They Who Dare Review
Lewis Milestone is not a name that nowadays has much resonance with your average cinema goer, but during his lifetime he was one of the more highly regarded “for hire” directors working. Born in Russia at the turn of the century, he started off his filmic career making training videos for the US Army (with exciting titles such as Posture) before heading out to Hollywood, where he became the first director to win an Oscar, at the inaugural ceremony, for Two Arabian Nights. He went on to cement his reputation in 1930 when he produced the great All Quiet on the Western Front, a pacifist tract for which he was rewarded his second Oscar. Unfortunately it was largely downhill from there and by the early 1950s he’d settled into a rut of churning out unmemorable B pictures. Understandably, given the success of All Quiet, many of these were war based films, and in 1953 he returned again to the genre, producing They Who Dare and in the process cast a young Dirk Bogarde.
The film follows a group of Allied soldiers infilitrating Fascist-held Rhodes in 1941. Their mission is to simultaneously disable two Luftwaffe airbases on the island, to prevent the Nazi airmen coming to the aid of Rommel in the forthcoming conflict in North Africa. From the moment they are dropped off on the island under cover of darkness, they have four days to carry out their orders and return to the designated rendezvous point to get away on a submarine. To ensure they do not lose their way, they take along with them several Greeks who know the island’s geography well, companions who have the added bonus that, should they encounter any locals, will ensure they are welcomed and not handed over to the enemy.
Their leader in this risky venture is one Lt Graham, (Dirk Bogarde), an uninspiring commander if ever there was one. From the moment he moves in and smugly steals a girl away from the more sympathetic Lt Poole (Russell Enoch), to the point near the end where he refuses to even try and warn fellow officers they are walking into a trap, he is a man who endears himself neither to his men nor the viewers. He’s also a bit of a rotten leader, seeming to spend most of his time throwing his hands up in the air and proclaiming things like “the whole thing’s a flop”, which is not the most encouraging thing to hear when you’re deep in enemy country. He seems to have no idea how to lead men, a trait most graphically illustrated in the scene where the two parties are about to split up, each heading for their own target and not knowing whether they'll ever see the other group again. In situations like this you would expect a commanding officer to come out with something stirring and heart-warming, an inspirational speech designed to encourage you to do the best you can or, if he’s not the wordiest sort of guy, at least a “Good luck chaps, you can do it,” followed by a round of firm handshakes and stiff upper lips. Not Lt Graham though. His rallying cry, and this is it in its entirety, consists of: “What I want to say I don’t know how to say,” after which he tails off uncomfortably. Therein follows an embarrassed silence before rescue comes from a mad sergeant who starts singing about Confucius. I suppose you could forgive poor man management skills if he was an expert soldier in the field - sadly, once again he comes up short. How short I won’t say as the raid is, after all, what the film builds up to, but suffice to say that the viewer comes away with the feeling that frankly they would have been better off with one of the Greek’s mothers leading the assault.. The man is, as one of his subordinates might have put it, a bit of an ass, and frustratingly the movie seems quite happy to make this point without developing it or offering any kind of resolution. Near the end Sgt Corcoran (Denholm Elliott) lets Graham know exactly what he thinks of him, but there is no follow up to it, no progression to the character at all.
Of course, this being a war film you would not expect deep characterisation, and as is usual for pictures made in this era we are given the usual one-dimensional grunts, each being assigned their own quirk with which to distinguish them. We have the laughably clichéd Evans the Welsh man, the sergeant (mentioned above) who sings silly songs in moments of stress, a Greek who laughs no matter what is said to him. The difficulty is that at times it is rather hard to distinguish several of the men as they are all so similar, a problem that is most obvious near the end when it's unclear who’s getting away and who isn’t. The actors do little to distinguish themselves – Dirk Bogarde, whose very next film was to be Doctor in the House, is a bit of a wet blanket here, while Denholm Elliot is hardly noticeable through most of the proceedings, only coming into his own at the climax. The most sympathetic character is undoubtedly Poole, with Russell Enoch (who went on to become one of Doctor Who’s first companions) playing him as a straight, sensible sort of chap who can keep his head, while Tamiroff is given little to do but wince in pain and look brave.
The script is perfectly adequate for this sort of film, getting the characters from A to B to C, the only slight complaint being the unsatisfactory fate of some of the characters near the end. One potential source of interest is the conflict between the British soldiers and their Greek companions. There are many comments from our brave lads about how stupid Johnny Foreigner is (“What can you do with these people?” asks an exasperated private at one point) while the Greeks, in their turn, watch some of the British actions with amusement tinged with exasperation. For example, in one scene when the group acquire some food following a period of starvation, one of the Greeks remark with a shake of the head how quickly the soldiers’ spirits perk up as long as they have “a mouthful of water and a bite of bread.” Again this isn’t something that is explored in any depth, but if one looks hard enough the theme of general cooperation can be faintly discerned – all the locals (bar one rather confused looking little old lady) help our heroes elude capture, and in Akim Tamiroff we have a character who presses on bravely without telling anybody that there is a real possibility he might be bleeding to death. An interesting social document about attitudes and casual racism at the time (the most telling element being that none of the Greek characters are actually played by Greeks) but the subject is only skimmed.
Perhaps the problem is I am looking too deep. This is, after all, a typical World War II film from a time when they were being churned out on a production line. Generally people didn’t go to these films to see detailed characterisations, they went to see Boy’s Own escapades, the Allies pulling together to score one off the evil Hun. Therefore, the real question we should be asking is how does it fare to similar films from the period? The answer is not too badly – it does what it sets out to do, tell a stirring story of a group of men fighting difficult odds to help fight the great fight – and if the ending is a little more dour than some that shouldn’t come as any great surprise – after all, war is a bad business and filmgoers weren’t going to be allowed to forget the sacrifices that brave Tommy went through to ensure their freedom. The raids on the bases are quite exciting, and the scenery looks rather nice. Although anonymous, the acting is perfectly fine, with the soldiers feeling like soldiers, although it is difficult to say that Dirk Bogarde makes any sort of impression here, despite what he was going to go on to do.
As for Lewis Milestone, after this film he turned to the emerging TV industry, which was more open to a journeyman director such as himself, working on the famous Western series Have Gun, Will Travel. He did register twice more on the filmic radar however – firstly with Rat Pack runaround Ocean’s Eleven and then as replacement to Carol Reed in the infamous Mutiny on the Bounty remake - before disappearing off into obscurity forever. They Who Dare is a good example of the large majority of his output – a bog standard 1950s war flick, committing no great crimes but not doing anything to stay in the memory either. For those that enjoy this genre this will provide an enjoyable diversion, but in the end it remains as anonymous as its characters.
They Who Dare comes on a single-sided, single layer DVD with no extras. The menus are static with no sound, with the only options being to Play Movie or Select Scene. Please note there are no subtitles at all.
Pretty rotten. The transfer comes from an unclean print with multiple white specks affecting every scene, complimented occasionally by even worse film artefacts. The picture is soft and often unfocused, and colours during night scenes are undefined, making it difficult to see what is going on. The best that can be said is there’s little sign of any DVD-specific video problems on the film.
A crackly, mono soundtrack. Music comes across okay, and voices are never lost, although there is sometimes some muffling.
The kind of film that pops up on television on weekday afternoons, They Who Dare is an unremarkable entry into the canon of 1950s war films. For those with an affinity for this kind of film this will suffice as a diversion, but there is not much to recommend it over other, far superior, titles that are out there, especially coming on a vanilla disk such as this.