string ostinato countered by a four-note response by contrapuntal horns supports his efforts. Comic woodwinds replace the horns as we see his still in operation. At 0:32 twinkling effervescence with glockenspiel supports the first drops of booze arriving. Tuba and comic woodwinds support the tasting, and later another tasting form a jug supported with the twinkling motif and dramatic tremolo strings of anticipation. We close the next day with snare drums and trumpet revelry as Hendley raises the U.S. flag to kick-off 4th of July celebrations. “Yankee Doodle” reveals Americans Hendley, Hilts and Goff parading as a fife and drum corps offering a celebratory amateur rendering of “Yankee Doodle”, much to the delight of the camp. Later, a drunk Ives joins MacDonald in singing “Wha Hae the 42nd?” a Scottish regimental song of the 42nd Regiment of Foot that was also known as “the Black Watch.

“Discovery” offers a poignant score highlight. Lieutenant Strachwitz performs a surprise inspection given that all the men were outside celebrating. Portentous woodwinds usher in a twinkling motif countered by harsh grinding strings of alarm as Werner spills coffee and sees it drain out the floor. He alerts Strachwitz and strings grave usher in the Prison Camp Theme as they move the stove and uncover the tunnel. At 1:01 a beleaguered Main Theme supports the men’s devastation as ‘Tom’ is discovered. Woodwinds doloroso support the life going out of Ives face with aching strings affanato entering at 1:36 to support his palpable despair as he walks to the edge of the no go zone. A violin tremolo supports his hesitation and unleashes a fierce crescendo as he runs to the barbed wire fence and begins climbing. He is shot on site and a diminuendo of sadness follows as the men look on while Hilts fetches Ives’ cap. Elegiac trumpets emote a memoriam with a somber Victory Theme as Hilts informing Bartlett that he will escape, get the lay of the land and then allow himself to be captured so as to provide them with vital logistical information. We close with a minor modal rendering of the Main Theme as Bartlett orders the reopening of ‘Harry’ for digging. In a subsequent scene Hilts cuts through the barbed wire at night and escapes.

“Various Troubles” reveals the men digging to lengthen “Harry” supported by the energetic strings and horn fare of the Tunnel Theme. At 0:17 martial snare drums support Hilts return to camp, transitioning to a sad rendering of the Victory Theme. As he enters the camp Strachwitz orders him to the cooler, and a defiant Cooler Theme resounds at 0:51 to carry his progress. Sad interludes between restatements reflect the men’s support as he heads to confinement. As he is locked in, a reserved Victory Theme reprises as he sits and begins his survival ritual of throwing a ball against the wall and catching it. At 1:56 we segue harshly on the fierce horns of the Tunnel Theme as the men are digging. Ominous horns portend doom as the tunnel collapses on Velinski at 2:12, which unfolds on a frantic Tunnel Theme as Velinski manages to escape and rejoin the men. At 2:40 we shift to Blythe and Smitty reviewing their forged documents. Blythe is furious that Smitty made errors, tears them up and orders him to get some rest. A new long-lined string motif supports the scene. After Smitty leaves a transition to harp figures and eerie strings supports Blythe’s realization that he is going blind.

In “Panic” Velinski cracks and decides he cannot go into the tunnel anymore. He sneaks out at night with wire cutters yet is joined and stopped by Dickes. Bernstein supports with eerie, foreboding statements of the Prison Camp Theme. The Tunnel Theme joins at 0:46 as Dickes pleads with him not to go. The Prison Camp Theme resumes as Velinski relates that he fears he will panic during the escape and risk lives. Thematic interplay continues until 1:39 when Dickes punches him, ushering in harsh, tense music as a German patrol with dogs approaches. We close with them scurrying back to their barracks. “Pin Trick” reveals Bartlett visiting Hendley and Blythe to inform Blythe that he cannot join the escape as he is blind. Blythe attempts to deny blindness by picking up a pin he planted on the floor, but to no avail. Flute desolato and kindred woodwinds offer a sad rendering of Blythe’s Theme as he realizes that escape is beyond his grasp. In “Hendley’s Risk” Hendley insists that Colin go with him personally. A warm and sentimental rendering of the Main Theme supports his noble offer. At 1:01 A solo oboe and string tremolo speaks to Bartlett’s consideration, and when he consents, we close on a warm rendering of Blythe’s Theme.

