The Red Danube could be grouped among Cold War dramas and anti-Communist propaganda, but it’s really a film that captures the changing views of Allied (namely British and U.S.) forces towards Soviet partners, and the gradual dissolution of trust between both political ideologues.
Unlike Berlin Express (1948), whose message was the need for understanding and cooperation among the Allied occupational forces in Berlin, Red Danube shows the seeds of distrust and disgust as members of the British forces in Vienna discover the repatriation of former Soviet citizens may result in political persecution, as well as being punished for deserting their homeland, as is the case of Olga Alexandrova (Janet Leigh), a prima ballerina of German-Russian heritage who manages to enjoy a fleeting romance with British Major “Twingo” McPhimister (Peter Lawford) before she’s handed over to the Soviets by the British on good faith that her sins will be forgiven, and she’ll once again dance among the best of the best in Moscow.
Exactly what the Soviets plan to do with their repatriated volk is kept muddy, but through the British’s efforts to rout out illegals in Vienna, we see nothing but terror in the eyes of ordinary Russian ex-patriats, and that fear of persecution is what pushes a few to commit suicide to avoid apprehension.
Moreover, when a trainload of old and ailing illegals are dumped back into the British sector by the Soviets, it evokes images of Nazis rounding up Jews in trucks and trains, headed for concentration camps.
There’s some interesting subtext at work in Red Danube, particularly a heavily religious stream that may have been equally potent in Bruce Marshall's original novel Vespers in Vienna. Olga hides out in the nunnery where one-armed Col. “Hooky” Nicobar (Walter Pidgeon) sets up his command post, and the locale pushes Mother Superior Auxilia (Ethel Barrymore) into the drama because she forces Nicobar to confront his chosen atheism, and recognize the small miracles of God that manage to save Olga from the Soviets several times.
There’s also some divine luck that enables Auxilia to fly with Nicobar back to his prior post in Rome, where the two inform Allied delegates of the Soviets’ nefarious repatriation scheme that includes German-Russians like Olga. These meetings, along with news of a U.N. proposition to stop the deportations, happen within Vatican City, a location that infers the Christian Allied Powers are in the right (certainly in the eyes of God).
Nicobar is also a bit of a Christian rebel, because although he's abandoned religion, he’s always being bounced around occupied Europe because of his big mouth, rule-breaking, and just being a nuisance among his superiors, and it’s that rebel persona that screenwriters Gina Kaus and Arthur Wimperis exploit for some blatant preachy moments that are cut short by Nicobar’s annoyed colleagues; he’s eventually told to shut up, but the writers managed to sneak in just enough liberal banter for audiences to absorb.
Parts of the film contain Roman and Viennese locations, but the interior sets were likely shot in Hollywood, so there aren’t many scenes capturing a devastated Vienna, as Carol Reed managed so well in The Third Man (1949). Miklos Rozsa’s music is kept to a minimum, though, since director George Sidney wanted to give the film a slight docu-drama feel.
The script is quite solid, but what dates the film are some awfully melodramatic moments made worse by some terrible acting. Ethel Barrymore is wonderful as Mother Auxilia, and Walter Pidgeon knows how to emote his charater’s outrage without pushing into sanctimonious claptrap, but Peter Lawford is stuck in a bland romantic role with an absurd nickname ("Oh, Twingo," exclaims little Olga), and whose character is ultimately responsible for Olga’s fate.
Janet Leigh, in her 8th film, is wholly wrong for the part of Olga. Director Sidney seemed to realize Leigh couldn’t handle a German-Russian accent – her California origins frequenltly bleed through the clumsy Germanese dialogue – so she’s given very few lines (and those left in the picture are quite brief). The reliance on her expressive eyes and mysteriously lit face somewhat buoy Leigh’s weaknesses, but while she may look the part (and competently performs a brief ballet routine), she’s terribly miscast.
The only character who really stands out is Audrey Quail (Angela Lansbury), because right from her debut scene she’s a proud military woman who can stand her own ground among sexist male colleagues. For Lansbury, Quail is also a welcome change from prior MGM roles that had her portray some fluffy ingénues (The Picture of Dorian Gray) or outright bitches (Gaslight).Quail is somewhat smitten by 'Twingo,' but that romance remains frozen and locked away for the whole film.
Louis Calhern plays the chilly Colonel Piniev with delicious understated menace, and Roman Toporow, last seen as the ‘softening’ Soviet in Berlin Express plays Piniev’s obedient and morally indifferent right-hand man. Also of note among the supporting cast is Alan Napier as Nicobar’s starchy superior, and Francis L. Sullivan in an odd, semi-comedic role as Nicobar’s philandering successor.
Over the next few years, the Red Menace films would influence Hollywood’s portrayal of Soviets, and that change was already evident when Leigh was contracted out to RKO so she could appear in Howard Hughes’ wonky Cold War romance/drama Jet Pilot (filmed in 1949, released in 1957), where she played a Soviet fighter pilot who defects to the U.S., is wooed by an American pilot (John Wayne), and is soon revealed to be a double agent named Olga!
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan