War movies, in my opinion, are one of the rarities in film, where the most recent pics are usually the best ones. I need only cite films such as Full Metal Jacket, We Were Soldiers, and Saving Private Ryan to argue my cause effectively. But that doesn’t mean all of the older ones were bad. Most were because they took more of a silly ra-ra viewpoint in relation to the reality of war. They didn’t show the nasty details because, in many ways, they were recruiting tools. But Decision Before Dawn> was one earlier work, which took chances with its dramatization. This 1951 film refuses to jump on any bandwagons, instead telling a captivating, and sometimes tragic, story about a strange kind of hero… one that comes not from within our own ranks, but from those of our World War II enemies. In fact, the main character of Decision Before Dawn is a captured Nazi soldier, who makes the decision to spy for the U.S. army – not for freedom, but redemption.
It’s no wonder a film such as this was nominated for the 1951 Best Picture – and it’s also no surprise it didn’t win. This type of subject matter has never been able to avoid controversy, and the Academy hates to honor controversy. However, director Anatole Litvak’s handling of the George Howe novel Call It Treason makes for an exciting and tasteful motion picture that was sure to win over audiences – even in its time – with the tale of Lieutenant Rennick, a German POW, who has agreed to go back to his home country and betray his old side to the Allies. Tension builds as Litvak plays with the possibilities of trust. Neither the Allies nor the Nazis know what to think of Rennick, and for a time, neither do we. But as the film progresses, Rennick shows there may be more to his decision of assisting the Allies than simply the proverbial “get out of jail free” card. He’s one well-drawn character at the center of an important motion picture, which dared to paint an uglier face on war, and call in to question the line between treason and heroism.
Presented in its original full frame, Decision Before Dawn suffers somewhat from blotchy patches of grain throughout. Sometimes it adds to the effect; sometimes it doesn’t. However, the image is still pretty strong despite the occasional pop or cigarette burn. I have to think Fox could have done more with this disc, but what we receive is hardly unwatchable. The strongest attribute to the film visually are its authentic settings. Litvak actually got to shoot his film in the war-torn lands where the story actually happened. In this regard, he has captured a uniqueness that no other film, or filmmaker, will ever be able to recreate.
The 2.0 track is the best on the disc – clear, but dull. Action is never too dynamic. However, dialogue really serves as a strong point. Still, the track shows its age alongside the video quality, and more care could have been taken. But keep in mind, the entire disc is pretty no-frills, and the cheapness of its sale price doesn’t really elevate expectations from any audiophiles out there. I’m willing to bet that if you like this movie, the three tracks here will suffice. English and Spanish monos are also available.
Two Fox Movietone Clips are provided in the bonus area to remind us of how badly the film could have looked and sounded. A slew of war movie trailers are also provided, including the film’s original.
There isn’t much shaking on the technical end – nor are the bonus materials in abundance. But good films are good films, no matter how pretty their packaging. It’s sad this couldn’t have garnered a little more fanfare, but with nearly one hundred years of filmmaking under our belts, it’s only natural a few will slip through the cracks. We can at least rejoice in Decision Before Dawn‘s arrival to the digital format, where, hopefully, it will be preserved for all time. Let’s also hope that the small price tag will lead a resurgence in the film’s popularity. Audiences need to know that filmmakers of today aren’t the only ones, who have taken chances, when it comes to war. A job well done, Mr. Litvak.