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Decision Before Dawn

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Decision Before Dawn
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAnatole Litvak
Screenplay byPeter Viertel
Based onCall It Treason
by George Howe
Produced by
Narrated byRichard Basehart
CinematographyFranz Planer
Edited byDorothy Spencer
Music byFranz Waxman
Distributed by20th Century-Fox
Release date
  • December 21, 1951 (1951-12-21)
Running time
119 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1.55 million (US rentals)[1]

Decision Before Dawn is a 1951 American war film directed by Anatole Litvak, starring Richard Basehart, Oskar Werner, and Hans Christian Blech. It tells the story of the U.S. Army using potentially unreliable German prisoners of war to gather intelligence as clandestine "line-crossers" in the closing days of World War II. The film was adapted by Peter Viertel and Jack Rollens (uncredited) from the novel Call It Treason by George L. Howe. The film was a critical success and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

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By late 1944, as the Allies march toward the Rhine, it is obvious Germany will lose the war. American Colonel Devlin (Gary Merrill) leads a military intelligence unit that enlists German POWs to cross back over and spy on their former comrades. "Tiger" (Hans Christian Blech), a cynical mercenary, is one such recruit. There is also "Happy" (Oskar Werner), a young, idealistic medical student. Monique (Dominique Blanchar), a former resistance operative, trains Happy and others in espionage techniques. Later, Devlin learns a Wehrmacht general wants to negotiate surrender of his entire command. Thus, a mission is organized. Devlin selects Lieutenant Rennick (Richard Basehart) to lead. He is a man who hates turncoats on both sides of the war. Tiger is chosen; he knows the area well. Happy is given a related task of locating the 11th Panzer Corps, which might oppose the mass surrender. All three parachute into Germany, then split up.

During his search Happy encounters Germans with differing attitudes towards the war. On buses and trains, in guest houses and taverns, he meets the still defiant, such as SS courier Scholtz (Wilfried Seyferth), and the resigned, like Hilde (Hildegard Knef), a war widow turned hooker. Eventually, Happy locates the 11th Panzer, posing as a medic. He is commandeered to treat its commander, Oberst von Ecker (O.E. Hasse), at his castle headquarters. Afterwards, Happy narrowly escapes capture by the Gestapo. He makes his way to a safe house in the ruins of heavily-bombed Mannheim, where Rennick and Tiger hide out. They have learned that the German commander they were to contact has supposedly been injured and in a hospital under SS guard; without him, the other German officers cannot and will not surrender to the Allies.

After their radio is knocked out, Happy, Tiger, and Rennick make their way to the banks of the Rhine, where they plan to swim across to American lines. At the last moment, however, Tiger loses his nerve and runs away, forcing Rennick to kill him, lest their mission be revealed. As Rennick and Happy are about to swim for the opposite shore, they are spotted. Facing torture and execution, Happy nonetheless bravely draws the Germans' attention away from Rennick by surrendering. His sacrifice enables the lieutenant to make it to safety. Thus Rennick survives, with his previous ideas on "treason" now challenged.



The film was adapted from the novel Call it Treason, which was based on the wartime experiences of the author George L. Howe, who served with the Office of Strategic Services unit attached to the Seventh Army during World War II. [2]

The citizens of the cities of Würzburg, Nürnberg, and Mannheim, where some of the picture's battle scenes were shot, were forewarned of their filming by newspaper and radio announcements. Some were overseen by the U.S. military, as Germany was still under military occupation at the time the film was shot.[3]


At the 24th Academy Awards, Decision Before Dawn was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, with Dorothy Spencer nominated for Best Film Editing.

Bob Thomas praised the film in his 1951 newspaper column, describing it as "movie-making at its best. ... By using the real German cities and people, this film has created a stirring and realistic picture of a dying nation."[4] He also praised the performances of Basehart, Merrill and Werner.

Upon seeing the film, General Douglas MacArthur said "This is the finest picture I have seen this year, and I nominate it for an Academy Award."[5]

In a 2006 review, Chicago Reader film critic J.R. Jones was less enthused, writing "By the time Fox released this 1952 feature, the patriotic orthodoxy of Hollywood war movies had softened enough to allow for a German hero, but not a very engaging one; the inherent drama of his divided loyalty is mostly bypassed in favor of a slack espionage plot."[6] However, Jones applauded Werner's "magnetic performance" and thought that Knef "is devastating in her brief turn as a war-weary hooker."[6]

In 2008 Emanuel Levy called Decision Before Dawn a "stirring drama ... And while not made as an explicitly agit-prop, it does convey its humanist anti-war message, without the usual sentimentality."[7]


  1. ^ "Top Box-Office Hits of 1952", Variety, January 7, 1953
  2. ^ Driscoll Jr., Edgar J. (21 June 1977). "George L. Howe, 79, Was Architect, Author, OSS Officer in World War II". The Boston Globe. p. 36. Retrieved 29 February 2024 – via
  3. ^ "Decision Before Dawn (1951) - Articles". Retrieved 2018-01-21.
  4. ^ Bob Thomas (December 24, 1951). "Hollywood". Santa Cruz Sentinel.
  5. ^ Los Angeles Times, January 12, 1952, p. 12
  6. ^ a b J.R. Jones (May 26, 2006). "Decision Before Dawn". Chicago Reader.
  7. ^ Emanuel Levy (January 24, 2008). "Decision Before Dawn (1951): Best Picture Oscar-Nominated War Film".

External links

This page was last edited on 31 March 2024, at 20:29
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