Monday, January 7, 2019

Anthony Mann's The Heroes of Telemark

If not for a small band of Norwegian commandos, Adolf Hitler might have had an atomic bomb before the U.S.--leading to a very different outcome for World War II. The Norwegians' exploits form the basis for the fascinating premise of Anthony Mann's The Heroes of Telemark (1965).

The film opens in Oslo, Norway, in 1942 with the Germans manufacturing "heavy water" in a fortified factory surrounded by snow-covered mountains. The lead scientist. who doubles as spy for the Allies, smuggles a microfilm to guerrilla fighter Knut Strand (Richard Harris). Knut convinces a philandering physicist, Dr. Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas), to examine the evidence. 

Richard Harris and Kirk Douglas.
Pedersen has his suspicions immediately, but cannot confirm them until consulting with British and American colleagues (to include Albert Einstein). Still, it's no surprise when they all conclude that the Nazis are producing water with a greater than normal amount of hydrogen isotope--a product that is used in creating atomic energy.

The Allies quickly decide that the factory must be destroyed, but its proximity to a nearby village creates the first challenge for Knut and Pedersen. A British bombing of the production facility could be deadly for the town's 6,000 residents. However, the factory's location and high level of security make it an almost impossible task for a ground attack. What will they decide?

Filmed largely in Norway, The Heroes of Telemark benefits mightily from the snowy vistas that frame the action. The scenes of the commandos trudging through snow drifts, with the wind whistling in the background, is enough to make most viewers reach for a hot beverage regardless of the time of year. One of the film's highlights is an exciting ski chase that pre-dates later skiing sequences in On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) and Jean Claude-Killy's Snow Job (1972).

Douglas and Harris amid the snow-covered backdrop.

While Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris inject some star power into the proceedings, both are saddled with one-dimensional characters. That's odd considering that Anthony Mann's 1950s Westerns are noted for their emphasis on characterization over action. It's also difficult to buy Kirk's sudden transition from a university professor to a gun-carrying commando who kills bad guys without remorse. On the plus side, Mann packs The Heroes of Telemark with exciting set pieces: the hijacking of a ship; the explosive raid on the factory; and the sinking of a ferry carrying the heavy water.

Ulla Jacobsson.
Although partially based on the real-life Knut's 1954 book Skis Against the Atom, the screenplay takes some liberties with the actual events. Numerous attacks on the water production facility over a period of several years have been condensed into two raids, which makes for a more streamlined plot. However, the inclusion of a renewed romance between Douglas's scientist and his ex-wife (played by Swedish actress Ulla Jacobsson) adds nothing of value of the story.

Stephen Boyd and Elke Sommer were attached as the stars early in the production planning (when the film was to be called The Unknown Battle). Boyd had appeared the previous year in Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). After several delays, though, Boyd abandoned the project and, according to some sources, he sued Mann for $500,000 because he missed out on other lucrative roles.

There have been other films, books, and documentaries produced about the courageous men who ensured that Nazi Germany never developed an atomic bomb. The Heroes of Telemark may not be the most accurate version, but it's a well-made, atmospheric adventure that serves as a good introduction--and it looks fabulous on Blu-ray. Sadly, it was also Anthony Mann's last completed film. He died while directing the Cold War thriller A Dandy in Aspic in 1967 with star Laurence Harvey completing it.


Allied Vaughn Entertainment provided a review copy of The Heroes of Telemark Blu-ray.

4 comments:

  1. Once again, romance rears its ugly head, supposed "for the ladies in the audience", but serves no purpose. Sigh.

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  2. You mean "Snow Job", not "Ski Job". I must be one of the few people to have seen that movie.

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  3. I'd forgotten I had actually seen this one until I started reading your review. There are some exciting moments, but the film overall isn't memorable despite Douglas and Harris, in my opinion. But I bet it looks terrific on Blu-ray!

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