Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Red Danube

Turner Classic Movies has been running Oscar winning or nominated films this month in the lead up to this year's Academy Awards.  This has afforded me the chance to watch such movies as One of Our Planes is Missing, The Lion in Winter, The Guns of Naverone, The Day of the Jackal, and The Train.  One that really caught my notice was called The Red Danube.

What first caught my attention was the cast for this film.  Walter Pigeon, Angela Lansbury, Peter Lawford, Janet Leigh, and Ethel Barrymore.  Talk about some heavy artillery in the stars department.  Then the premise hooked me.  1945 Vienna and a British Colonel has to turn over a refugee who is a star Soviet ballerina.

Water Pigeon is Col. Hooky Nicobar.  He has lost an arm and in the recent war he lost his only son.  He has become cynical and very doubtful there is such a thing as God.  He has Peter Lawford as Major McPhimister who has no luck in finding true love.  Angela Lansbury is Audrey Quail who keeps the office running with the help of an experienced NCO.  Nicobar takes his team from Rome to Vienna to help the Allied powers administer divided Austria and help with refugees.

Nicobar's first shock is where they are billeted- in a convent.  Ethel Barrymore as the Mother Superior is outstanding.  She has a somewhat eclectic concept of her faith.  She is not afraid to spar with Nicobar and has a sense of humor.  Some argue the conversations Pigeon and Barrymore have about faith, God, and humanity slow this movie down.  This argument would be valid if this was Transformers.  It's not, it is a movie about average people caught in difficult circumstances.

It is in the convent that the focus of the story emerges in the form of Maria Buhlen played by Janet Leigh. It seems Maria has been given sanctuary when these British soldiers move in.   Twingo, as Lawford's character is nicknamed, becomes smitten by her.  And she also falls for the dashing British officer.

Of course things have to get bad.  The Soviets demand that all Soviet refugees be returned to the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Colonel promises Nicobar that Maria, aka Olga, will be treated with great fanfare upon her return since she is a ballerina.  Nicobar has orders to cooperate with the Soviets so Maria is turned over to them.  Twingo becomes a British officer going through the motions.  As Nicobar goes to notify another Soviet refugee he has to return, the reality of what he is doing is brought home.  The refugee proceeds to shoot himself.  To rub his nose further into how dirty the business is, Nicobar is informed by the Soviet Colonel the USSR considers anyone who does not want to return a subversive.  Historical note - being labeled a subversive at this time, 1945, by the USSR would mean either a bullet or a trip to a gulag.

So Nicobar finds himself doubting his whole mission while also opening up to the Mother Superior about his faith issues.  Especially since his last letter from his son before the young man was shot down included a note that he was joining the Church of England.

Nicobar is so enraged over the whole sordid mess of sending unwilling people back to the USSR he fires off a memo decrying the whole situation in the strongest terms.  To reinforce his new found opinion of the Soviets, the Soviets dump into the British sector a train full of refugees that are all old or disabled thus saddling the British with taking care of them.  Did I mention this whole movie is happening during the winter of 1945?

Some observations on this movie.  When Nicobar and the Soviet Colonel are sparring over whether democracy or communism is better, one turn of phrase made my ears prick up.  The Soviet officer says something like 'when you want to take oil, you dress it up.  When we want oil, we just say so.'  Can we blame this movie for the whole 'no blood for oil' mantra?  Miklos Rozsa, better know for his musical masterpiece Ben-Hur, did the score for this movie.  The general that Nicobar fires off his memo to is played by Alan Napier, who is better known in the States for his role as Alfred in the 1960's TV series Batman.  And until one airport scene, the viewer is pretty certain they are in Vienna.  The jarring nudge saying filmed in California is when Nicobar flies back to Rome for a conference and a derelict three-color camouflage US Navy TBF Avenger is in the scene.  Later when Nicobar and his team are being sent back to England in a Dakota in the background is seen what appears to be the wingless fuselage of a Blenheim bomber.

Suffice to say I did like this movie a lot.  TCM, at this time, does not have this movie listed for sale.  They really should.

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