WWII Film Review – Edge of Darkness (1943)

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The 4 o’clock recon flight passes over the sleepy village

Edge of Darkness is a Warner Brothers film created in the midst of WWII by Lewis Milestone, best know for his anti-war epic, All Quiet on the Western Front. It was filled with leading Hollywood talent and received well.

Very often films about local resistance movements fall flat because of their limited implications toward a global conflict. This film is a story that engages all, though the scope is limited to a tiny Norwegian fishing village. The year is 1942, well before the outcome of the war was remotely known, well before the Nazis opened up the Eastern front. Yet it was two years into occupation in Norway and well into a tyrannical regime. The villagers had experienced enough of the new order of things to know that an uprising was inevitable. At least most of the villagers.

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A Norwegian flag where it ought not be

Gunnar Brogge, a local fisherman, is played by Errol Flynn. He’s the top billing as the small town hero who leads up the local resistance. In the course of the resistance, Brogge meets Karen Stensgard, daughter of the local town doctor, a respected man but one who wishes to remain neutral and un-involved. Stensgard is played by Ann Sheridan, and the two fall deeply in love. Together they form the backbone of the resistance.

The resistance effort is a populist uprising. Hoping for a shipment of weapons from England, the people determine to follow Brogge and await the optimal time to attack.

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British weapons come by British sub

The film opens with a rather quaint use of miniatures as a Nazi aircraft flies over the sleepy town. They notice a Norwegian flag proudly blowing in the wind and that sets off alarms. A squad is sent to investigate, discovering a harrowing scene of death and the aftermath of a costly battle. Thus begins the telling of a long and engaging tale of people, not so much of wars, tactics or politics. The film is a little slow paced by today’s standards, but it is engaging. I always try hard not to be swept away by patriotic melodrama, heroic pro-patria devotion, and what is essentially propaganda. But it never fails. I get swept away, and have a good time doing so. There is a reason this film is highly rated and well received. It was one of the five most requested movies by the US Army in April 1943, according to a Wikipedia citation.

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A monocle. Every German villain needs one. Stereotypes, after all, are sometimes effective.

There is a powerful anti-Nazi message, clearly depicting the enemy as murderous, tyrannical and unstable. One of the recurring themes was that of the ‘quisling’ – a traitor who collaborates with an enemy force occupying their country. There are a few quislings in the story. I’ll not ruin the plot.

The special effects include lots of obvious but creative intricate miniatures. These are not tacky and distracting, but add to the charm of the film. I’ve seen much worse. The combat sequences are surprisingly well executed and there is a brutishness about them that seems unusual for the films of the day. The action scenes are masterfully crafted. Many scenes were filmed with the camera-on-track technique, the most notable of these was during an assault where the viewer follows and keeps pace with the action. Add to the assaults a very stirring and triumphant soundtrack, largely variations on A Mighty Fortress Is Our God by Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, and the heroics are kicked up into high gear. Norway, by and large, before its modern apostasy, was largely Lutheran. The choice of music makes sense.

Occupation forces assemble.
Occupation forces assemble.

Melodrama is thick, perhaps effectively so. It is laid on especially thick when “Grandpa” Lars Malken escapes the ridicule of a large Nazi crowd. During that ridicule he never opened his mouth to speak his mind about Norwegian heroes and victors. He regrets not doing so and proceeds to pound a stone with his hand in self-disgust. This scene rivals that of Charlton Heston in the final scene of Planet of the Apes.

Ann Sheridan plays Karen, the female lead.
Ann Sheridan plays Karen, the female lead.

A second example is a stirring but over-the-top speech by the female lead, Ann Sheridan playing Karen Stensgard. The implication is that she was raped during her abduction by a predatory Nazi underling. I greatly admire the fact that the film makers implied her brutal rape by showing tattered clothing and disheveled hair. Had this film been made today, the crude practices of modern film-making would have shown every seedy and pornographic second of it. Her appearance and the implied maltreatment at the hands of the Nazis enraged Brogge and caused him to fly into an irrational state – he wanted to launch the attack on the Nazis immediately. However, Stensgard played the role of inspiring and stalwart heroine, keeping back a rash response of vengeance by Brogge. In a stirring speech, she defused his rashness, reminiscent of Abigail’s intercept of David in the Bible. So much melodrama, but its fitting in this wartime classic.

Lots of combat near the end, loads of odd equipment for the spotter.
Lots of combat near the end, loads of odd equipment for the spotter.

For the firearms and militaria collector, the film is filled with improvised props and leftover WWI gear. The uniforms are merely impressions of actual WWII German uniforms based on photos available in late 1942, and the gear is surplus WWI material such as long Mauser rifles and M16 German helmets. A militaria or gun fan could have a wonderful time simply identifying all the gear pressed into service in this film.

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Has the end come?

It is a clean film, and while violence is certainly depicted (its a war movie, after all) it is relatively without blood and gore. Death is not shirked, and dead bodies abound. The film is a lasting and stirring tribute to the Norwegian resistance, and a worthy effort all around.

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Execution day. Will our heroes escape?
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Even the pastor, formerly against the uprising, has a change of heart.
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Its an up-close battle.
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Don’t mess with an armed populace.
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Marching toward the big climax.
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That is a fantastic looking Enfield!
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