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A lot of top talent loaned their services to the war effort for Columbia's Commandos Strike at Dawn, a fairly exciting thriller that was one of the first feature releases to dramatize what was going on in European countries occupied by the German invaders. Paul Muni took a break from prestigious stage roles to assay a simple Norwegian harbormaster who becomes a resistance fighter. But even more interesting is director John Farrow's Max Ophuls-like long traveling takes, used not for artistic reasons, but to conserve precious rationed film stock!
Hollywood's response to WW2 was predictably patriotic, but even more admirable was the long list of personalities who helped the war effort through effective propaganda pictures like Commandos Strike at Dawn. It was only Lillian Gish's fourth movie in the sound era, as she had spent most of her time on stage in New York, neither she nor Paul Muni had to get involved in what is basically an action movie.
If you read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a depression sets in as soon as Hitler and co. begin annexing, appropriating, and bullying their way into country after country in Europe. The diplomats of some of these nations were coerced into selling their homelands down the river by sheer gangster intimidation. Hitler took at least one country with only entreaties and personal threats. And the fumbling of powerful nations, like France, was even worse. The first positive thing in the book is the Norwegian response to the Nazis. Expecting a cakewalk, the German diplomats tried politcal pressure. Instead of quietly capitulating, the Norwegians spirited their government into Sweden and basically told the Nazis to go 3&%@#! themselves. Norwegian resistance was some of the strongest and strategically most critical, even though reprisals there were as terrible as anywhere else. The country was occupied and humbled, but technically never conquered.
Instead of a factual account of anything real, Commandos Strike at Dawn is a propaganda primer. In the rather simple story, English and Norwegians are established as the best of friends. When desperate Muni sneaks to England, he already knows three key naval intelligence people - Admiral Bowen (Cedric Hardwicke), his son Robert Bowen (Robert Coote) and his daughter Judith (the unsinkable Anna Lee of Hangmen Also Die! and many other anti-Nazi films). That a nuclear family is running British covert ops is of course ridiculous, but wartime audiences probably found security in the tight emotional relationships.
The Norwegian townspeople suffer in ways that surely made Americans think about what would happen should the Nazis ever reach their home towns. The church suspends services in protest, and the schoolteacher (George MacReady, in his first film) is forced to teach racist propaganda. The citizens go cold and hungry as the Germans confiscate most of the food, and even blankets. A man who speaks out (Ray Collins) is arrested, reappearing days later psychologically broken through torture. And newlywed Anna (Elisabeth Fraser) is forced to watch as her husband Richard Derr is executed for operating an illegal radio receiver. Eric and his daughter have to hide in a well when the troops come looking for them. Of special note is little Solveig, played by Ann Carter, a blonde moppet we know well from I Married a Witch! and The Curse of the Cat People. She's even younger here, but she's a perfect little actress.
Several of the actors in the film, like lovely Anna Lee, were English, and their effort was certainly patriotic in nature. I still marvel at the nerve of these artists, who knew that if the Germans won the war, their high-profile movie roles would make hiding impossible. The only possible comparison now is to stars who use their celebrity to make political news, and they're fairly roundly condemned in the mass media. We're no longer 'all in the same boat' as we were in WW2, which makes these emotional propaganda films all the more nostalgic.
The Germans are a scurvy lot. A very thin Alexander Knox does most of the threatening with a forced teutonic accent. It's funny, because at the end he also narrates the patriotic voiceover for our side, in a Scottish brogue! Minor kraut soldiers are played by the likes of Walter Sande, Philip Van Zandt and Lloyd Bridges. Poor Bridges seemed to have spent the first ten years of his career suffering in tiny bits.
The film has a ruthless attitude when it comes to traitors. The 'quisling' is turned in by his own wife, who realizes he's just plain Bad. When his guilt is proven, he's tied up and tossed overboard, to drown in the fijord without a second thought. It goes without saying that there are no shades of gray in a propaganda picture - people are either on one side or the other.
Irwin Shaw's idea of a commando raid is rather unlikely. The British-Norwegian cooperation for real operations of this kind was remarkable, with raids that repeatedly stalled the production of heavy water needed for Germany's nuclear research (see Anthony Mann's The Heroes of Telemark) and sunk the pocket battleship Tirpitz while it lay hidden in an isolated waterway. In this movie raid, a British warship steams up a fijord in broad daylight, shooting at German gun implacements. Yet when the commandos arrive at their objective, storming ashore like Dunkirk in reverse, the enemy hasn't been alerted. The attackers also have time for a secondary raid on the town to look for Muni's daughter.
The fighting action is basic and a little rushed, but Commandos Strike at Dawn was surely a big-budget film for Columbia. The extensive location shooting was in a heavily wooded area far from Hollywood.
In several early scenes, director Farrow uses long, long takes with multiple camera moves that cover pages of dialogue, dancing and other business. These might be meant to contrast peacetime with the more nervous war section of the film, but they're a marvel of blocking and acting, and a lot less obtrusive than Alfred Hitchcock's showoff tricks in Rope. Some go on for three or four minutes without becoming static or forced. One likely explanation is the wartime shortage of film stock. Shooting a 5 minute party scene with normal coverage might require 30 minutes or more of tightly rationed celluloid - here Farrow obviously reheared an entire scene for camera, perhaps for a full day or two, and then shot it in one take. The shots are straight dolly takes, as opposed to the steadicam flexibility of modern technology. Directors today do meaningless one-take masters that swoop all over sets, etc., expressing little more than what great toys they got for Christmas. Here, I got about three minutes into the party scene before I realized there hadn't yet been a cut!
There is some direction that plainly doesn't work. Ray Collins returns to his house after being tortured, and instead of running to him, wife Lillian Gish remains remote on the other side of the room. It's a stagey setup designed to emphasize Collins' isolation. The attempted sylization reminds of silent film technique, especially with Gish in the scene. Perhaps she suggested the idea. It just seems forced and rigid.
With a downbeat ending that leaves the survivors in dire emotional straits, the film ends with a dedication to the cause of the Allies, who in early '43 were still far from sure that they could win. Resistance movies would later become much wilder and excessive, with outrageous heroics and theatrical speeches: "For aivery whan of us yoo keel, a huhndreed weel rihse up to tayke hees plaise!". This early example shows Hollywood inventing the subgenre.
Columbia's DVD of Commandos Strike at Dawn looks and sounds great. There is some film wear here and there, but the picture is essentially in perfect shape.
The package text touts a list of Special Features. Columbia is always generous with the language subtitles, but unless you're excited about a 'full screen presentation' or trailers from other war films, there's nothing Special here at all. The liner notes go over the stellar cast but none appear on the cover. The fighting-man key graphic makes the show look like a battle saga, "The Epic World War II Classic", according to the blurb. It's actually on the obscure side, which is okay by us.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Commandos Strike at Dawn rates: