Some film themes are good, some are great, some are popular classics and some are iconic. Elmer Bernstein's march from The Great Escape definitely falls into the last category. From the tense, strident opening phrase to the quirky tuba bass line and instantly memorable tune, it is one of those film themes that has surpassed the film it was written for and entered into the common consciousness. Hyperbole, perhaps, but consider this, I've heard it before football matches, used as mobile a ring tone and in countless adverts, it is seemingly everywhere. In the UK, the film is now bank holiday fodder and despite its title, the escape always struck me as not particularly great and the ending actually quite down beat. Despite that, its popularity has endured, if not as strongly as its theme.
As I pointed out in my review of Bernstein's Magnificent Seven, there are scores with great main themes with little else to recommend them. Of course, Bernstein is too good a composer to ever have that problem, although in this case the main theme is so pervasive that it renders the complete package as not one of his absolute top scores. While it wouldn't be quite right saying the score is monothematic, much of the material is certainly based around with the march melody or the bass line. Even quieter tracks such as Blythe echo its syncopation if not its actual melody, but most of the tracks make at least some easily recognisable reference to the march. This being an escape movie, there is quite a lot of suspense, but the later action cues are rip roaring fun, notably More Action and The Chase. It could be the recording, but the orchestra always feels quite small, there is certainly a restraint to the orchestration which makes the texture crisp and transparent.
As with other early Ryko re-releases, this has a few dialogue cues but adds no new music over the original album release. The dialogue isn't terrible distracting, but the sound quality is notably improved and certainly very good for the vintage. The fold out liner notes provide interesting detail about the score and film. Don't feel that I'm denigrating Bernstein's effort by saying it's not one of his best, it is a fantastic score, but no matter how hard he tries, Bernstein can't really eclipse that theme, but still an essential purchase for any film music fan.