DECISION BEFORE DAWN, a quite good WW2 picture, is barely known today, but it did well back in 1951, not only grossing a healthy $4,400,000 in a year crowded with war films, but snagging a left-field Oscar nomination for Best Picture, as well as another for Film Editing. *
Late ’44, the Nazi regime tottering. Before storming the Rhine from France into Germany, U.S. Army intelligence recruits German P.O.W.s to journey back into their homeland and report on troop movements. An understandably cynical American officer (Richard Basehart) is sent in with two picked candidates for the potentially suicidal mission. Capable but slippery ‘Sgt. Rudolph Barth’–“Tiger” (Hans Christian Blech) is in it to save his skin and get paid. War-sickened ‘Cpl. Paul Maurer’–“Happy” (Oskar Werner) has loftier motives: he wants to spare his country further suffering. The reason for treason collides with a disintegrating state, pummeling Allied air raids, die-hard Nazis on the lookout for those whose ‘resolve’ is wavering, and a welter of desperate civilians caught in the collapsing Reich maelstrom.
Along with a compelling story (George Howe) and screenplay (Peter Viertel), talented actors, solid direction (Anatole Litvak) and fine cinematography (Franz Planer) what gives the gripping and sad movie a tremendous boost is the fact that—besides helpful cooperation from the armed forces—the location shooting in then-unrestored Germany provided both extensive panoramas of “art direction” destruction that didn’t need to be recreated and a wealth of props—vehicles, weapons and uniforms in abundance, so a modestly budgeted picture has both the look of an epic, and the feel of documentary realism. Basehart and co-star Gary Merrill were fresh and gaining stature, but they weren’t expensive stars. Basehart in particular was having a banner year, starring in another excellent war film, Fixed Bayonets!, as well as the fine thriller Fourteen Hours and the mystery House On Telegraph Hill. Without a big outlay for cast names, and given the Army’s help, and all that ‘free’ “atmosphere”, the production put things over in grand style at a fraction of the cost. Today, CGI would do its dazzle thing, but this is the real deal.
The locations included Munich, Würzburg, Mannheim and Nuremberg, and the debris from the recent nightmare, and its leftover lethal hardware, was much in evidence. The pitiful smashed cities and plethora of equipment—however tragically impressive— would only be window dressing were it not for having a first-rate complement of German actors—who’d all been there—in key roles. Future heartthrob Oskar Werner, 29, is 3rd-billed but he has the biggest part, in his first English-language role. Soulful, keen, sharp, wounded, Werner covers every base at once. Superb character actor Hans Christian Blech (The Longest Day, Battle Of The Bulge) is a commanding presence. The perilous trip their characters undertake has them cross paths with an emotionally shredded bar hostess (Hildegard Knef), a coldly practical senior officer (O.E. Hasse) and a venomous S.S. brute (Wilfried Seyferth).
The script is generous enough to give the actors room to shade their people so none come off as ciphers or caricatures. Was this the first post-war American (or Allied) film to break mold and show that not all of the former enemy were inhuman monsters? After all, who suffered first in Germany if not other Germans? Treason, then? What do you owe allegiance to, to whom, at what cost, and at what point does the deepest, truest kind of patriotism/humanism rise from the ashes of blind obedience? Do you really have to get there to find out?
119 minutes, with Dominique Blanchar, George Tyne, and, in a brief bit, Klaus Kinski, 26, in his second film appearance. You might even spot Gert Fröbe, 13 years before he would become Goldfinger, but you’ll need eyes like a Fallschirmjager scharfschüütze.
* Replayed—-with the depressing Korean “police action” going full tilt, war movies were on the warpath in ’51. They varied in quality; as far as public response, Decision Before Dawn landed smack in the middle of Flying Leathernecks, Operation Pacific, Go For Broke!, The Desert Fox, The Frogmen, Fixed Bayonets!, Force Of Arms, The Tanks Are Coming, Submarine Command, The Wild Blue Yonder and The Steel Helmet. The dope on the two Academy Award noms is that Fox fox Darryl F. Zanuck went full-blitz in trade publications to push the film. Good as it is, it wasn’t going to get any trophies away from the favored heavyweight contenders like A Streetcar Named Desire, Quo Vadis or A Place In The Sun. As it was, the who-cares? musical An American In Paris gobbled up the gold, much like later over-kissed drags like Gigi and Chicago.
Decorated—-taken from the novel “Call It Treason”, written a few years earlier by George Howe. He based the book on his experiences during the war as an O.S.S. officer who recruited and trained German soldiers like those portrayed in the film. Peter Viertel, who adapted it into a screenplay, had also been an O.S.S. officer and some of his personal experiences made it into the script as well. Director Anatole Litvak left WW2 as decorated Colonel, and had helped Frank Capra greatly with the invaluable Why We Fight series during the war.
Scarred——In 1941, at 19, Oskar Werner had been drafted into the Wehrmacht. A pacifist, he recalled “So many officers had been killed on the Russian front that they needed replacements desperately. And, I was for them the embodiment of the Aryan type. But I am a pacifist. I didn’t want any responsibility, so I behaved stupidly. I fell from my horse and made mistakes reading the range finders on the cannon, and finally they kicked me out of training school.” He deserted in 1944, and with his half-Jewish wife (they married in secret) hid out in the Vienna Woods. At 18, in 1945, Hildegarde Knef (a fascinating person) had dressed as a soldaten to be with her lover on the firing line in the Battle of Berlin, was captured by the Soviets, but eventually escaped. Her lover was executed. O.E. Hasse had been wounded serving in the Luftwaffe. Hans Christian Blech had fought for four years on the Eastern Front. He lived through three more as a Soviet captive.