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Narrow Escapes of World War II

Release Year:         2011
Studio:         Acorn Media
Format:         Colour/B&W; NTSC; Widescreen
Rated:         Not Rated; Contains graphic images and content
# of Discs/Episodes:         4/ 13
Running Time:         Approx. 653 minutes
DVD Release Date:         November 6, 2012
Creators:         Chris Lethbridge, Nick Davidson, Joshua Whitehead, Jonathan Elliott
DVD Features:         SDH subtitles
E:Top Picks Rating:         9/10

Acorn Media Write-up:    
Revisit some of the most daring missions of World War II as recounted by leading historians, military experts, and occasionally by the participants themselves. These 13 gripping episodes feature operations that took place all over the world–from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the steppes of southern Russia, from the foothills of the Himalayas to the frozen waters of the Baltic and the skies over Nazi-occupied France. With the benefit of original film footage, informative maps, and dramatic recreations, Narrow Escapes tells stories of valor, suffering, dedication, and determination–exploits of bravery that helped shape the outcome of the Second World War and continue to inspire today.

BONUS FEATURES
•    16-page viewer’s guide with a map; a timeline; and articles on the war in Europe and in Asia, types of warfare, and the escapes of Hitler and Mussolini
•    Profiles of select WWII escapees
•    Plus discussion questions at athenalearning.com

Jon Ted Wynne Review:    
The title of this excellent documentary series released by Athena, a subsidiary of Acorn Media, specialists in quality programming, is somewhat misleading. The problem with using “narrow escapes” in the title is that it implies POWs and escapes from concentration camps. The series is so much more than that. Coupled with the informative learning guide that comes with this four DVD set, the viewer or “student” will come away enriched and even fascinated by some of the powerful stories recounted here. Athena presents many documentaries and has a particular focus on educational material. This is arguably one of their best.

As a person reasonably well-educated on matters pertaining to World War II, I was delighted to discover a number of stories I’d never heard before in this at times riveting, always interesting series chronicling close calls (A better description than “narrow escapes”) in World War II.

And lest one assume that all the stories focus on Allied protagonists, there is a very broad range of situations covered here, with a few Axis “escapes” thrown in the mix. There was a time when this might not sit well with a U.S./British/Canadian audience, but enough time has passed since the Second World War that people can be a little more objective about such things. Each episode is compelling and utilizes archival footage extremely well. In fact, the actual war-time footage is so good it makes the re-enactments look mostly weak by comparison.

On the other hand some of the interviews that the producers have secured are fascinating. One episode, number 11,  called “Moore’s March” includes an interview with one of the four survivors of one of the most incredible close calls you’ll ever hear about, a 300 mile trek across the desert with no food and almost no water–and barefoot. The ordeal left the interviewee severely traumatized and while time has helped heal his stress, there are still hints of it on hand. Another excellent episode, number 3, “Wingate & The Chindits” includes a number of survivors’ interviews. This event, set in the Burmese jungle against the Japanese, movingly recounts the strong bond between the desperate men and their donkeys, who served them so well and had to be slaughtered for food towards the end of the campaign. One interviewee reads a poem about one donkey’s last moments and provides a fitting reminder of how animals serve and sacrifice for humans during times of war. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this “War Donkey”, and I’m sure Spielberg will never make a film about it, but it is very moving nonetheless.

A number of recent historical documentaries have tried to jazz things up by using shaky camera work and rapid cutting techniques. Fortunately, NARROW ESCAPES OF WORLD WAR II is of a more traditional style and eschews this sometimes annoying approach. It recognizes that a strong story is the focal point of any documentary and the visuals are there simply to back up and illuminate, not distract.

This series will be of considerable interest to military history buffs, but educators should also take note. This is an excellent resource for helping to teach young people about the pivotal historical event of the 20th-Century.

NARROW ESCAPES OF WORLD WAR II is a worthwhile investment of both time and money.

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