Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Decision Before Dawn

This review is of a film that I first viewed as a young lad on "NBC Saturday Night at the Movies" back in the sixties. It didn't make much of a ripple when it was released in 1950 and afterward was relegated to late show purgatory, but unlike most films dealing with war it goes deeper into the emotions and morality of people caught up in the conflict. It definitely made an impression on me. I could never locate this movie on VHS, and was bowled over to learn it was recently released on DVD. The film is "Decision Before Dawn". It stars Richard Basehart, Oskar Werner, and
Hildegard Knef.

The story takes place in the closing days of World War II. The US Army has organized a clandestine unit of turncoat German POWs to go back into Germany, and gather intelligence.  Richard Basehart plays a US Army Lieutenant in charge of one such team. Oskar Werner plays a German POW who volunteers after witnessing the murder of a fellow POW who was declared a defeatist. 
This film is loosely based on a factual WWII operation -Jedburgh - a little known chapter of the war where anti-Nazi German POWs were used to assist in the defeat of Nazi Germany. The men enlisted to participate were never quite trusted by their American controllers and if caught, their fate would be a foregone conclusion. A shadow world of the damned. Essentially, this film seeks to explore the meaning of the word "traitor." Is a soldier who risks his life to aid the enemy with the ultimate hope of possibly helping to alleviate the suffering of his countrymen and shorten the war commiting a traitorous act? One can only surmise that the definition is extremely vague and open to individual interpretation.

The team is parachuted into Germany and split up. Werner is assigned to get intelligence on the troop strength of units facing the US Army across the Rhine River. While waiting in line to catch a bus, a wehrmacht motorcycle courier offers him a ride and a place to stay overnight. After some conversation the courier gets suspicious and informs the Gestapo about Werner. From then on Werner is a marked man. Suspecting he is being followed, he confronts and kills the man assigned to keep track of him. After almost being caught by the gendarme it's a race to the location where the team was supposed to meet and then try escape back across the river to the Allies. I won't go into much detail about the ending in the event some readers would be motivated to see this film, but I can say that the ending is much like the rest of the movie, in a word - grim.  

What makes this film so gripping and mesmerizing is that it was filmed shortly after WWII in Germany. The cities were still devastated and it has the look as if it is being filmed real time. Of course, it's in black and white. The mood is frenetic - air raids, artillery bombardment, fire engine bells clanging, sirens blaring, and refugees on the move. It is one of the few war films in existence that conveys the true feeling of a country turned upside down and the ordinary people trying to make sense out of it all. Also making one of his early cinematic appearances (15 seconds) is Klaus Kinski. More on Kinski at a later date I realize my taste in cinema is markedly different from most people, but I've learned that like most things in life if approached with an open mind, you can reap huge benefits and maybe start exploring outside your comfort zone.

1 comment:

  1. I don't believe I've seen this particular war movie, although I may have back in the Kansas dark ages. I watched a lot of Million Dollar Movie war movies. At any rate, you have inspired me to find it and watch it again. the mention of how it was filmed is enough to get me going. Thanks, Rob, and I look forward to more reviews. -D