Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Price Of Courage

The Mortal Storm(1940)
Director: Frank Borzage
Cast: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Robert Young, Frank Morgan

Oftentimes, here on Monster Mania, I find myself deviating from the norms of reviewing horror and genre pictures, to focus on classic films, since I am very fond of cinema as a whole. However, it's not that these non-genre efforts are not always relative, for The Mortal Storm ca be p perceived to be as frightening as any Hollywood horror film.
Today, this film will be seen by many as a mere propaganda piece, popular during the time, but few were made before 1941 and almost none were told with the sort of honesty as this one. Frank Borzage is a director that has been unfairly neglected in recent years, a man responsible for several film classics, including one of my favorite pre-code pictures, A Man's Castle(1933), which was reviewed on this blog last summer.
I've never quite understood why this particular film does not receive more recognition, though i'd have to venture it has something to do with perception and the jaded views of a modern audience. That's a pity, because for those versed in the subject, The Mortal Storm is a fine film and even if one is a novice on World War Two, it's still damn fine entertainment.

The film begins in 1933, with a beautifully delivered monologue about man's insecurities and fears, the background a sky of lovely clouds, which is eerily reminiscent of Hitler's arrival in The Triumph of the Will(1934).
The location is southern Germany and we are introduced to a kindly family led by patriarch, Professor Roth(Frank Morgan), who delivers one of his finest performances. Today is his birthday and he celebrates with his family and is greeted at his University with an award and the cheers of his students. That same day, Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany and his young sons(Robert Stack and William T. Orr) are very excited, as is Fritz Malberg(Robert Young), the fiance of Roth's daughter, Freya(Margaret Sullavan), who does not share the enthusiasm.She shares this belief with Martin Breiner(James Stewart) who does not agree with the ideologies expressed by the Nazi party.

In rapid succession, the peaceful town becomes populated with political radicalism of every sort, as Hitler's expressed nationality spreads like a plague, turning people against one another and leaving Stewart's farmer to remain in the mountains with his mother(Maria Ouspenskya of The Wolf Man). When he does return to town, he finds nothing but hatred and persecution, including the beating of a kindly old teacher, who refused to sing the anthem of the National Socialist Party. Things only get worse, as Roth's sons turn more cold and distant and the Professor finds himself an outcast in his own university, when the Nazi party refuses to believe that there are no differences between Aryan and non-Aryan blood. This leads to a massive bonfire, where all educational books are tossed in, including scientists and philosophers. It's a disturbing and disquieting scene. Shortly thereafter, the good Professor is imprisoned for his viewpoints and Martin escapes to Austria with the persecuted teacher(whom we suspect to be Jewish) and they head to Austria by skis, as Martin knows a hidden pass.

In a touching scene, Mrs. Roth(Irene Rich) is able to visit her husband in prison and finds him greatly aged and pained, as he tries to remain optimistic of his eventual release, which never comes. News arrives that he has indeed perished and this prompts the family to leave, but Freya is stopped midway to Austria, as she is carrying her father's notes with her, as such things are considered dangerous. Escaping the Nazis, she rejoins Martin, who has returned home, and they embark on a trip to Austria. Fritz is ordered to go and stop them, against his will, and before they can reach the border, Freya is shot by his men and dies in Martin's arms. Fritz is devastated and tearfully tells her brothers, as he leaves, they're now empty home. Robert Stack's character has by now lost most of his passion for the Reich and expresses the wish that they will be stopped someday. The final scene is devastating, as the camera pans over the empty home, the voices of the past fill the air like ghosts, asking for peace and wishful prosperity. It's a very powerful conclusion to an exceptionally dramatic and potent cinematic work.

To be honest, i'm surprised that MGM had the balls to make this. MGM often served the lowest common denominator, especially after the demise of Irving Thalberg, and the studio's films were often known for being too clean and overly moralizing. On the surface, The Mortal Storm, appears to be another propaganda flick and Hollywood product, but there's a measure of honesty running through it all that has made it stand the test of time remarkably well.
The performances are all above average, including Sullavan, in her last film with James Stewart, who is really quite poignant here. She's really the main character here and her character represents what many Germans were powerless to stop. Her final scene with Stewart is especially powerful and a great screen moment.
Admittedly, it's strange to see Robert Young and Ward Bond(!) as Nazis, but the point is made that the horror of the Third Reich were how normal, everyday people could be transformed into monsters and that this could very well happen to us.
It's interesting that the word, "Jew" is never uttered, but it surely is implied, especially towards Roth and the teacher. Not that it matters, for the prejudice and attitude towards those with free will is the point and this picture displays one of the Third Reich's great failings. Conquest was one thing, but the deplorable waste of human talent during the Final Solution, was another. Morgan is a good man, one that any country could be proud of. Rather than exploit that fact, this regime decides to punish it and that was a crucial error in Hitler's mad plan and just one of the many things that would bring about destruction of his "Thousand Year Reich."
Amazingly, The Mortal Storm was considered by most Americans upon release as being unrealistic, as most just did not know the full horror of the Nazis. They believed that the Third Reich had been "demonized" by warmongering, sword rattlers, but in a few years, they'd know the truth.
In many ways, The Mortal Storm is an important film, representative of a moment in time, that should not be overlooked, while also standing apart from many later films for it's own honesty and courage. This is not an easy film, rather it's a beguiling one, and even if certain aspects seem dated now, the message isn't and that's an indication of great art.

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