THE HEROES OF TELEMARK (1965)
Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris, Ulla Jacobsson, Michael Redgrave, John Golightly, Patrick Jordan, William Marlowe, Brook Williams, Anton Diffring, Wolf Frees, Karel Stepanek, Gerard Heinz, Victor Beaumont, Maurice Denham and Geoffrey Keen.
Anthony Mann made the mistake of stating during an interview that he thought a film’s visual makeup was much more important than dialog. He stated that what you could say with words in several minutes you could say in a single silent shot of film. “The Heroes of Telemark” is a visually stunning war epic, but the lack of strong characterizations really lessens the impact of an important story.
Based on real events, the film tells the story of Norwegian resistance efforts to blow up the German heavy water factory high in the Norwegian mountains. When the attempt fails to be completely effective, the resistance finds themselves debating whether or not to sink a ferry on which the precious heavy water is being transported to Germany on – a ferry which also carries several dozen innocent civilians.
The film is about a very important incident that quite probably allowed the Allies to win World War II. Unfortunately, the story fails to draw I engage the audience. The main characters are similar to those we’ve seen in many movies before and after this one was made. Kirk Douglas plays Dr. Rolf Pedersen, a Norwegian professor who is drawn into the war for some rather ambiguous reasons. When we first meet him, he is opposed to fighting and elects to sit out the war; within minutes, not only has he helped seize a freighter in order to get vital information to London, he has also become the most vital member of a team sent to blow up a Nazi factory. Richard Harris appears as resistance leader Knut Straud, who is introduced as a tough and boisterous patriot, but fades to the background as quickly as Douglas takes center stage.
The host of supporting actors is totally wasted. Ulla Jacobsson (“Zulu”) pops up as Pederson’s ex-wife who cannot seem to make up her mind about getting back together with him; all she does is sleep with him, or yell at him because of his concern for nobody but himself. Seeing as Dr. Pedersen can’t seem to make up his mind about being a loner or a patriotic idealist, I can understand why she left him. Michael Redgrave appears in a throwaway role as “Uncle”, who has a few lines here and there and gets to die rather heroically.
The host of British and German co-stars including one of my favorite Nazi villains, Anton Diffring, unfortunately, have very little to do or say. What is also unfortunate is that every actor playing a Norwegian in this film is obviously English or America. None of them make any attempts to disguise their accents, which was incredibly distracting. I never believed I watching Norwegian resistance fighters; I could always painfully detect that they were British actors.
On the plus side, Mann does offer us some breathtaking outdoor sequences which would be imitated a few years later in the fabulous adventure yarn “Where Eagles Dare”. There are quite a few tense scenes of the heroes scaling snow-covered peaks to attack the Nazi factory, which were shot entirely on location. Every ounce of this sequence looks incredibly authentic. There is a subsequent scene of the good guys escaping across the snow on skis from a large force of German alpenkorps troops, which again, must have been shot by a cameraman on skis. In fact, the only time I noticed any dated special effects techniques (notably rear projection) in the film was during a parachuting scene. And you simply cannot film a close-up of Kirk Douglas drifting to the sky, so this is very understandable and equally forgivable. Mann elects to use music very sparsely (sometimes not at all) during the action sequences and they are far the better for it. I loved hearing the blaring gunfire and whoosh of skis rather than a thundering piece of fanfare.
It’s a pity that these adventure scenes were so well shot without engaging characters to really draw me into the action scenes. They were marvelously choreographed, but were not the least bit engaging because I could have cared less about the men and women who were in harm’s way. It’s a pity. Mann was dead wrong when he said that the visual makeup a movie was much more important than the character drama. He proves it with “The Heroes of Telemark”. See the film and decide for yourself.