Decision Before Dawn

Decision Before Dawn

Let the names of men like this remain unknown…

So, in returning to the Best Picture odyssey, I’ve chosen to start back into it with a war film. Aren’t I the intelligent one? It does fit a bit with the times, seeing as the Academy is at this point just getting into the era of being able to look back at the war effort with pride and a sense of honor, and though the era of perpetual war nominees for Best Picture might be over now that there’s not an actual war happening (the conflict in Korea had started by this time, but that was technically and logistically a UN endeavor to aid the South), to say that Best Picture is over and done with war films entirely is of course patently incorrect. Now, though, I’d imagine that Oscar will be more discerning with the war pictures it does decide to put up for the big one, with there being less overall as well as fewer slots to potentially fill with them; thus, the question with Decision Before Dawn becomes (as the only war film among the 5 nominees of 1951), is it the best film of all the war films released in 1951, however many there may be? While Decision does do a fairly good job covering the topic it covers, and it uses its production value to great effect (especially in the film’s second half), I’m not certain that it’s really the best of the bunch – unless the level of quality in the rest of the field is a lot lower than I’d assume it would be.

Nearing the end of the war in late 1944, Germany struggles to hold onto whatever positions it can against the Allied offensive as it marches toward the Rhine. In an effort to aid their gains, the Allies have begun making use of some of their German POWs who have volunteered as essentially double agents, being dropped behind the current war fronts into German territory to gather intel and report back to their camps, to assist the clearly imminently-victorious Allies in smoothing over the final stages of fighting. When one particular camp receives word that a German general is willing to negotiate the surrender of his entire corps, the camp sends in two teams: an American radio operator and recent transfer, Rennick, is to accompany a German POW codenamed Tiger to the general’s position to negotiate the surrender and radio back confirmation, while another POW codenamed Happy is dropped in several miles away to locate a large contingent of German tanks that would assuredly get in the way of a potential surrender by the corps, and relay intel on their location and strength back to the Allies. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially just by using German POWs for this sort of thing, risking a potential double-cross in the form of known trickster Tiger and the sentiment of being back among his own people that threatens Happy’s trustworthiness; regardless of either, though, the job must be done to help bring the war to the inevitable end that’s coming.

There’s a few things that Decision Before Dawn does with its production that are potentially notable; for one, it was filmed on location in Germany, in many of the still-ruined towns and cities that were then still under military occupation as a result of the war, and even used a lot of the local citizens to help the filming efforts, which must’ve been more than a bit of whiplash for them given the film comes barely five years after the end of the war. Secondly, as per the topic it covers, the main characters (aside from Rennick) are all German, and even with them being voluntarily used as spies to aid the American war effort, it’s still something that a film so close to the actual war saw fit to use German soldiers as main characters, and thus as people for the audience to sympathize with and perhaps even care for by the end. Extending a sense of humanity to the German people at large, and not just viewing them through the lens of the Nazi officials and the actions they inflict, is essentially the point of the film (and for the character of Rennick, whose narration & experiences bookend the film), and is an honorable intention for both the filmmakers and audiences of the early 1950s. Much of this is successful thanks to Oskar Werner, who plays Happy, and who the film shifts focus entirely to once the trio have parachuted into Germany; Werner’s amiable demeanor and kind eyes do a lot to present Happy as just an overall decent kid who got wrapped up with the war effort, and his experiences and tribulations with the citizens and soldiers of the still-at-war Germany do a good job painting a picture of the country and its citizens as a whole; again, outside the viewpoint of just the crowds that openly and enthusiastically throw up the Nazi salute. Additional kudos go to the cinematography, which has a lot to handle with the accurate production value of the bombed-out cities and the various military assets at use throughout the film, while also using a lot of variety with light and shadow, and it’s to the film’s credit that everything looks not just discernable, but very well done; also to the editing, which cuts all the material together pretty decently (though the film does have some pacing issues that make it hard to justify its length), and which earned the film’s only other nomination at the Oscars.

This is a film that is hard to recommend, and for once it’s not because it’s a bad production; on the contrary, the filmmaking efforts themselves are all very well handled, but the actual story itself just doesn’t quite seem worth it in the end, even despite the effort put into the film. The notion of looking at the German citizens with a humane eye and as partial victims of the war themselves is a good one, and shining a light on the efforts of these codenamed German espionage volunteers is ostensibly the aim of the film as put forth by the narration, but it almost seems like conclusions that are inherent of themselves, rather than the efforts of the film managing to convince us of something we couldn’t otherwise realize on our own. It could very likely be easier for me to do so watching the film over half a century after the end of the war, and such conclusions may not have been as inherent to audiences of 1951 than I so easily assume they are, but it was hard for me to sit through two hours of this film only to end up at the end basically where I’d already been when I started, and it’s this that, even with the good production value, makes it hard for me to try and push the rating of this one any higher than I’m giving it, and I really can’t bring myself to. I’m still not totally sure if this is really the best war film of the year, and the one to beat any of the others to getting a Best Picture slot, but it was well done in just about every department, so I’ll take that as a win and remind myself that, even just among war films, it could’ve been a heck of a lot worse.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10


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