The Heroes of Telemark (UK 1965)

Film titling sometimes proves difficult. When this film appeared in 1965 I wasn’t able to see it, but I do remember being baffled by the title. I didn’t know then that Telemark was a region of Norway and I don’t think I recognised that this was a Second World War film. It’s now on BBC iPlayer in the UK in what seems to be roughly the correct ratio and I’m glad I caught up with it as there are several intriguing aspects of the production.

Today many people outside Norway are likely to be aware that Telemark is an important tourist destination in Southern Norway for both sightseeing and walking/ski-ing holidays in the ancient upland region. The town of Rjukan where the film is set has been a tourist destination for a long time but in the 1930s it was best known for its fertiliser production and its hydro-electric power station. Norwegian scientists and engineers produced ‘heavy water’ as part of the power plant’s operation and this became an important part of the development of atomic weapons in World War Two. When the Nazis invaded Norway and took control of the plant in 1940 it became imperative for the Allies to prevent that heavy water production from enabling German military scientists to produce an atomic bomb. Several different acts of sabotage by Norwegian resistance fighters and bombing and commando raids from the UK achieved the Allies’ aims between 1940 and 1943. This film condenses these different military operations into a single sustained action. In this sense, the narrative fits the ‘based on real events’ type of film production. On a trivia note, Telemark was also the home region of Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian fascist who collaborated and became puppet leader of Occupied Norway between 1942 and 1945. ‘Quisling’ later became a general term for any kind of collaborator. There are several collaborator figures in the film, at least one of whom is called a ‘quisling’.

Richard Harris and Kirk Douglas as the leaders of the saboteurs

Watching the film in 2019 it now appears in the context of the range of relatively recent local film productions in countries that experienced Occupation, and therefore both ‘Resistance’ and ‘Collaboration’, after 1939. We’ve been interested in these films on this blog, not least because several of them have were major productions attracting large local audiences. The key film here is Max Manus (Norway-Den-Ger 2008) which deals with a group of Norwegian Resistance fighters who sabotage shipping. It’s helpful to use this film as a benchmark to consider how The Heroes of Telemark stands up. The later film is named after the real-life hero of a group of fighters. The central character of The Heroes of Telemark, at least initially, is ‘Knut Strand’ played by Richard Harris. Strand may be based on the historical figure Knut Haukelid, born in New York to Norwegian parents, but back in Norway as an infant from 1914. Haukelid wrote his biography in 1947 and then appeared in a 1948 Norwegian-French film Operation Swallow: The Battle for Heavy Water, which was a major success in France (and presumably Norway). Haukelid played himself in what was a drama-documentary. He was a military hero and, like Max Manus, a member of the ‘Norwegian Independent Company’, Norwegians who trained with the SOE (Special Operations Executive) in Scotland and returned to Norway to undertake sabotage. There was a second Knut in the group, Knut Haugland, born in Rjukan and later part of the Kon-Tiki expedition with Thor Heyerdahl. The two Knuts were involved in separate missions, both of which were ‘rolled up’ into the single narrative of the film. Rather than a recent feature film production, the various sabotage activities became the basis for a six part TV series in 2015 produced by the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation as a co-production with Danish and British partners and titled The Saboteurs in the UK where it was shown on More4 and is now available on DVD. Knut Haughland also appears in a UK television documentary film The Real Heroes of Telemark (2003) made by the BBC. I don’t think Haughland was impressed by the 1965 film.

The Heroes of Telemark is one of several bigger budget Second World War films produced in the mid-1960s (following on from the major success of The Guns of Navarone (1961)) and IMDb suggests that in some territories it was blown up from its 35mm ‘Scope (Panavision) print to a 1:2.20 presentation in 70mm (but only Mono sound). It is sometimes described as an ‘epic’ and the Hollywood director Anthony Mann had previously directed El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). The main puzzle about the film is the production company ‘Benton Film Productions’. I can’t find anything about this company which only seems to be mentioned in relation to this film. Did Rank stump up all the money? Did much of it come from Hollywood? The film was made on location in Norway and at Pinewood. Rank distributed it in major European territories and Columbia in North America. With a budget of $US5.6 million the production needed international stars so Harris was joined by Kirk Douglas as a Norwegian University Professor who is persuaded by Harris to join the group. The professor then turns out to be an ‘action hero’ and gradually takes over the lead position. The rest of the cast mainly comprises well-known British character actors with the exception of Michael Redgrave and the Swedish star Ulla Jacobsson. The film was shot by Robert Krasker with music by Malcolm Arnold, so it’s a quality production.

Composition and lighting pick out Kirk Douglas who seems to ‘command’ the narrative

In his book on British Cinema and the Second World War (Continuum 2000), Robert Murphy suggests that Douglas is initially an ‘irritating character’ but that he provides a focus for the narrative drive. I think Murphy makes a reasonable argument. Kirk Douglas as a professor is indeed irritating but his star presence and dynamism can’t be denied. He does pull us through the various scenes and the 120 mins plus speeds by. Having said that, he wears a blue anorak which makes him immediately visible and recognisable, unlike the other saboteurs, and he is older than the others. Richard Harris is relatively subdued by comparison. The Douglas casting seems to me to identify the dilemma for an international ‘epic’ rather than a local feature. Although a film like Max Manus has a central heroic figure, we remember the other characters as well – partly because they were boyhood friends. What is also missing in the 1965 film is any kind of training sequence in the UK. Such sequences often help to introduce the members of the team. Instead, Douglas emerges as the leader, although he has no training at all. The Norwegian Company comprised SOE-trained operatives – the Douglas character should be just the scientific adviser. The script is by Ivan Moffat and Ben Barzman, two experienced Hollywood writers with many credits including well-known large-scale films. Both men were of the left with Moffat from a distinguished British artistic family and Barzman a Canadian who left Hollywood during the HUAC/McCarthy period alongside Joe Losey. He had a long working relationship with Anthony Mann, working on both the El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. The IMDb credits suggest that the books Skis Against the Atom by Knut Haukelid and But for These Men (1962) by John Drummond provided source material.

The real Norwegian SOE saboteurs back in the UK after their Telemark raids, the figure top right is Birger Stromsheim, the oldest member of the team at 31. He was one of the last survivors when he died in 2012.

The film benefits enormously from being filmed in the real location and the ski chases are spectacular. In 70mm on a big screen I think it would be very entertaining. On TV it is diminished but still worth watching. Telemark is definitely a tourist destination I will consider (assuming the pound sterling will buy any very expensive kroner after Brexit). I realise that I haven’t said anything about Anthony Mann. Mann’s status within film scholarship was based on his early thrillers and particularly his ‘psychological Westerns’ in the 1950s starring James Stewart. In his 1969 book Horizons West, Jim Kitses begins his section on Anthony Mann’s films by arguing that Mann’s ‘personal’ films all focus on an individual who feels compelled to take on insurmountable odds as if he is driven by forces inside himself that he cannot control. Kitses’ second point is that Mann was an early pioneer of location work on Hollywood pictures in the 1940s and that this carried on into his Westerns. It could be argued that the same interest in ‘driven’ heroic characters carried on into the 1960s ‘epics’. Certainly there are elements of Mann’s personal approach in The Heroes of Telemark and these make the film into a successful conventional narrative film. But perhaps something is also lost about the group/community resistance work?

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