“Released Again” offers a tension cue as we see Hilts once again being released from the cooler. Dark auras interplay with the Cooler Theme as he departs and rejoins his comrades. “Escape Time” opens with Prison Camp Theme buttressed with portentous horns. It supports the movement of men to barracks 105, the assembly point. At 0:29 woodwinds sow a bleak soundscape, joining with Pitt’s Theme as the men wait for the signal. At 1:01 the eight-note Escape Theme enters on strings of suspense cloaked with woodwinds, which rises and falls, undulating tension. Interplay with the Tunnel Theme raises tension as we shift back and forth between the tunnel and barracks above. At 2:03 a solo oboe tenderly emotes Blythe’s Theme as he and Hendley arrive. At 2:21 the Escape Theme resumes with interplay of an ethereal Tunnel Theme as the clock moves towards the escape time. At 3:28 Bartlett arrives supported by the Prison Camp Theme and heads to the tunnel entrance carried by its theme and fragments of the Main Theme. At 3:56 chattering drums and a bass sustain support his descent into the tunnel.

In “20 Feet Short” Bernstein masterfully sows suspense and tension. We open with an ever-shifting woodwind ostinato with harp arpeggios that sow tension as Hilts pokes a shovel to open the tunnel exit. An oboe misterioso supports his careful ascent. At 0:56 the foreboding Prison Camp Theme supports Hilts sticking his head out for a look and to his dismay, finding that they are exposed and 20 feet short of the woods. Dire horns join to underscore their problem. At 1:24 a forlorn flute and harp speak to Bartlett’s next decision – abort or push on. He chooses the later as the travel papers are already dated. At 1:47 timpani support Bartlett’s request for 30 feet of rope, which Hilts will use as a tug signal when patrol guards have passed and it is safe for the next man to exit the tunnel. At 2:04 xylophone carries Hilts out into the open, joined by a woodwind and bass ostinato as he runs to the woods edge with the rope. At 2:17 an eerie misterioso rendering of the Main Theme supports men escaping one by one.

In “Foul Up” one of the men trips and falls on his package, which causes a guard to investigate. Tremolo violins and a forlorn flute offer suspense as the Guard walks towards the exit hole. A darker string ostinato speaks to the impatience of the man waiting below. The two ostinati interplay as the camera shifts above and below ground. At 0:39 a ticking glockenspiel and drums motif raises tension as the man foolishly decides to exit the tunnel. At 1:09 all hell breaks loose and he is caught and gun fire erupts. A martial rendering of the Main Theme supports Hilts fleeing into the woods. At 1:23 a string flight ostinato caries the remaining men’s retreat through the tunnel to the barracks. At 1:45 the ostinato’s energy dissipates, replaced by a sad, defeated rendering of the Main Theme as the men’s return are greeted by German guard with a machine gun. In “At The Station” we see Bartlett and MacDonald arriving at the train station, joined by Hendley and Blythe, Nimmo and Pitt. Bernstein sow tension with the undulating Escape Theme with interplay of a reserved Main Theme by solo oboe. At 0:51 a solo oboe delicato emotes Blythe’s Theme as he and Hendley converse. At 1:01 strings energico and horns bravura propel the simultaneous arrival of the train and Gestapo caravan at the station. The men all board safely, joined by the Gestapo as the train departs.

