The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Edge of Darkness

Just how involved was the war effort on the home front to help aid the cause in WWII? Major movie studios became involved, producing feature length and documentary movies as a form of positive propaganda to help convince audiences how necessary total victory would be.  It was a different time, a different era in the world because now in 2010 can you imagine movie studios releasing movies about the Iraqi/Afghanistan conflicts?  Maybe it's just that the times have changed, maybe audiences just aren't as naive, or maybe it's just a different war.

Released in 1943 as WWII was still in the balance, Edge of Darkness (not to be confused with the Mel Gibson vehicle) was one of those studio ventures released in the hopes of showing that countries around the world and their populations were fighting for their freedom and not just the armies.  Almost completely isolated from the war by land, the U.S. never first hand experienced the war like Europe or Asia did.  But studios did their best to illustrate all the far-reaching effects of the war.  Very similar to 1942's Commandos Strike at Dawn, 'Darkness' is an exciting, well-made if flawed look at the resistance effort against the Germans in Norway.

In charge of a small occupying force of just 150 soldiers, German Major Koenig (Helmut Dantine) has his work cut out for him in the small coastal Norwegian town where his men are heavily outnumbered.  Koenig is aware of who the leaders of a so-far quiet resistance movement in the town, including the unofficial leader, fisherman Gunnar Brogge (Errol Flynn) and others from the village, the doctor, the butcher, the innkeeper among others. So badly outnumbered, Koenig can't arrest any of these leaders without causing an uproar and possibly a violent revolt.  A British agent (Henry Brandon) is able to provide Brogge and his resistance members with rifles and ammunition so they sit back and anxiously wait for their chance to strike at their German occupiers.

Director Lewis Milestone makes an interesting choice in his storytelling technique with a perfect opening sequence. A German patrol arrives in this vacant fishing village, walking through the streets only to find the dead bodies of both German soldiers and many of the villagers.  It seems no one has survived this bloody confrontation, but who knows for sure?  The rest of the story is a flashback leading up this opening, everything that caused it.  It is a really cool technique that's been used to death since, but it works as a great mood and tone setter, putting you on the defensive right away.  You think you know how the movie is going to go because you believe you've just seen the ending, but there's a few tricks up Milestone's sleeve here.

Leading a large ensemble cast, Flynn plays Gunnar Brogge, the brave leader of the Norwegian resistance in the village.  Flynn was in the news at the time for a statutory rape case filed against him, and from here on his career did suffer to a point even though he was acquitted.  It's a solid part if not a particularly memorable one, but the movie suffers when he's not around.  The rest of the ensemble is more hit or miss.  Ann Sheridan plays Karen Stensgard, the daughter of the local doctor played by Walter Huston who isn't quite sure if violence is the answer. Sheridan is a great female character who rises above just being a love interest, and Huston was never one to disappoint with a supporting part.  There's some really awful supporting parts though including Nancy Coleman in a laughably bad part as a Polish refugee caught up in the violence. With Flynn and Sheridan and Huston there for support, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Released in the midst of WWII, there's no chance Milestone's movie is going to show the Germans in a positive light.  This is about as straight a propaganda movie as you're going to watch.  Dantine's Major Koenig is the prim and proper raving lunatic always shouting about duty and honor to Hitler and the Third Reich, and his soldiers are nothing more than raping, murdering machines.  The Norwegians on the other hand are angelic, perfect people oppressed by an invading army.  In reality, this isn't far from the truth, but there is no gray ground here, just black and white, good and evil.  Speeches overheard on the radio from Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt encourage listeners to salute the brave Norwegian fighters, and if you don't get the message watching the movie, you must have zoned out at a certain point.

The best is saved for last when our answers are resolved as Brogge, Karen and the whole fishing village go on the offensive.  The extended battle is about 25 minutes, starting in the village and moving up to the hotel in the hills serving as German HQ.  The scale is impressive, and the action exciting with a couple great surprise moments, one being a priest revealing a tommy gun to mow down German soldiers, and two, Karen using a sniper rifle to pick off a soldier raising the Nazi flag.  Subtle? Nowhere in sight.  But a cool action sequence gets cooler.  A message of hope for anyone who would have been watching in 1943, and still a good movie today.

Edge of Darkness <---TCM trailer (1943): ***/**** 

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