Thursday, November 15, 2012

I'm a farmer. If I lose my farm there must be a reason for it. The sacrifice of one poor village - what will it accomplish?

Edge of Darkness (1942) is a film that can be downright heartbreaking at times.

It’s set in a small fishing village in occupied Norway. The people are just people—they fish, work in the cannery or run small shops. They want to resist the Nazis, but don’t have the resources to do anything beyond a few minor acts of sabotage. There are some—such as the town doctor played by Walter Huston—who just want to wait it out and avoid getting everyone unnecessarily killed.

Then they learn that the British will be smuggling in guns and ammo. The plan is to arm a number of villages along the Norwegian coast, then launch a general uprising. But this must be done according to plan. The villagers must wait until the right moment before they fight.

But several acts of brutality by the Germans might anger them enough to rise up too soon.

What makes all this work so well—to resonate with so much effective emotion—is how average and normal the villagers are. Their leader is a fisherman played by Errol Flynn and he’s not average, of course. Whenever Flynn is on the screen—no matter when and where the movie is set—you always expect a sword fight to break out at any moment.

But that works fine in context to the film—he’s the leader because he’s above average. But everyone else is just normal, everyday guys and gals who are essentially now living in a hell on earth. They don’t look and act like soldiers—they look and act like fisherman and shopkeepers who are struggling to figure out what they should do next.

There’s a scene in which most of the townspeople are meeting in church. The pastor is on the pulpit, making it look like they’re having a regular church service if a German looks in. But a man sitting in one of the pews is doing the talking, telling them about a village that rose up against the Nazis and was wiped out.

So what should they do? One man thinks it’s always wrong to kill. Others think that fighting would be senseless and only get their families killed. Others think they must fight no matter what, but when and how to fight is open to further debate.

This is a war-time film, so in the end it takes the side of those who want to fight. And, of course, history has justified this—the irony being that the Nazis turned out to be even more brutal than they were portrayed in propaganda films such as this.

But during that church scene, everyone is given their say. There’s no derision or condemnation of those who don’t want to fight. The film seems to understand how difficult a decision this is for the townspeople—how much courage it would take to pick up a weapon and charge a machine gun nest full of trained soldiers. Edge of Darkness represents people who want a free society and it remembers that in such a society people are allowed to have different opinions and debate with each other.

There’s not a lot of action in the film until the climax—the film effectively uses character moments to help build up the tension. The running time is just under two hours, but the various characters all get sufficient time for us to get to know them and to like them.

Little moments of dialogue are used with laser-like precision to define individual characters. During the climatic battle, for instance, a maid who has always been deferential to her employer is told that the women and children are being evacuated to England. “The women with children are going,” she replies. “I’m staying to fight.”   Then she adds a modest apology for speaking above her social station. But, by golly, she stays and fights.

The film does such a great job of getting us to like the villagers that the climatic battle is actually a little painful to watch. There’s no punches pulled here—people we’ve gotten to know and like are being killed and we actually hate it when we watch them die.

I have a real love for the war-time films. I recognize them as propaganda as well as entertainment, but I think the message they preached about confronting evil is a moral and still important one. Edge of Darkness is one of the best of these because it is very intelligent and very, very human in the way it makes its point.

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