I expect a certain tone and outlook from WWII movies based on their vintage. Anything made in the 40s or 50s is going to be extremely one sided, patriotic and jingoistic. In the 70s, I’ll expect something a little more cynical. The 90s or later, it’s probably gonna have some post-modern, meta spin on it. So when I watched Decision Before Dawn, a WWII move made just five years after the war, I was in no way ready for what I got.
It’s the last days of the war, and while an allied victory seems pretty much assured, the Germans still have a little fight in them and won’t surrender. Trying something new, the allies begin training German POWs as spies, and sending them back across enemy lines to work against the Third Reich from the inside. Those spies include Tiger (Hans Christian Blech), a cynical old bloke who’s happy to fight for whichever side he thinks is most likely to win. And Happy (Oskar Werner), a young idealist, who genuinely believes in the allied cause and wants to do his part.
When word spreads of a German general willing to surrender his troops, Tiger and Happy are called in to help facilitate. Tiger, joined by American Lieutenant Rennick (Richard Basehart) will find the general and negotiate the terms of his surrender. While Happy will locate a German tank division that the allies think may stand in the way of the general’s plans.
For a WWII movie made just half a decade after WWII, Decision Before Dawn has none of the extremely one sided, patriotic and jingoistic flag waving I expected. It actually lets the German’s be real characters, with multiple dimensions and understandable motives. They aren’t all moustache twirling villains, some are good men stuck in a bad situation. And the American characters aren’t all heroes. Rennick starts out as a bit of a racist dick.
A big part of all of what makes this movie work is the fact that Decision Before Dawn was shot on location, across Europe. A lot of these countries were still rebuilding and the effects of the war were still very visible. Shooting in these locations gives the movie an immediate look of legitimacy.
Nominated or a Best Picture Oscar, Decision Before Dawn must have made a bit of an impact at the time, but I’m not sure if its legacy has really survived. I don’t remember ever hearing of it before now. Other movies nominated that year include A Place in the Sun, Quo Vadis and A Streetcar Named Desire, so I can understand why this one has been overshadowed. And that’s a shame. Decision Before Dawn is no classic by any means, but it is an interesting movie with an outlook much more progressive and nuanced than I ever expected from a war picture of its vintage.