Anthony Mann’s last completed film – he died while 1967’s ‘A Dandy in Aspic’ was still shooting; star Laurence Harvey stood over directing duties – ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ was one of a tranche of high-profile war movies made during the 1960s. Unlike the perennially popular Alistair MacLean adaptations ‘Guns of Navarone’ and ‘Where Eagles Dare’ – which bookend the 60s and pretty much define this strand filmmaking – ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ was a true story and didn’t have a coterie of Brits and Yanks battling the Hun, but a small group of Norwegian resistance fighters.
Naturally, box office considerations decreed that a coterie of Brits and Yanks had to be prominent in the credits, hence the presence of Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris and Michael Redgrave. And on the subject of casting requirements, Anton Diffring shows up as a Nazi officer. I’d have to check, but I strongly suspect it was a legal requirement for Anton Diffring to play a Nazi officer in every war film made in the 60s.
‘The Heroes of Telemark’ suffers from two things: its over-familiarity as a Bank Holiday or rainy Sunday afternoon staple of British TV programming; and its overshadowing by many other war movies. It doesn’t have the action, the bombast and the unlikely but effective pairing of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood of ‘Where Eagles Dare’; it doesn’t have the infectious score and stirring aerial sequences of ‘633 Squadron’. Nor does it function as an anti-war commentary on a specific operation a la ‘A Bridge Too Far’.
And for all that it was obviously intended as something of a prestige picture – it’s billed as ‘Anthony Mann’s The Heroes of Telemark’, with Mann’s name filling half the screen signature-style, and boasts a score by Malcolm Arnold – there’s an occasional shoddiness to it, not to mention a lacklustre execution of the effects work that time has not been kind to. The worst example is a horrible sequence documenting Rjuken’s bombing which cuts in black and white footage of bombers and relies on ground-based explosions and cheesy sound effects to suggest a bombing run while there quite clearly isn’t a single plane in the sky.
Also, much as I hate to say it, Arnold’s score is something of a mishmash – effective when providing an aural accompaniment to DoP’s Robert Krasker’s surveys of the snowy, inhospitable Norwegian landscape, but unable to find a definite thematic statement when it comes to the big action scenes. Watch a triple bill of ‘The Heroes of Telemark’, ‘633 Squadron’ and ‘Where Eagles Dare’ and it’s the two Ron Goodwin scores you’ll be humming afterwards, not Arnold’s.
Elsewhere, Douglas and Harris turn in the kind of granite-voiced, square-jawed performances you’d expect; Ulla Jacobson and – in a small role, but making it count – Jennifer Hilary bring some warmth and humanity to the proceedings; the location shooting, particularly around the electricity plant at Rjuken, is striking and makes from some starkly memorable images; and Ivan Moffat and Ben Barzman’s script manages to keep the sequence of events more or less in order but does make a few digressions into Hollywood hokum.
The story, it has to be said, is fascinating. With Norway under Nazi occupation, a heavy water operation at Rjuken was crucial to the Third Reich in the race to develop an atomic weapon. Three operations – codenamed Grouse, Freshman and Gunnerside – targeted the plant, with Freshman providing for British SOE troops to land by glider nearby and assist the resistance in a ground assault. When an SOE team were killed after a plane and a glider crashed, Operation Gunnerside took the form of an incursion into the plant and sabotage of the electrolysis chambers. The damage slowed Nazi efforts, but production continued. Bomber attacks caused damage to the plant but did not stop production. The final, decisive, act saw the resistance sink the ferry which was being used to ship consignments of heavy water on the first stage of transportation to Germany. Subsequently, however, analysis of a heavy water tank salvaged from Lake Tinnsjo has suggested that the production at Rjuken would have been insufficient for Nazi requirements. Still, hindsight was available to none of the participants and there can be no doubt that the Norwegian resistance were heroic in their tenacity, bravery and ingenuity.
The script truncates the timeline, barely bothers with the British participation, omits the arduous survivalist fieldcraft employed by the resistance after Operation Freshman went awry (Ray Mears’ TV documentary and accompanying book ‘The Real Heroes of Telemark’ provides a commendable account of this element of the operation), and spends rather too long on the squabbling between Douglas and Harris’s heavily fictionalized characters.
The story was first told on film in a 1948 Norwegian production, ‘Kampen om tungtvannet’ (trans. ‘The Fight for the Heavy Water’), which I’ve not seen but apparently features appearances by several of the actual resistance operatives. There have also been numerous books. Mann’s film wins points for its location work and its emphasis on what was at stake, but leaves you feeling like the full story has yet to be told.