I was going to start this post saying I’d never seen Richard Harris so young before, but I guess I have seen The Molly Maguires, which was a little later, but he was still young. He’s larger than life in The Heroes of Telemark, nothing like how I’m used to seeing him. He’s got to be larger than life, just so he can appear visible next to Kirk Douglas (as my fiancée pointed out, during their fist fight, “he expects to beat Kirk Douglas?”). Douglas and Harris play Norwegian resistance fighters in World War II, something I’m sure Norwegians were really happy about back when Telemark came out. It’s a British production too.
When I started watching it, I didn’t know what it was about and my World War II knowledge doesn’t go as far north as Norway, so I’d never heard about Telemark or its heroes. The film’s dedication told me though–that these heroes stopped the Nazis from developing the A-bomb first. Right away, since I knew the heroes would be successful, I didn’t get worried. There’s a formula–Kirk Douglas probably won’t die, Richard Harris might die, and all other good guys are fair targets (especially if their wives are pregnant). I think Anthony Mann realized this predetermination was going to play against him, so he turned the sabotage scene into a tribute of the resistance fighters’ hardships. Long scenes of them cross-country skiing to the target (if anyone is ever looking for good, filmed cross-country skiing, Telemark is the film to see), difficult repelling, rough terrain. The sequence feels long (I didn’t time it) and Mann succeeds… except the resistance fighters don’t.
Since I didn’t know the actual history, just the opening’s recount of victory, I had no idea what was coming next, which is when the film started to get interesting. Douglas, who spent the first half of the film seducing women–the irresistible physicist–starts acting in the second half. Harris, who was good in the first half, unfortunately disappears. The film only gets a little better, but it’s free of its initial expectations, which at least makes it interesting.
When the film started and I saw Anthony Mann’s name, I got him confused with Nicholas Ray. Now I’m looking at their filmographies and both started in noir cheapies, so now I don’t know why I was confusing them… Mann’s all right, but Telemark is from the era when models were out and original footage was in. So instead of model bombers, there’s real bomber footage on different film stock. For some reason, it really bugged me in Telemark, but it often bugs me. The use of that footage draws the viewer out of the film, reminds them there’s something going on besides the film. Never a good thing. (I know why it’s on my mind, Mogambo had the same problem).
Telemark’s storytelling is too formulaic not to be aware its formulaic. There’s an artificial earnestness to the film and it’s hard to take that earnestness seriously, when Douglas is groping every woman in sight… though I’m sure its one of the reasons he took the role. I read his first autobiography, but I can’t remember. As an example of the extinct war thriller genre, Telemark isn’t bad. It’s better than many of them. But, for example, as a Kirk Douglas film, it’s bad. Douglas started making bad films around this point. Telemark’s not the bottom, but it’s on the way downhill.