“On The Road” is a complex cue where Bernstein masterfully weaves musical narratives for each of the men escaping. We commence with Sedgwick stealing a bicycle from the town square supported by his theme, here empowered by a trumpet as he commences his ride to freedom. At 0:55 the first phrase of the Victory Theme on muted horns with woodwind counters supports Hilts tying a wire across a road to upend a motorcycle rider. The theme slowly expands as he sets the trap. At 1:25 a violin ostinato with pizzicato bass counter supports the approach of a German courier with an orchestral crash at 1:35. At 1:42 we are graced by soothing strings tranquillo with harp adornment of the Nautical Theme as we see Velinski and Dickes reach a river and steal a row boat. At 2:03 we shift to a jaunty Main Theme as Cavendish secures a hitchhike. The march crosses scenes as we see Velinski and Dickes cast off carried now by the serene Nautical Theme. We close at 2:48 with the bold staccato horns fieramente of the Motorcycle Theme, an action powerhouse, which propels Hilts ride to destiny as we see him take to the road on a motorcycle in a German uniform. The theme crosses scenes to the train and ends on a diminuendo of tension as the Gestapo begin their search of the passengers.

In “The Chase” Hendley decides to bail from the train as neither of them speak passable German. Trilling woodwinds and tension strings support their successful jump and then hide in a hay field. Horns fade as the train moves on informing them that no one saw them jump. At 0:26 we shift to Sedgwick’s nonchalant peddling in the countryside carried by a blissful traveling rendering of his theme. At 0:51 We next shift to Velinski and Dickes rowing down river carried by the tranquil Nautical Theme. At 1:00 we return to the chase propelled by horns bellicoso and strings furioso joined with determined quotes from the Main Theme as Hilts’ superior riding skills confound the Germans. At 2:56 we shift to a locomotive motif as Sedgwick’s train departs. At 3:12 we roar back to the chase music and then to a diminuendo as Hilts hides behind a barn and watches the German ride on by. At 3:41 snare drums and tense strings support Hilt’s decision to ditch the German uniform and make the dash for freedom.

“First Casualty” reveals the passenger train supported by horns dramatico, timpani and a slowing locomotive motif arriving at the station with Kuhn and his Gestapo manning a checkpoint. Kuhn knows Bartlett well and has vowed to kill him. Bernstein sow mounting tension with the repeating string borne Resistance Theme as Bartlett, MacDonald and Pitt walk to the checkpoint. A violin tremolo with forlorn woodwinds enters at 1:10 as Pitt approaches Kuhn carefully from behind. When Kuhn utters “Bartlett” and begins to move toward him a noble Pitt strikes him from behind at 1:33, knocks him to the ground, and shoots him. Martial snare drums propel and aggressive pursuit by the Germans, which opens the checkpoint allowing Bartlett and MacDonald to escape. Horns of doom sound at 1:58 joined by harsh strings as Pitt is shot, and falls dead. We close with the jaunty Main Them as Cavendish arrives in town, and to his dismay is stopped at a heavily armed German checkpoint. “Flight Plan” reveals Hendley and Blythe arriving at a small airport carried by the Prison Camp Theme embellished with twinkling harp adornment. As Hendley prepares to ambush the lone guard Bernstein sow tension with a plaintive oboe and xylophone motif. His attack at 0:45 is supported by a strings irato ostinato countered by a bass ostinato. Horns of relief support his victory and dragging of the body to the hanger. Strings agitato with woodwind accents support as they move to the plane and Hendley instructs Blythe to turn the hand crank clockwise. The engine starts and they take off for freedom

In “More Action” we are treated to one of the score’s outstanding action set pieces. Hendley has taken to the skies supported by the Aerial Theme whose refulgent strings and warm French horns resound with joy. At 0:10 we shift to Hilts who has reached the border with Germans in hot pursuit propelled by ferocious competing horn lines, strings furioso and an aggressive rendering of the Great Escape March. At 0:43 we shift to a marcia bellicoso as Hilts rides forth unstoppable, now joined and empowered with the Victory Theme. Bernstein keeps shifting his ferocious horn motifs, matching Hilts aggressive riding. At 1:26 we shift to Hendley and Blythe soaring full of optimism as they are but 20 minutes from Switzerland. They are carried by the hopeful optimism of the Aerial Theme, which joins with sublime interplay with a string borne exposition of Blythe’s Theme for one of the score’s finest moments. At 2:09 the bliss is shattered by discordant horns as the plane’s engine fails. A new harsh and ominous descent ostinato carries their descent to an uncertain crash landing in hostile territory. At 2:32 an ostinato by flute and kindred woodwinds supports the crash and their exit from the burning plane. At 2:49 Hendley pushes Blythe away from the fire to a hilltop carried by a plaintive rendering of Blythe’s Theme. Germans are advancing up the hill and as Blythe turns away from them, he is shot and mortally wounded.

