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Sometimes, it's hard to explain why a particular filmmaker's images are so powerful - you just know that you get a charge out of them. Anthony Mann may not have displayed the attention-grabbing visual flair of Alfred Hitchcock, and he wasn't obsessed with deep focus and sophisticated dolly shots a la Orson Welles. But Mann possessed an innate sense of how to shoot a scene for maximum impact with very little fuss. No less an authority than Martin Scorsese, whose visual approach is the polar opposite of Mann's, has applauded this rather underappreciated filmmaker's deceptively simple mise en scene.
Although The Heroes of Telemark (1965) would have greatly benefited from a sharper storyline and more penetrating dialogue, Mann's flair for effective visuals is on full display. This rather conventional World War II film is bursting with memorable shots, many of which unfold on eerie, snow-covered mountaintops. The Heroes of Telemark turned out to be Mann's final film (he would die suddenly while shooting A Dandy in Aspic in 1967; star Laurence Harvey completed the film). But it's nice to see that his gifts were in working order until the very end.
Based on a true story, The Heroes of Telemark stars Kirk Douglas as Dr. Rolf Pedersen, a scientist who's forced to team up with a Norwegian underground leader (Richard Harris), to destroy a factory where Nazis are producing "heavy water," a key element in the making of atomic weapons. The two men are forever at each other's throats (just as Douglas and Harris reportedly were during filming), but they still manage to make several attempts at sabotaging the Nazi's A-Bomb program.
Mann was all but guaranteed to land Douglas as the lead in The Heroes of Telemark, for a rather odd reason. Mann was the original director of the multimillion dollar epic, Spartacus (1960), which Douglas produced and played the title role. Unfortunately, Mann always seemed uncomfortable with the size of the production, and was eventually asked to leave in favor of Stanley Kubrick. Even though Mann was nothing but gracious in handing over the reigns, Douglas always felt bad about replacing him. So he promised Mann that he would one day make another film with him. When Mann called Douglas to ask him to star in The Heroes of Telemark, Douglas, true to his word, agreed to star without even looking at the script.
Mann always brought an authenticity to his films and The Heroes of Telemark was no exception. He enlisted former Norwegian underground soldiers as technical advisors on the production, thus insuring that the details would be right. His biggest coup was probably the hiring of Olympic ski coach Helge Stoylen to help shoot the mountain sequences. Stoylen recruited a group of his students to traverse the mountain slopes on skis while wielding cumbersome movie cameras. Stoylen himself even managed some stunning shots while holding a camera between his legs!
It should be noted that Mann, who only now is heralded as a major director in the United States, always enjoyed high critical standing overseas. In fact, he was revered. Such influential French critics as Jacques Rivette and Andre Bazin wrote glowingly of the hard-hitting string of Westerns he made with Jimmy Stewart, Winchester '73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), and The Man from Laramie (1955). The Heroes of Telemark may not stand with those masterpieces, but there are more than enough flashes of Mann's brilliance to keep action adventure fans glued to the screen. The guy knew what he was doing.
Producer: S. Benjamin Fisz
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Ivan Moffat, Ben Barzman
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Editor: Bert Bates
Music: Malcolm Arnold
Art Design: Tony Masters
Set Design: Robert Cartwright, Ted Clements
Special Effects: John P. Fulton, Ron Ballanger, Sydney Pearson, Bill Warrington
Stunts: Gerry Crampton
Costume Design: Elsa Fennell
Makeup: Neville Smallwood
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Dr. Rolf Pedersen), Richard Harris (Knut Straud), Ulla Jacobsson (Anna), Michael Redgrave (Uncle), David Weston (Arne), Sebastian Breaks (Gunnar), John Golightly (Freddy), Alan Howard (Oli), Patrick Jordan (Henrik), William Marlowe (Claus), Brook Williams (Einar).
by Paul Tatara