Morgan Freeman shines in History Channel’s ‘escape’ docu-series E! News UK

Great Escapes is an effortlessly entertaining, kinetic affair that benefits greatly from Morgan Freeman’s presence.

The Reelgood service, which keeps track of all movies and TV series available online, had a particularly interesting set of data in April 2020, at the height of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. They were rating the 10 most-watched movies on Netflix at a time when pretty much all of America (or most of the country, really) was at home. There were a few Marvel movies on the list, as well as classics like Freedmensci-fi bargains like The matrix and Creationeven the weird delight of Bollywood crows like 3 idiots. However, the list was dominated by The Shawshank takeover (1994), based on the Stephen King short story of the same name, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman as two inmates contemplating a prison break. Basically, when we’re at our lowest, the ultimate prison escape story gave us hope.

That’s why it made perfect sense for the History Channel to hire Morgan Freeman to narrate their new show about some of the most famous prison escapes of all time. Great Escapes with Morgan Freeman is a sleek, approachable docu-series that rarely experiments outside of its mandate and carefully maintains the entertainment quotient. Freeman’s sonorous voice and bubbly knowledge are put to good use throughout the series.

The first episode – in retrospect, an obvious choice – is based on Alcatraz, the former federal prison atop the eponymous island, a few miles off the coast of San Francisco, California. “Alcatraz is the true pioneer of super-max prison,” the show helpfully informs us at the start, and they’re absolutely right. The prison ceased to be a prison in 1963 (now it’s a state museum) but by then the island had done enough to become part of Hollywood folklore, the inspiration for films like Escape from Alcatraz (Clint Eastwood) and more recently, The rock (Nicolas Cage, Sean Connery).

Great Escapes tells us the story of the infamous escape attempt from Alcatraz in June 1962, which later became the inspiration behind Clint Eastwood’s film. Frank Lee Morris (the character played by Eastwood) alongside a pair of brothers, John and Clarence Anglin, devised an elaborate and daring plan. They made papier-mâché-like human heads inside their prison cells and used them at night to make them look like sleeping human figures. They then used the vents inside their cells to dig tunnels to the roof of the prison, alongside supplies like raincoats and inflatable rafts; the idea was to make your way off the island and to a nearby location like Angel Island. Unfortunately, while the remains of their rafts were later found, they never were and the three are said to have not survived their swim test.

Nevertheless, the story is fascinating and Great Escapes does a fantastic job giving us a wealth of detail around the plot. For example, when the three escapees were drilling their way out of their cells, they used Frank Morris’ accordion (a musical instrument very similar to the accordion) to muffle the sound of their digging. But they weren’t done with the accordion – they then used the bellows of the accordion (Indian viewers probably saw the bellows on a harmonium) to gently inflate their rafts.

Stylistically, Great Escapes is pretty conventional: we’ve got the usual line-up of ‘talking head’ experts to tell the plot with strategic insertions from Freeeman, of course. In the first episode, for example, we meet Michael Dyke, a retired U.S. Marshal who was previously featured in an NPR documentary on the subject. Dyke’s ironic, funny and no-frills manner will appeal to most viewers; he really is the most quintessentially American take on the matter, especially when he says things like “marshals never really stop looking for you”, alluding to the fact that technically Morris and the Anglin brothers are still fugitives on the run (something that won’t change until 100 years after they were born, according to the rules).

And then, of course, there’s Freeman himself. I can think of very few voices more suited to the style and format of narrative documentary. His modulation and sense of the emotional rhythms of any story are on full display here. What’s more, this isn’t even the first time one of his famous roles has been linked to a documentary series he’s narrating. From 2016 to 2019, Freeman told God’s story, a National Geographic documentary series that explored religious books from various cultures around the world. Freeman’s role as, well, God, in Jim Carrey’s Bruce Almighty was the hint in this case. Here, too, he makes some ironic references to The Shawshank Redemption.

Not that he needs it; Great Escapes is an effortlessly entertaining, kinetic affair that greatly benefits from its presence.

Great Escapes with Morgan Freeman airs September 22 on the History Channel.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer and journalist currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.

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