"Now we begin to cut ourselves out of this jungle."
The exploits of the Norwegian resistance in World War II were the inspiration for several Hollywood films made during the war, all interestingly in 1943. The best of these was The Edge of Darkness, a Warner Brothers film starring Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan that featured a compelling story, fine acting throughout its cast, and well-staged action sequences—all under the firm guidance of Lewis Milestone. Just slightly less interesting was The Moon Is Down, directed by Irving Pichel from John Steinbeck's novel of the same title for Twentieth Century-Fox. The year's third entry was the least of the three—Columbia's Commandos Strike at Dawn, which starred Paul Muni and featured extensive cooperation from the Canadian Armed Forces.
Muni plays the part of Eric Toresen, a Norwegian widower who becomes involved with the daughter of British Admiral Bowen who is visiting Toresen's town before the outbreak of World War II. Once war begins, the two lose touch once Toresen's town is occupied by the Germans. At first, the townspeople stoically accept the many German restrictions and demands placed on them. When one of them (Bergesen) is arrested and brutally treated, however, Toresen urges the townspeople to organize a resistance movement. Subsequently, Toresen becomes a hunted man when he kills a German soldier. While in hiding, he discovers the construction of a secret German airstrip and understanding its significance, decides that he must escape to England in order to persuade Admiral Bowen that a raid should be mounted to destroy the strip.
After a decade of success in screen biographies (The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola, Juarez) at Warner Brothers in the 1930s, Paul Muni fell on hard times, at least as far as films were concerned. His histrionic style seemed suited to historical epics, but out of place for contemporary pieces in which he often seemed too eager, for want of a better description. Few of his films in the 1940s were successes as a result. Muni does try to maintain a more natural performance in Commandos Strike at Dawn, but his old ways creep in from time to time, particularly toward the end. The film is let down in other ways, however.
The rest of the cast is uninspiring. Cedric Hardwicke and Robert Coote as Admiral Bowen and his son, respectively, go through the motions while Ray Collins as completely wrong for the part of Bergesen. Only Alexander Knox as the German commander sparks any interest. Even the first appearance of Lillian Gish in a film in ten years is less successful than one might have hoped, partly because she is not given much to work with.
Direction is by John Farrow, who had a long if not particularly startling career in Hollywood from the 1930s through the 1950s. He had been in the Royal Canadian Navy early in the War, but had been forced to retire due to a war injury. This connection to the Canadian military probably played a role in the amount of Canadian cooperation that the film managed to attract. The assistance included planes, pilots, warships, and troops as well as, presumably, the use of Vancouver Island and Newfoundland (modern sources vary) for location shooting. Unfortunately, Farrow doesn't always make the most of this assistance, for the action scenes involved in the commando raids are too impersonal and lacking in intensity, reducing their effectiveness significantly. Balancing this aspect somewhat is an unexpectedly accomplished use of long takes, particularly in the early part of the film. The introduction of Muni's character and the party sequence provide good examples.
Columbia provides its now-standard DVD treatment for a classic film. Speckles and scratches do occasionally appear, but if you can overlook that, the full-frame image (in accord with the original aspect ratio) is reasonably sharp and bright and delivers good shadow detail. Edge effects are minor. The mono sound is adequate, though characterized by minor hiss from time to time. English, French, and Japanese subtitling is provided. Supplements consist of three trailers—for The Bridge on the River Kwai, From Here to Eternity, and The Guns of Navarone.
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Scales of Justice
• Trailers for Three Columbia War Films
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