Friday 22 February 2008

Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942)

The opening of this film reads: 'Dedicated to the officers and men of the armed forces of Canada, Great Britain and Fighting Norway who participated in the filming of this picture.' They weren't kidding either, given that Flying Officer Robert Coote, RCAF shares the credits on the title screen with such luminaries as Paul Muni and Lillian Gish.

The Norway of 1939 looks precisely how we expect to see it today: beautiful countryside, strong men working hard and young ladies looking gorgeous. We also get a traditional wedding within the first ten minutes, making this a true picture postcard, the only things missing being the cold and the Norwegian black metal elite. Given that this is 1939 though, there's one further component missing but due any minute: the Nazis. They arrived on 9th April, 1940, in a surprise attack that flouted Norwegian claims of neutrality and they're the cue for our story.

Paul Muni is Erik Toresen, some sort of scientist, working in a fishing village on things like weather and the migration patterns of salmon. He keeps himself to himself, though he's sociable and has a young daughter from a wife who died giving birth to her. He's also falling hard for the daughter of a visiting English admiral, and it appears she for him. She's Judith Bowen, as played delectably by Anna Lee, and she seems to have truly astounding timing. Not only does she leave with her father for England before the Nazis arrive but then, while writing a letter to Erik, she switches on her radio and hears the famous declaration that England and Germany are at war.

The Nazis are exactly as you'd expect, especially as this film was made in 1942 and so was really propaganda, if made by the right side. They move in as if they own the place, confiscating radios, burning books, stealing blankets, prohibiting this and that, imposing their own concepts of morality on everyone from the schoolkids on up. They go unopposed for a short while but soon Toresen prompts them into action and they start mounting covert activities against their oppressors: blowing things up, harrassing the enemy, even killing Germans. Lloyd Bridges has a tiny uncredited role as a lost German, who is given deliberately bad directions by a local that lead to him driving right off a cliff.

Eventually Toresen kills the Nazi colonel in charge of operations in the village and so must escape. There are plenty of little touches throughout to wrench at our heartstrings and add to the tension, but much of it is by the numbers because there's so much convenience going on. The screenplay was written by Irwin Shaw from a story by C S Forester, and both of them are worthy of better material. So are the cast, especially Lillian Gish who is given next to nothing to do as the wife of a man tortured by the Nazis for his beliefs.

What's most surprising is that given a title like Commandos Strike at Dawn, there's really not a lot of commandos striking at dawn. We get there in the end, but what this is really about is the buildup to that point rather than the commandos themselves. The buildup is long and touching and meaningful, and must have had major resonance in 1942. It all highlights a particular problem and the commandos who do their striking in the finale are presented as the solution. To my non-military eyes the whole thing looks pretty clumsy and, well non-military, but it's dramatic for sure. Also if it isn't propaganda I don't know what is, but as propaganda it's fine stuff. As a story seen with the hindsight of over sixty years though, it has holes and conveniences and naturally shies away from real nastiness and embraces sentimentality where it doesn't always belong.

There's a really interesting post at IMDb by blainefielding that talks about Ann Carter's recollections of the film. She was the child actor who played Solveig, Toresen's daughter. It suggests that Muni was in a bad mood for much of the film, partly because he was going blind and partly because he was in conflict with the director, presumably about his character or the way the film was being made. If so, I wonder if his ideas would have made for a film more believable and less based on propaganda. Ann Carter, by the way, was the young girl in The Curse of the Cat People and she had a notable career throughout the forties, retiring in 1952 at the age of 16.

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