The 1940s was truly a golden age in terms of Hollywood produced war propaganda.
Not only would these productions play as cartoons or documentary shorts before the beginning of a feature film, but sometimes they would take the form of the main attraction itself.
This can even be seen through a screen classic like Casablanca, which was made entirely to capitalize on America’s decision to enter the Second World War and reassure the US public that their government had made the right decision.
John Farrow’s Commandos Strike at Dawn, released at the very tail end of 1942, operates on that very same logic, since its plot and characters are meant to serve as an stand-in for America’s transition from neutrality to outright involvement in the Allied war effort.
In this film, the role of audience surrogate doesn’t go to Humphrey Bogart but Paul Muni, who plays a mild-mannered Norwegian fisherman whose sleepy village is taken over by the Third Reich in 1939.
While Muni’s character originally believes that the best course of action is to simply cooperate until the war blows over, he’s gradually pushed to violence after witnessing the atrocities committed by the Nazis and recruits a squad of British commandos to help liberate his home.
Now, when I use the term “propaganda” to describe this film, I don’t use it in an entirely negative sense. After all, I’m perfectly willing to stomach some ham-fisted messaging in my entertainment as long as the end product is well-made.
For example, even though Casablanca is a pretty transparent World War II allegory, it’s done with a certain level of sophistication and the film contains a pretty timeless love story that still strikes a cord with audiences to this day.
Unfortunately, the same really can’t be said for Commandos Strike at Dawn, since the filmmakers settle for cheap gimmicks that relegate the production to being simply a product of its time.
This kind of tone is established in the first couple seconds of the film, when the opening credits prominently display all the flags of the Allied powers, including the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle. This kind of intro immediately dates the film, especially with the Cold War being right around the corner.
Even though there are times where the movie’s attempts to be timely do work out in its favour (like how the characters mention the persecution of Jews at a time when they were being slaughtered in concentration camps in real life) this kind of tacky filmmaking has way more misses than hits.
Although Muni is a compelling lead, he’s saddled with a lot of corny lines about how “nobody’s going to win the war for anybody else,” which sound like they are meant to lecture the 1942 audience rather than inform the movie’s characters.
The rest of the film’s cast is even more disposable.
Despite the fact that all the major players are given a long introduction through a fairly impressive tracking shot, most of them disappear halfway through the movie as the narrative focuses exclusively on Muni and his mission to coordinate a rescue operation.
The worst example of this is probably Muni’s love interest, who doesn’t affect the plot in any way and only seems to exist to reassure the audience that their protagonist has (if I may borrow a term from Red Letter Media) a “case of the not gays.”
The writers don’t even have the decency to provide us with a main antagonist, and settle for flooding the screen with a bunch of nameless German foot soldiers instead.
With that being said, the one segment of the cast who do manage to make an impression are the “British” commandos themselves.
The climactic clash between them and the Nazis feature some really impressive stunt work, which probably has something to do with the fact that they were played by real-life members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
What’s even better is that director John Farrow compliments their military acumen with some good production decisions, since a lot of explosions are done in-camera and aren’t watered down by post-production trickery.
With that being said, basically none of these commandos are given personalities or even a single line of dialogue, which means it’s hard to get emotionally invested in this climax beyond admiring the pure spectacle of it.
And that’s probably the biggest problem with Commandos Strike at Dawn: it doesn’t know what it wants to be.
Sure, the filmmakers make a big show at the beginning about how they want to present an intimate character piece, but it’s clear by the final frame of the film that that’s all window dressing.
Instead, they’d much rather settle for showcasing flashy pyrotechnics and real-life military hardware, something that would have worked as long as they fully committed to this idea.
As a result, Farrow and his team fall victim to the classic filmmaking mistake of trying to make a movie for everyone, which inevitably means that they made a movie for no-one (especially by 2018 standards).
(Side note: it’s clear that the final climactic battle wasn’t shot in the early in the morning, but I guess “Commandos Strike at Mid-Day” wouldn’t have looked great on a movie poster.)
Corner store companion:
Bits & Bites Original (because it should have stuck to doing one thing, instead of mixing a bunch of stuff that doesn’t belong together).
-Release date: Dec. 30, 1942.
-Box office gross: $1.5 million (estimated).
-This film was nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture at the 1944 Academy Awards (the same year Casablanca won Best Picture).
-Paul Muni is probably best know for starring in the original Scarface from 1932, when the title character was an Italian gangster named Tony Camonte.
-Even though he’s kind of slumming it in this movie, Muni has five Oscar nominations for Best Actor under his belt, with an eventual win in 1937 for starring in The Story of Louis Pasteur.
-Unexpected cameo: Lillian Gish (a silent movie star best known for playing the pivotal role of Elsie Stoneman in the Birth of a Nation) makes her first screen appearance in almost a decade by portraying one the Norwegian villagers under Nazi siege.
-According to IMDB, the entirety of this film was shot on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.