Any WW2 action adventure involving the Norwegian resistance is OK in my book, and this big-star saga about sabotage efforts to stop the Nazis’ atom research is a natural — much of what happens in the story is true. The show can boast marvelous locations and excellent action scenes but the script and characters aren’t very strong. Did Columbia curb epic director Anthony Mann’s greater ambitions, or did star Kirk Douglas interfere to enhance his leading character into a combo scientist, playboy and sure-shot action man? Also starring Ulla Jacobsson, Richard Harris, Michael Redgrave, and every over-fifty English name actor not nailed down.
The Heroes of Telemark
Sony Home Entertainment
1965 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 130 min. / Street Date January 8, 2019
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris, Ulla Jacobsson, Michael Redgrave, David Weston, Roy Dotrice, Anton Diffring, Ralph Michael, Eric Porter, Karel Stepanek, George Murcell, Mervyn Johns, Barry Jones, Geoffrey Keen, Robert Ayres, Jennifer Hilary, Maurice Denham, David Davies, John Moulder-Brown.
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Art Director: Tony Masters
Film Editor: Bert Bates
Special Effects: John P. Fulton (+ Syd Pearson, Bill Warrington, Wally Armitage)
Original Music: Malcolm Arnold
Written by Ivan Moffatt, Ben Barzman
Produced by S. Benjamin Fisz
Directed by Anthony Mann
By 1965 WW2 action epics were becoming more exaggerated and extravagant; the prime example is MGM’s Operation Crossbow, which turns Germany’s rocket weapon development program into a 007- like spy story, greatly exaggerating what the Nazis had accomplished. In reaching for some new ‘crucial mission’ that could make an exciting action tale, producers eventually turned to a fascinating atom-age combat exploit in occupied Norway. Learning that Nazi physicists were producing ‘heavy water’ at a mountain factory, the super-secret Allied bomb makers Einstein & Oppenheimer couldn’t guarantee that the Germans didn’t have their own bomb on the way, which made the destruction of the factory imperative. Several commando missions were launched. A good rundown on the true story can be found at this The Globe and Mail page.
This expensive show was filmed in some of the original Norwegian locations. With some exceptions like Raoul Walsh’s overdone wartime thriller Edge of Darkness, Norway didn’t get enough respect in war pictures. But when reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich we couldn’t help but cheer that nation’s response to being occupied. They politely acquiesced to superior military force, and then stubbornly resisted no matter what the cost.
We’re told that a fairly faithful account of the Telemark story, the Norsk-French production Kampen om tungtvannet (1948) featured many of the actual men involved in the sabotage missions. Years later the same events became grist for the big budget ‘escapist wartime action’ film The Heroes of Telemark. One couldn’t choose a better director than Anthony Mann, the maker of brilliant films noir and some of the best 1950s westerns. Mann’s flair for grand drama enhanced his later screen epics El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire.
So why isn’t this thriller more exciting?
It’s 1942. Spies leak the information that a Norwegian fertilizer factory in Rjukan, Telemark is engaged in secret Nazi wartime research; resistance operative Knut Strand (Richard Harris) hijacks a boat to England to carry some purloined diagrams and formulas to Rolf (Kirk Douglas), a Norwegian scientist working in London. Rolf won’t tell Knut or anyone why the Nazi plant must be destroyed, but even the Norwegian command in exile is willing to allow the saturation bombing of Rjukan, killing many innocent civilians. Rolf returns to Norway with Knut. There they link up with fellow resistance agents Anna (Ulla Jacobsson) and her uncle (Michael Redgrave), who operate a radio transmitter in a snowbound shack. Opting for a ground assault, Rolf and Knut prepare for the arrival of fifty English commandos… all of whom perish when their plane and its glider are shot down. With only a dozen or so local fighters, our dauntless heroes prepare to assault the Rjukan factory on their own.
Telemark uses mostly English actors, even for Norwegian roles with no dialogue lines. The German half of the story is cast from the ‘usual suspects’ roster of English film talent: Eric Porter, Anton Diffring, Karel Stepanek, George Murcell. All are fine but overly familiar. Dr. Nilssen, a Norwegian forced to spearhead the heavy water project, is played by the welcome Ralph Michael, who still has the same slightly ‘off’ look in his eyes we remember from his ‘haunted mirror’ owner in the classic Dead of Night.
The film then assembles a round table of English experts to assure us that heavy water is more terrifying than a million Nazi tanks: Geoffrey Keen, Rober Ayres, etc, dispense do-or-die exposition. It’s amusing to see as a Colonel and a ‘boffin’ consultant, none other than actors that once played maniacs wielding weapons of mass destruction. Mervyn Johns wanted to conquer the world with a deadly ‘cardiac plague and Barry Jones threatened London with a nuclear bomb in a suitcase. Neither the German brass nor the English worrywarts are given a great deal of screen time. Little of it feels fresh, as when orders are issued to ‘find those saboteurs!’
Heroes of Telemark has no excuse not to be a superior show, especially with Anthony Mann at the helm — he routinely elevated the conflicts in westerns and costume epics to an adult level. The film’s location shooting finds breathtaking, authentic scenery at Rjukan and in the high snow country beyond. Screenwriters Ivan Moffat and Ben Barzman had plenty of experience with complicated, serious dramas but for whatever reason almost nothing in the show raises our heart rate. One raid succeeds, but has zero impact because good German planning enables heavy water production to resume after only a few days’ interruption. The last act sees Rolf and Knut plotting to intercept a shipment of heavy water leaving by ferryboat, a non-historical event fabricated to create a big suspense finale.
Despite the exciting context the screenplay keeps these events from grabbing our emotions. As we spend all our time with the good-looking movie stars there’s no opportunity to learn anything about life under the occupation. We don’t even get an idea of what is really required to go on two- and three day hikes in the frozen landscape — doesn’t anybody get really cold? Most of the heroism is superficial. The resistance group has a problem with a possible Quisling (Roy Dotrice) which doesn’t amount to much. The dramatic tensions between the main characters are routine. Anna turns out to be Rolf’s ex- wife. After playing aloof for a couple of scenes she becomes his lover again. Richard Harris has no standout scenes to play; his biggest moment is a tantrum when Rolf won’t explain to him why heavy water is so important, why it’s worth dying to stop Germany from making it.
The answer to all these questions may boil down to the star Kirk Douglas. The script is so tailored to flatter Douglas’s Rolf character, that we’d easily believe that the star had the whole thing rewritten to make him look better. Telemark is a blatant star vanity vehicle. Rolf is a combination scientist, playboy, soulful lover, patriot, action man, secret agent and savior of sweet little Norwegian kids. If anything noble or charismatic happens in this movie, Kirk does it. We first meet Rolf making out with a student in a photo darkroom. He then singlehandedly saves the blockade-running ship when it enters a minefield. Rolf then romances his ex-wife Anna, breaking down her amorous defenses with a single kiss. Rolf outwits the local Nazi, Anton Diffring. Despite claiming unfamiliarity with weapons, he’s a natural in the commando raids. When a woman (Jennifer Hilary) needs to be told that her patriot husband has died, Rolf brings her the news. Realizing that his bomb aboard a ferry will also wipe out some schoolchildren, Rolf goes on board to oversee their rescue.
If Rolf had been aboard the Titanic, he’d have made certain that all the nice passengers made it into the lifeboats. The only scene the screenwriters forgot to add, was one in which Rolf rescues some cute harp seals.
Perhaps the script was always like this but it frankly looks as if the film’s best scenes and dialogue were all rewritten to favor Kirk. Richard Harris has almost nothing to do; he seems to have gone straight from Major Dundee to this film to fulfill a two-feature Columbia contract. Lovely Swedish actress Ulla Jacobsson was likely hired on the basis of her fine turn as an hysterical missionary’s daughter in Cy Endfield’s epic Zulu. Even art-film devotees likely did not remember her daring nude scenes (likely cut here) way back in 1951’s One Summer of Happiness. Ms. Jacobsson’s main contribution here is to look fresh and appealing alongside Kirk Douglas, wearing those attractive and cozy-looking knit sweaters.
The action raid scenes are nicely staged although security at the Germans’ ‘incredibly important’ secret research plant is really slack. With so much snow around to leave tracks we wonder why the commandos aren’t easily traced. The semi-retired visual effects expert John P. Fulton was tapped to supervise some nicely-done illusions, the best being the sight of a plane crashing as Rolf and Knut’s ski-troop commandos watch helplessly. The miniature work for the ferryboat scene is excellent. The model must have been enormous to match the live-action boat so closely. The only flaw we notice is pretty minor: when an iron locomotive rolls off the ferry, presumably to sink to the bottom of the fjord, it instead appears to float.
Anthony Mann never passed up an opportunity for dynamic action or painful-looking fight scenes, not even in his recent epics. It’s possible that second units handled some of that shooting, as it lacks the tension we associate with the director. The one really good action moment is also Michael Redgrave’s only scene of note: cornered by German snow troops in a snowbound lodge, Redgrave’s ‘Uncle’ manages to get off two fast blasts from a shotgun, all in one nicely-staged bit of business.
Although the actors give lip service to the cruel realities of the situation — hostages are shot, and it is finally deemed necessary to bomb Rjukan anyway — nothing seems all that serious. Limping badly soon after a shootout, Rolf is shown the courtesy of a German clinic. When captured, he gives himself up in a chivalric gesture to spare the local woman who accidentally identifies him. Then of course, he makes an amazing escape through the snow — still with fresh bullet wound in his leg.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity missed is to properly frame the sacrifice of so many Norwegians to the resistance effort. It was later determined that the German researchers were nowhere near being able to seriously engineer a bomb, so some argue that the entire Telemark effort was in vain. That misses the whole point: at the time the Allies couldn’t be sure what the Germans were doing — and they were definitely perfecting fearsome rocket weapons and jet planes. The Norwegian patriots fought without knowing why Rjukan must become a battlefield. Not everybody gets to storm Berlin.
Some of our favorite post-war Hollywood film directors encountered frustration as soon as they achieved major success. A few really successful film stars could now dominate their movies, sometimes insisting that their directors cede artistic authority. Glenn Ford and Frank Sinatra ended Frank Capra’s career, but Capra really hadn’t had a major hit since the war. The directors that seemed most abused were John Sturges and Anthony Mann. Sturges likely saw his enthusiasm for moviemaking wane after working for Sinatra, and finding that the actors he helped make stars — Coburn, McQueen, Bronson — became too expensive or too demanding to work with again. After The Great Escape all of Sturges’ films were flops or undistinguished works for hire, except for his wonderful Hour of the Gun which sadly was a flop as well.
Anthony Mann was noted both for gritty violence and lofty dramatic ambitions, but his luck turned lousy going into the 1960s. After a much-admired run of lucrative James Stewart westerns he was fired from Spartacus (by none other than producer Kirk Douglas) and then on Cimarron was double-crossed by MGM, which curtailed his epic ambitions in mid-shooting. Anyone who has seen the impressive El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire in 70mm cannot deny Mann’s mastery of the super-epic subgenre. by the time of Telemark Anthony Mann was no longer in fine form. His final film A Dandy in Aspic was finished by others. It feels particularly strained, as if Mann were trying to keep pace with the Richard Lesters and become a hip stylist. The age of the critic-perceived ‘auteur’ had arrived, but few veteran directors really wanted to play that game.
Sony Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray of The Heroes of Telemark has been out on Blu-ray for two years but I only caught up with it recently. I loved the movie on TV as a kid and wanted to see it in color and Panavision. It’s not the superior movie I remember, but the unique snow-scape setting and action still hold up.
Back in 1965, some 70mm prints may have been struck for Telemark. The scan for Blu-ray seems clean but doesn’t look recent. Objects in many scenes exhibit a mild halation, as sometimes seen on older transfers, or ones done from non-optimal film elements. The audio is also a little suspicious — every once in a while the music track loses speed and picks up a wow or a flutter.
What really gets us are all the day-for night snow country exteriors, which are extremely dark, as if the colorist really wanted to go for a pitch black night look. For instance, the image of the motorcycle convoy at the top of the article is far, far darker in the new Blu-ray. We get used to it after a while, but we have to think those scenes could have been timed at least a little brighter. You can’t follow the action unless your screening room is really dark.
The film’s second detriment is the music score by Malcolm Arnold. Was Columbia on an economy drive in 1965, asking its filmmakers to emulate not Sam Peckinpah, but Sam Katzman? Arnold’s action-themed music scores sometimes sound very similar — Trapeze, The Roots of Heaven — but unless I’m mistaken Telemark simply repurposes cues from Arnold’s Oscar-winning score for The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Columbia/Sony’s plain-wrap presentation has no extras.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Heroes of Telemark
Sound: Good +/-
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson