February 4, 2019
Stars Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris, Ulla Jacobsson, Michael Redgrave.
There’s no accounting for what memory can preserve from a movie not seen in decades, and with 1966’s The Heroes Telemark (aside from its convincing portrayal of incessantly frigid temperatures), it’s always been the nifty sweaters Kirk Douglas and Ella Jacobson wear inside a cozy Norwegian home just made for lovin’. Or it would be, were the place not transformed by circumstances into a kind of mission central for fighting Nazis in early 1942.
In this case, memory has not played tricks. The sweaters really are nifty, though with perhaps just enough white in them that I’d be a lock to spill a glass of red wine in the wrong place were somebody to gift me with one. Still, you have to think that this isn’t the likely takeaway that director Anthony Mann had in mind for what turned out to be his final credit for a movie he lived to complete — though this fairly handsome production for its day did pretty fair business in Europe. Yet, in my Midwestern city, it failed to rate a downtown booking, and I caught its local opening engagement at a normally second-run campus movie house in a year when studio execs and marketers had less than a firm idea of what people wanted to see. Probably not Resistance fighting, or at least not in college towns when Blow-Up wasn’t that far away on the horizon.
Still, I’m guessing the picture worked well enough in drive-ins because it had a reliable veteran superstar (Douglas) teamed with an on-the-rise arthouse hunk (Richard Harris) — and this would be way before years of Demon Sauce gave Harris that Keith Richards look he sported in Randa Haines’s underrated Wrestling Ernest Hemingway. Before long, Harris would eschew the likes of Antonioni and Red Desert to find himself playing Cain in John Huston’s The Bible and King Arthur in Joshua Logan’s stillborn stab at Camelot — an entire career right there for a lot of actors. Here, though, he’s playing a character based on Knut Haukelid, who wrote a 1954 remembrance that served as one of two sources for the film — a book called Skiis Against the Atom, which pretty well sums up the 134 minutes we spend here.
Harris (name modified to called Knut Strand) is a resistance fighter in Telemark, Norway, where the Nazis are trying to produce the heavy water that’s needed to construct an atomic bomb amid Germany’s race against the Allies to do just that. Douglas, too, is Norwegian and a physics professor to boot, though from appearances, he also seems to have had time to work in some weight training. Then again, this is a country where all the men and probably lots of women automatically exercise by half-living on skis; even Michael Redgrave (as “Uncle” — who shares the house with Jacobsson) doesn’t look out of sorts, looking more spry than he did in The Browning Version a decade-plus earlier.
Nothing risible is meant by all this because Heroes’ skiing sequences are as memorable as the sweaters. Thus, I’m once again reminded of the remark someone once made to the effect that of you could find someone who shot exteriors like Mann and interiors like Nicholas Ray, you would have the perfect filmmaker. Or at least you would if the exteriors, as here, were shot by Robert Krasker, who was also behind the camera for Olivier’s Henry V, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Visconti’s Senso, and (for Mann) El Cid.
Jacobbson is not only a honey here but Douglas’s ex-wife — a plot point I’ll just bet you wasn’t in Haulkelid’s book. For most of the going, “Selfless” isn’t exactly the middle name of Kirk’s character here (Rolf’s the name), which makes her less than willing to welcome him back into the sack when he and Harris end up using her place as headquarters in which to plot blowing up the nearby factory where the heavy water is being manufactured. This was during the Swedish actress’s lamentably short run as a Hollywood hopeful, well after she’d appeared partially nude in the internationally popular One Summer of Happiness (1951, though not till ’55 in the States). Even with its delayed release, its ‘PG’-level sexuality agitated a lot of wheezing political hacks into their daily round of agitation over life as it’s lived. Here, however, she mostly keeps the sweater on.
The major heavy here is bad old Anton Diffring (a kind of meaner-looking Peter Van Eyck), an actor immediately recognizable to any movie lover with a memory and a pulse; he probably played more Nazis on screen than Roy Rogers played characters in billion-decibel shirts who were named “Roy.” Diffring and the rest of the film play out in ways that one pretty well expects, and the result is a respectable (but that’s all) finale to Mann’s career that’s ultimately less distinguished than its great skiing scenes. Mann would begin one more picture — 1968’s A Dandy in Aspic — before succumbing to a heart attack in the middle of filming. Lead Laurence Harvey took over, though Columbia Pictures gave Mann full on-screen credit; I’ve never seen it, but Britain’s classy Indicator series has a release coming March ’18 that’ll probably be all-region.
Heroes on Blu-ray appears to be the product of a master with some mold on it, one that really gets (going from 1966 memory) all there is to be gotten out of Krasker’s visuals — a rap that has nothing to do with this Blu-ray’s status as an on-demand selection. Though the word “Choice” doesn’t appear (per usual) on the disc jacket, this release appears to be another of Sony’s manufactured-to-order high-def releases of predominantly Columbia Pictures product. The problem for on-demand naysayers (and Sony issues BD-Rs) is the large number (out of relatively few issued titles) of movies that I, at least, like, love or treasure as oddball curios: The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Triplets of Belleville, Gideon of Scotland Yard, Real Genius, Spanglish, the Sofia Coppola Marie Antoinette and the Gillian Anderson Little Women.
The last, at least, is one you’d think might be worth a full-scale marketing job, what with a brand new sibling go-around scheduled for Christmas under the eye of director Greta Gerwig. But this is just an observational aside and nothing more because I’m adverse to plopping Anton Diffring and Louisa May Alcott into the same piece of writing.