“A shot rings out – and out of the rugged hills of Norway – flames a story of COURAGE to inspire the world”
After Warner Bros. transferred Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling ‘noble pirate’ screen persona to westerns, the next logical venue were topical anti-Nazi propaganda films, of which Flynn made a handful between 1941-1945 before returning to period films during the remainder of his contract with the studio.
With the right material and the right director to catch Flynn, he could settle into a part and be credible – witness his fine turn as the Earl of Essex in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) – but in spite of being surrounded by a strong cast, a script by Robert Rossen (The Hustler), and kinetic direction by Lewis Milestone (Pork Chop Hill), Flynn’s portrayal of a Norwegian who leads his simpatico villagers to rebel against filthy Nazi schwein from Norwegian soil just isn’t earnest; it’s Errol Flynn, charismatic star, emoting ever so slightly because Errol doesn’t like to get too emotional.
That’s actually not a bad thing in a propaganda vehicle – it works well in the goofy Northern Pursuit (1943) – but Edge was designed as a very serious anti-Nazi drama, hitting on all the topical and controversial issues of the day. There was a profound fear that Hitler would stomp beyond Europe’s borders, make a mess of it, and turn each fallen country into a fascist disaster zone where Germany could rape whatever resources it wanted, and treat the locals like sub-humans.
The film’s structure is rather unique: a Nazi scout plane notices a Norwegian flag flying from a building, and radios for a team to investigate who’s breaking official rules. The team, led by a cynical, gravel-voiced sergeant, finds masses of dead townspeople, and at the local hotel where the soldiers were headquartered, he discovered the German Captain, dead from a humiliating self-inflicted bullet to the head after writing a suicide note to his brother.
Director Milestone then time-ripples back to the tense period where the town was occupied by Nazis, and any resistance would’ve yielded fatal consequences. Rossen’s script does a clean job in economically introducing the main villains – Captain Koenig (slimy Helmut Dantine) and his rape-happy troopers – and resistance heroes and heroines: Gunnar Brogge (Flynn), Karen Stensgard (Ann Sheridan), father Martin (Walter Huston), tough Gerd (Judith Anderson, doing a good Mdme. Defarge), and the retired professor Sixtus Andresen (Morris Carnovsky, buried under Old Man Makeup #12) who’s the first to put his foot down, and pays for it with everything he owns and cherishes.
Caught in the middle is Mama Anna Stensgard (Ruth Gordon, playing a slightly dim Norwegian matriarch with an unbridled Massachusetts drawl), who’s elated her son Johann (John Beal) is returning home to work in the cannery, but knows he may be the evil quisling daughter Karen claims him to be. Then there’s mama’s brother Kaspar Torgerson (Charles Dingle), owner of the cannery, and a gleeful fascist collaborator who sent for Johann to return home and manage the family business… and keep an eye on the murky sympathies of Torgerson’s family.
Dingle’s performance is the unexpected gem in this overbearing melodrama because he’s the ultimate collaborator: he bullies Johann into spying, he has no qualms about sacrificing nieces and nephews to the Nazis because it simply consolidates his power- hold on the town. Dingle delivers every malicious collaborationist phrase with slime-coated cynicism, and it’s a great little personification of banal evil (and Torgerson’s eventual comeuppance is appropriate).
Nazi Captain Koenig is built from the more common filmic stereotype of an action-hungry elitist sent to manage an rubbish town in the armpit of a country he loathes, and that seething contempt pays off with Koenig gradually losing any semblance of military civility in a pivotal event.
When ex-professor Andresen humiliate Koenig in front of his men, he lets the stormtroopers mete out the punishment: Andresen is dragged through the streets, tethered to a cart upon which are his belongings, destined for a central bonfire. The merry stormtroopers tears out ‘pages of knowledge’ from Andresen’s books and tosses them to appalled townsfolk like giant hunks of confetti.
The parade ends with a bonfire, and while Andresen survives the humiliation, he’d the town’s most public sacrificial lamb: a respected elder who stood up while everyone remain still and obeyed. His torment is one of two key events that motivates the insurgents to mount an assault, aided by British gear, and Churchill’s inspirational radio broadcasts.
