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Saturday, November 1, 2014

'Secret Army' S1 DVD: WWII Era Belgian Underground Group Knows Resistance Not Always Futile

Secret Army - Series One DVD
This review of the fact-based 16-episode 1977 first series (my people call them seasons) of the BBC WWII-era drama "Secret Army" is the first in a series of four posts on October 2014 DVD releases from uber-awesome BFS Entertainment, which brings exceptional British shows and films to this side of the pond.

The other releases include "WPC 56"  S2 and "Rake" S3. A pre-New Year's Eve resolution is to run reviews of all four by the end of 2014.

On a very general level, "Army" nicely evokes thoughts of "Happy Days" creator Garry Marshall commenting that setting that '70s sitcom in the '50s prevents it from ever looking dated. Similarly, setting "Army" in the early '40s prevents it from looking older. Similarly, the sometimes grainy (but never at all unclear) video nicely contributes to the '40s vibe of the program.

"Army" tells the compelling stories of the small but intrepid Belgian resistance group known as Lifeline that operates in German-occupied Brussels in the early days of WWII. Their primary S1 activity consists of helping shot down RAF pilots and flight crew members escape back to England; this often requires responding to threats of exposure by the gestapo.

Group leader Lisa, code name Yvette, is a nurse who lives with her aunt and uncle in the wake of the death of her parents. Uncle Gaston also works with Lifeline, but the pair work to ensure that Gaston's wife knows nothing nothing regarding their activities.

Restauranteur Albert and his waitress/mistress Monique provide a base of operations, and British officer John Curtis has a relatively shaky alliance with the group.

Although most S1 episodes center around an effort to get an airman back to England so that he ultimately can get back in the game, one awesome aspect of "Army" is that these stories go far beyond the cliched plot of said RAF officer hiding in barns or running through woods while being pursued. Even the regular psychological torment that these men experience while waiting for an (often delayed) chance to make a run for the border never gets old.

One episode has a young Belgian boy helping a downed pilot at the same time that his mother is starting a (presumed romantic) relationship with a German soldier.

A particularly good episode involves developments that set the stage for very important developments in "Army" has an airman who obtains sanctuary on seeking out an English couple that is enjoying a peaceful existence in the occupied French countryside. The initial bit of specific drama relates to determining who alerts the Germans to the presence of the enemy combatant.

Other points of drama relate to (sometimes proven) suspicions that an airman with whom Lifeline or a mere civilian is working is a German agent, the numerous occasions on which Lifeline faces a serious risk of exposure, and conflicts between members of Lifeline and/or Curtis regarding the best course of action. A related issue regarding the disputes that develop between Curtis and the group involves the extent to which his making resources of the British government available to Lifeline allows him to dictate how the group operates.

"Army" also does an excellent job building up the tension in the last few episodes of the season and presenting a final episode that works equally well as a season or series (within the American sense of that word) finale. Developments in those offerings include Lisa's aunt inadvertently getting caught up in the action and having to independently act, the Germans discovering the extra-curricular activities of a member of the group, and a daring effort to leave Brussels during a city-wide search and virtual lockdown.

The nature of the era and the setting add an additional special layer of drama to "Army." All of the civilians find themselves in the stressful situation of trying to live their daily lives under the occupation of a force with a deserved reputation for brutality. Aside from risking life and home to engage in activity that a desire to shorten the war motivates, they must strike an uber-delicate balance between keeping up enough a German-friendly facade to avoid the wrath of their occupiers but not go so far as to end up on the wrong side of their friends and neighbors.

All of this results in a must-see S1 that you will want to watch from start to finish and that will have you counting the days until the BFS release of S2.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Army" is encouraged to email me; you can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.