“Hilts Captured” is a cue of tremendous emotive power, but also one that brings to an end the tour de force of Hilts’ epic ride. We open with a distraught Hendley running to Blythe carried by an anguished Main Theme. He apologizes, yet Blythe is thankful, with his theme now offering one last refrain molto tragico as he dies in Hendley’s arms. At 0:50 we shift to the Hilts dash for freedom with the ferocious four-note horn ostinato with drum counters propelling his fortunes. He must jump two barbed wire fences to reach Switzerland. At 1:16 a grim The Main Theme resounds as Germans arrive and begin closing from two sides. Hilts turns propelled by the fierce dueling horn ostinati. As he races to make the first jump at 1:38 a new kinetic ostinato empowers him. These shifting ostinati begin to interplay with grim menacing horn statements, which support the closing Germans. Machine gun fire takes his tires out and he crashes into the fence at 2:07, enmeshed and helpless in the barbed wire. We end sadly with a dispirited rendering of the Victory Theme as the irrepressible Hilts gets up, smiles and waves to his captors. “Road’s End” offers a ferocious kinetic action cue where we see Bartlett and MacDonald are boarding a bus. MacDonald gives away their identity when the Gestapo agent wishes him “Good Luck” and he responds, “Thank You”. They flee for their lives carried by kinetic piano and dueling string ostinati buttressed with percussion. At 0:59 ferocious drums barbaro and horn cries support MacDonald’s capture. The kinetic piano line propels Bartlett until 1:21 when a string tremolo enters as he is stopped, but then released because his good German fools the soldiers. We close on foreboding drums and then a plaintive Resistance Theme as Bartlett is finally captured.

In “Betrayal” Gestapo agent Preissen tells Bartlett that he will regret all the trouble he has caused. A caravan carrying all the captured men departs propelled by menacing horns of doom and martial snare drums. At 0:13 a wistful rendering of the Resistance Theme supports the men taking solace in the effort they made. At 0:46 horns of doom resound empowered by snare drums as we see one of the trucks leave the caravan and divert down a different road. The music becomes increasing grave, dissipating at 1:12 into an eerie piano driven ostinato with horns sinistre, and a cadence of doom by timpani. After they arrive they are told to get out and stretch their legs. We conclude at 1:37 with plaintive strings, which usher in a wistful rendering of the Main Theme as Bartlett expresses to MacDonald his happiness at their accomplishment. A crescendo of terror erupts at 2:09 as they hear a gun cock and stare into a machine gun as its blasts, killing them all. “Three Gone” reveals the fate of the three men who gained freedom. We open with the tranquil Nautical Theme as we see Velinski and Dickes reach a sea port and dock alongside a Swedish freighter. As the board at 0:31 the Main Theme carries their arrival, swelling as they ascend the stairs. At 0:53 we see Sedgwick arriving at the Spanish border with his French resistance guides. There is unease and the Main Theme attempts to rise, yet the music warms as they shake hands and wish each other good luck. We conclude at 1:15 with a thankful exposition of his theme as his Spanish guide escorts him to freedom in Spain.