The British gear comes through the careful planning of a clever trickster who infiltrates the Nazi headquarters and earns Koenig’s trust, and inadvertently inspires Koenig’s love toy to rebel, and become another sacrifice for the town. Played by Nancy Coleman (who played an anti-Nazi insurgent in Edge of Darkness), Katja is a Polish national who became trapped while performing on the stage in Germany after her homeland was invaded by Hitler. While her heart begs her to return to Poland, she knows it’s an instant death, and she’s been forced to remain with Koenig as his lover because his protection keeps her safe from the wily eyes of the deprived stormtroopers – one of whom eventually makes a brutal play for Karen.
It’s unknown how much Rossen retained from William Woods’ novel, but every ugly incident keeps tightening the tension wire until a bloodbath is the only solution, and that’s exactly what occurs in the final act – the aftermath that’s seen by the investigating stormtroopers at the film’s beginning.
Rebel Gerd does feel some affection for a civil-minded Nazi – he’s a carpenter by trade, and a mourning widower entranced by Gerd’s uncanny resemblance to his dead wife – but it’s a doomed relationship: its function within the drama, though, is to show that not all Nazis are vile – there’s one or two who were forced into this mess, and if peace and civility were to reign, they’d be ordinary tradesmen, just like the Norwegians.
Heroism is appropriately heavy-handed, and Milestone’s dramatizations sometimes transcend the melodrama. A nadir is a local shopkeeper who initially lacks the courage to verbally scold the Nazis, but eventually ‘reminds’ them of Eric the Red’s triumphs in Norway’s history, whereas professor Andresen’s tethered parade through the streets. Milestone is a beautifully choreographed nail-bitter.
Franz Waxman’s score for Edge begins with a big orchestra and mixed chorus quoting Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” The hymn blares while main credits are superimposed over a giant, Paramount-like mountaintop that’s actually never seen in the film. (Norway is inferred to be mountainous, but the image in the title sequence, set to Luther’s words, is an unsubtle call to arms.)
Waxman incorporates the hymn throughout the film, and he also crafts a heavy theme for the Nazis: a villainous march comprised of low tones on bass clarinet, and jingling sounds matching shots where the stormtroopers march like marionettes.
Waxman leadens the theme with rumbling percussion for professor Andresen’s humiliation march, and in both this sequence as well as the final assault between the townsfolk and the Nazis, Milestone does something wholly atypical for a Hollywood director in 1943: he uses a zoom lens. As trivial as it seems, the use of long-range shots and zooming in to close-ups transforms the film’s style from a period propaganda film to a mid-sixties morality play.
It’s a major stylistic shocker because Milestone uses it several times during moments of dramatic intensity, and it works beautifully: when Katja is warned by a British agent, when Andresen is dragged into the town square, the near-execution of the insurgents, and the final assault. Milestone’s knack for choreographing battle scenes also pays off in the final battle, and he ratchets the tension through deft editing, and minor effects like shaking the frame to give the detonation of an explosive charge a documentary feel. (Also of note are the montage sequences, co-directed by Don Siegel.)
Edge is outright propaganda – Norway’s fight for freedom is wholly symbolic of every nation trapped under Nazi dominion – but the filmmakers aspired to transcend the studio’s programmers with something literary and visceral.
Warner Home Video’s DVD offers a good transfer from a worn but decent print, and while the digital compression is active at times, there’s a good balance among blacks and greys.
Extras include the theatrical trailer (with some outtakes), and the Warner Night at the Movies programme, which features a trailer for The Hard Way (1943), a newsreel showing Russian willpower as a Soviet convoy fights off German aggressors, and the musical short “The United States Marine Band” (1942) where fledgling director Jean Negulesco (The Best of Everything) choreographs military songs with montages incorporating ships, planes, and uniformed musicians performing on the steps of Washington monuments and Congress. There’s also two cartoons: the first features the sadistic “Hiss and Make Up” (1943), and “To Duck or Not to Duck” (1943) where Daffy Duck challenges Elmer Fudd to a boxing match, with little wartime references.
This title is part of Warner Home Video’s TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures box, which includes Desperate Journey (1942), Edge of Darkness (1943), Northern Pursuit (1943), Uncertain Glory (1944), and Objective, Burma! (1945).
Flynn’s pre-WWII adventure film, Dive Bomber (1941), is available separately or as part of The Errol Flynn Signature Collection, Vol. 2, which includes The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Dawn Patrol (1938), Dive Bomber (1941), Gentleman Jim (1942), and The Adventures of Don Juan (1948).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan