“If you don’t follow society’s rules, you go to prison. If you don’t follow the prison rules, you end up in Alcatraz,” says host Morgan Freeman about the most notorious former prison of America, on which the first episode of History’s Greatest Escapes with Morgan Freeman is based. The show that launched on History TV18 on September 22 is an eight-part documentary series where Freeman takes the viewers through history’s most infamous prison escapes. And talking of prison escapes, the first incident to come to our mind is the June 1962 Alcatraz escape attempt where three men broke out of the maximum-security prison, never to be found again.
So it was quite natural for the show to kickstart with the well-known incident of inmates Clarence Anglin, John Anglin, and Frank Morris escaping Alcatraz after nine months of elaborate planning. The episodes begin with Freeman introducing the viewers to the former prison and its many layers of security. Freeman describes the most notorious prison in America as a “grim concrete fortress, planted on solid rock, surrounded by the frigid waters of San Francisco bay.” He informs that the island that was converted into a federal prison which housed many high-profile criminals and notorious people such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Bumpy Johnson and Robert Stroud. However, they are overshadowed by four crooks, three of whom manage to successfully break free.
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We are reminded time and again that it was improbable to escape the island. They had a huge ratio of guards to prisoners, tool-proof steel covering the cells of the prisoners, and remote-control canisters of tear gas that could be opened in the event of any escape attempt. Yet, three men found their way out and the first episode gives a detailed breakdown of their plan and its execution.
The prison break incident of Alcatraz found its place in our pop culture way before this series, the most popular one being Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz (1979 film). The first episode introduces us to the inmates- Clarence Anglin, John Anglin, Frank Morris and Allen West. West, who was a car thief in his days, was responsible for coming up with the escape plan but as fate would have it, he could not escape on D-Day. Morris had the record of most escapes out of the four inmates and managed to get out of 11 facilities before landing in Alcatraz. The Anglin brothers’ biggest crime was robbing a bank with a toy gun because they did not want anyone to get hurt seriously.
After giving a brief history of how their stars aligned and they got placed in adjacent cells, the episode gets into the details of how they formulated their plan. The men escaped their cells by placing papier-mache heads on their beds so that they can fool the guards. They then dug around the ventilation ducts in their cells to make them large enough for a man to pass through them. Through the ducts, they climbed their way up to the prison’s terrace and escaped the island on a makeshift raft. The trio planned to escape to Angel Island which was more or less abandoned, however, to date, no one knows whether they were successful in their endeavour. After breaking out of the prison, it is unsure whether they escaped to the island or drowned. However, only the remains of the raft were found and no dead bodies were discovered. The FBI closed the case after 17 years of investigation in 1979.
The episode makes for a perfect watch for people who love some intriguing prison break stories. The episode does not experiment or go out of the box with its format. It is the usual panel of experts or eyewitnesses who take the story forward for the viewers with interventions from the host, Freeman. We have Michael Dyke (Retired Marshal), Michael Esslinger (Author of Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years), and Jamie Clark (Alcatraz historian) among others to give us an insight into the incident.
No one could have narrated it better than Freeman as his distinctive voice adds more gravitas to the story. His screen presence is reminiscent of his character in Shawshank Redemption, one of the most impactful and well-known prison break films. The first episode of History’s Great Escapes With Morgan Freeman also does a brilliant job of breaking down the intricacies of the unsolved case, hence making it easy for the audiences to connect with the show.