In “Home Again” a distressed and embarrassed von Luger stuns Ramsey when he informs him that 50 of his men were ‘killed while escaping’. Later we see the arrival of the prisoners who were not murdered carried by a dirge. We flow into a molto tragico rendering of the Main Theme as Hendley informs Ramsey that Blythe did not survive. Ramsey then informs them that Bartlett and other 50 men were murdered. Horns eroico join at 0:39 to honor the fallen. We conclude with the Resistance Theme at 0:56 as Ramsey gives solace to the men by declaring that Bartlett’s sacrifice was not in vain. “Finale” reveals Hilts arrival supported by portentous fragments of the Cooler Theme. He is greeted by von Luger who has been relieved of command and being taken by the SS. Somber chords carry Hilts into the camp and the Cooler Theme joins at 0:20 as he begins the familiar walk, swelling on unrepentant French horns. A bold transition to a proud and embellished Great Escape March carries him into his cell. We close the film with the Main Title’s four fortissimo chords and a proud Resistance Theme. “The Cast” supports the roll of the end credits and features a parade of the score’s major themes including the Great Escape March, Victory Theme and Commander’s Theme.

I would like to commend Douglass Fake and Intrada for the outstanding release of the complete score of Elmer Bernstein’s masterpiece, “The Great Escape”. The restoration and digital mastering of the original ¼ inch, 7½ ips two-track source tapes was outstanding and corrects the audio imperfections of previous releases. This was a very difficult score to review as Bernstein had to support thematically driven musical narratives for each of the six different escape tales that were unfolding simultaneously; Hendley and Blythe, Bartlett and MacDonald, Velinski and Dickes, Sedgwick, Cavendish, and Hilts. As Sturges repeatedly shifted back and forth between these narratives, so too did Bernstein’s music shift seamlessly while sustaining inspired thematic fidelity, interplay and continuity. I cannot overstate Bernstein’s accomplishment in successfully meeting this challenge. Folks, Bernstein composed an astounding sixteen themes including the now iconic Great Escape March. The action themes for Hilts are a tour de force, but the beauty of the score lies in its more intimate, tender, and lyrical themes for Ives, Blythe, as well as the Nautical and Aerial themes. Bernstein gave Sturges’ story heart, bringing each of these characters to life, which I believe allowed him to realize his vision. I consider this score to be one of the finest in Bernstein’s canon, a gem of the Silver Age and essential to lovers of the art form. I highly recommend your purchase this quality album for your collection.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to an amazing 15-minute suite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5w2lixqPZM

Buy the Great Escape soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (3:20)
  • At First Glance (3:07)
  • Premature Plans (2:28)
  • If At Once (2:31)
  • Forked (1:28)
  • Cooler (1:58)
  • Mole (1:28)
  • X/Tonight We Dig (1:30)
  • The Scrounger/Blythe (3:50)
  • Water Faucet (1:23)
  • Interruptus (1:33)
  • The Plan/The Sad Ives (1:43)
  • Green Thumbs (2:28)
  • Hilts and Ives (0:38)
  • Cave In (2:01)
  • Restless Men (1:56)
  • Booze (1:47)
  • Yankee Doodle (0:55)
  • Discovery (3:40)
  • Various Troubles (3:52)
  • Panic (2:05)
  • Pin Trick (0:59)
  • Hendley’s Risk (1:43)
  • Released Again/Escape Time (5:25)
  • 20 Feet Short (3:06)
  • Foul Up (2:37)
  • At the Station (1:33)
  • On the Road (3:27)
  • The Chase/First Casualty (6:49)
  • Flight Plan (2:09)
  • More Action/Hilts Captured (6:07)
  • Road’s End (2:06)
  • Betrayal (2:20)
  • Three Gone/Home Again (3:13)
  • Finale/The Cast (2:47)
  • Main Title (2:07)
  • Premature Plans (2:08)
  • Cooler and Mole (2:26)
  • Blythe (2:13)
  • Discovery (2:54)
  • Various Troubles (2:40)
  • On the Road (2:54)
  • Betrayal (2:05)
  • Hendley’s Risk (2:24)
  • Road’s End (2:00)
  • More Action (1:57)
  • The Chase (2:48)
  • Finale (3:14)

Running Time: 121 minutes 52 seconds

Intrada MAF-7112 (1963/2011)

Music composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein. Orchestrations by Leo Shuken and Jack Hayes. Recorded and mixed by Vinton Vernon. Edited by Richard Carruth. Score produced by Elmer Bernstein. Album produced by Douglass Fake.

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