Familiar but well-done U.K. WWII documentary series. Athena has released Narrow Escapes of World War II, a 4-disc, 13-episode collection of the 2011 U.K. television series (which has aired here in the States on The Military Channel) that focuses on battle/mission/campaign "close calls" during the Second World War. From looks at familiar operations like Dolittle's raid on Tokyo and The Battle of the Bulge, to more obscure (but no less thrilling) events such as Moore's March and Operation Hannibal, Narrow Escapes of World War II gives the viewer concise overviews of these Allied and Axis operations, with the added benefit of first-hand accounts from the soldiers that participated. A few extras help with this good-looking transfer.
To be honest...Narrow Escapes of World War II certainly isn't going to surprise fans of Second World War cable documentaries. From a production standpoint, it utilizes the now thoroughly familiar conventions and structuring you see in every other basic television documentary; Narrow Escapes of World War II doesn't look all that different, really, than The World at War (just as an easily recognizable example) from 40 years ago. Copious amounts of newsreel footage (now cropped to widescreen for Narrow Escapes of World War II) take up the majority of screen time as an off-camera narrator (here, Colin Tierney) authoritatively sets the time and place of the mission/action/battle being described, before facts and theories are presented and weighed. Inbetween the stock footage, a few new recreations are attempted (they're not of much use here, frankly) while participants in the battles are interviewed, along with authors and other experts. Animated maps, appropriately dramatic music, and fast cuts and edits fill out the 50 minute run times (which Athena advertises on the DVD box as the "uncut U.K. broadcast editions"). Anyone who's ever watched a TV documentary, particularly a war-related one on History or Discovery or The Military Channel, will instantly recognize Narrow Escapes of World War II's thoroughly conventional shape and tone.
That feeling of over-familiarity might have been a drawback for Narrow Escapes of World War II, had those conventional schematics been poorly produced. Fortunately, the opposite is true here; Narrow Escapes of World War II's tech credits are first-rate, with always interesting, appropriate (and rapidly cut) selections of newsreel footage giving the docs. some juice. I also enjoyed the overviews of some of the battles/missions I wasn't very familiar with; so many of the TV WWI docs. of the past 20 years have focused on the same major campaigns. Even a complete WWII novice like myself could repeat reams of data on D-Day, Pearl Harbor, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of Stalingrad after years and years of multiple variations on these subjects. So I was quite intrigued by the inclusion of episodes like The Black Battalion, a fascinating exploration of the all-black 333rd Field Artillery battalion that fought so bravely during the Battle of the Bulge (I don't remember hearing about "The Wereth 11" in any other docs on that battle), or Manstein Holds the Line, a gripping account of Russian General Georgy Zhukov's defeat at the hands of wily German General Eric von Manstein's "elastic defense" withdrawal, or The Siege of Kohima (which I had never heard about), where the Japanese Army tried to invade India, only to be beaten back in vicious trench warfare by "The Dirty Half Hundred" and the brave indigenous Naga people, or Evacuation in the Baltic, where "Operation Hannibal" attempted to relocate 2 million Germans from East Prussia, at the head of the advancing savage Red Army. These stories were mostly new to me, and Narrow Escapes of World War II, smoothly and professionally, brought them to life for me.
Best of all, Narrow Escapes of World War II's extensive interviews with the soldiers who fought these battles prove to be the documentary series' greatest asset. Whether it's Maxwell Sparks, pilot during the infamous Amiens Raid/"Operation Jericho", recounting flying a Mark VI Mosquito bomber 10 feet off the ground as he approached his target, or smooth Bill Smyly describing his absolutely horrifying physical ordeal as one of Wingate's "Chindits" in the jungles of Burma, or American artillery gunner George Shomo matter-of-factly describing what he had to do to survive the Battle of the Bulge (killing three men with his trench knife for starters), or jaunty Peter Doresa who joined that "cracking battalion," The West Kents, and fought so bravely during the unimaginable Siege of Kohima, or Ray Ellis of "the Rats of Tobruk," recounting a terribly moving story of releasing balloons during the trench fighting, only to have the enemy first stop in wonder, and then "play" with him by shooting them down (a story told well enough to match anything in All's Quiet on the Western Front)―these ordinary men who performed extraordinary feats of courage and endurance, these are the real attraction of Narrow Escapes of World War II. Their insights, their stories, their testimonies, are alone worth seeking out Narrow Escapes of World War II.
Here are the 13 episodes of the U.K. WWII documentary, Narrow Escapes of World War II, as described on their individual slimcases:
EPISODE 1: The Amiens Raid
EPISODE 2: The Dolittle Raid
EPISODE 3: Wingate and the Chindits
EPISODE 4: The Black Battalion
EPISODE 5: Lucky Laycock's Escape From Crete
EPISODE 6: Manstein Holds the Line
EPISODE 7: The Siege of Kohima
EPISODE 8: Roy Urquhart's Escape From Arnheim
EPISODE 9: Morshead Holds Tobruk
EPISODE 10: Evacuation in the Baltic
EPISODE 11: Moore's March
EPISODE 12: Operation Pedestal
EPISODE 13: Breakout Through Hell's Gate
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.