The Commandos Strike at Dawn
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The Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942), Columbia Pictures' stirring World War II drama about the Norwegian resistance, marked a return to the screen for two major stars who had been devoting their efforts to the stage. Paul Muni had been away from filming for two years and Lillian Gish for ten.
According to Muni biographer Jerome Lawrence, the actor was impassioned about the film to the point of "near ferocity" because he considered it his way of aiding the Allied war effort. He received excellent notices for the understated sincerity he brought to his starring role, with Bosley Crowther commenting in The New York Times that "It is clearly apparent that Mr. Muni had his heart and soul in the picture, and that its most affecting moments are largely due to him."
Although Gish brought customary conviction to her supporting part, it proved to be a thankless one that did nothing for her standing in the film world. She said later of the movie, set in Norway but shot in Victoria, British Columbia, that "It means little to me but it gave me a nice vacation." The weakness of her role was credited with a change of agents for Gish, from George Volck to Kurt Frings -- although the first film assignment secured for her by Frings, a Grade-B Universal musical called Top Man (1943), did even less for her career, and she would not face the cameras again for another three years after that.
Commandos Strike at Dawn was based on a short story by C.S. Forester (Captain Horatio Hornblower) that appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine, with a screenplay by Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions). Muni plays a gentle widower who revolts against Nazi atrocities in his Norwegian fishing village. Escaping to Britain, he agrees to lead a group of British commandos back to Norway to destroy a German airfield and to rescue his young daughter (Ann Carter). Gish is the wife of a man (Ray Collins) who has been arrested by the Germans, and Anna Lee provides Muni's romantic interest as the daughter of a visiting British Admiral (Cedric Hardwicke). Alexander Knox plays a German officer, and Lloyd Bridges has an early, uncredited part as a young soldier.
Critics of the day admired the overall effect as well as Muni's performance. A reviewer for Variety wrote that "for all its ferocious combat and such grim avenging justice as seldom has been shown on the lately timid American screen, Commandos Strike at Dawn is exalting, rather than depressive. It builds up a terrific charge of emotion, but it also is permitted to discharge that audience emotion with a terrific purge." Despite the movie's obvious intent as propaganda and Columbia's limited wartime budget, it continues to pack a punch today.
Commandos Strike at Dawn was directed by John Farrow, who was then a lieutenant commander of the Royal Canadian Navy and whose wife, Maureen O'Sullivan, was pregnant with future actress Mia. Producer Lester Cowan was able to utilize Canadian troops from four famous regiments: the Canadian Scottish, the Royal Rifles, the Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury, and the Rocky Mountain Rangers. Farrow never knew from one day to the next when these real commandos would be available, since they disappeared periodically, presumably on real missions. The cast and crew were instructed not to ask any questions once the troops returned.
Muni threw himself into his role with fervor and was injured during filming when he climbed through barbed wire and sustained a six-inch gash in his left arm. There was another problem: Muni disliked any physical contact with actresses playing opposite him, even in romantic situations. As Anna Lee confided to Jerome Lawrence, "It was very difficult, when we were playing a love scene, even across a restaurant table, not to touch him, to pat his arm, I literally held my hands behind my back or in my pockets."
Muni himself commented, "I am not a woman hater. I think they are far and away the most beautiful 50 percent of the universe... But for myself, the invasion of privacy, the camera climbing into bed with me, is not something I want on film."
Oddly, his reticence left him when the company returned to Hollywood and he and his leading lady posed for publicity stills. Lawrence writes that suddenly "Muni seized Anna Lee and bent her backward as if he were Rudolph Valentino and she were Vilma Banky -- and kissed her passionately on the mouth. His eyes were sparkling like a little boy's, and he suggested pose after pose, romping about while the startled cameraman clicked away." Unfortunately none of these stills seem to have survived!
The original score for Commandos Strike at Dawn by Louis Gruenberg and Morris Stoloff was nominated for an Oscar®. Celebrated Russian composer Igor Stravinsky had created an earlier score, but it was rejected by the film's producers and later published by Stravinsky as "Four Norwegian Moods." Behind-the-scenes footage shot during location filming is included in the CBC-TV documentary Canada's War in Colour (2005).
Producer: Lester Cowan
Director: John Farrow
Screenplay: Irwin Shaw, from story by C.S. Forester
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Film Editing: Anne Bauchens
Original Music: Louis Gruenberg, Morris Stoloff
Art Direction: Edward C. Jewell
Special Effects: Barney Wolff
Cast: Paul Muni (EriK Toresen), Anna Lee (Judith Bowen), Lillian Gish (Mrs. Bergesen), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Adm. Bowen), Ray Collins (Johan Bergesen), Robert Coote (Robert Bowen), Rosemary DeCamp (Hilma Arnesen), Alexander Knox (German captain), Elisabeth Fraser (Anna Korstad).
by Roger Fristoe