Decision Before Dawn

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 American Army's using potentially unreliable German prisoners of war to gather intelligence 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 Howe.

Decision Before Dawn
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAnatole Litvak
Produced byAnatole Litvak
Frank McCarthy
Screenplay byPeter Viertel
Based onthe 1949 novel Call It Treason
by George Howe
StarringRichard Basehart
Gary Merrill
Oskar Werner
Hildegard Knef
Narrated byRichard Basehart
Music byFranz Waxman
CinematographyFranz Planer
Edited byDorothy Spencer
Distributed byTwentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Release date
  • December 21, 1951 (1951-12-21)
Running time
119 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1.55 million (US rentals)[1]


By late 1944, it is obvious that the Germans will lose the war. American Colonel Devlin (Gary Merrill) leads a military intelligence unit that recruits German prisoners of war to spy on their former comrades. "Tiger" (Hans Christian Blech), a cynical, older thief and ex-circus worker, is willing to work for the winning side. On the other hand, "Happy" (Oskar Werner) is a young idealist who volunteers to spy after his friend is killed by fanatical fellow prisoners for voicing doubts about the war's outcome. Monique (Dominique Blanchar) trains Happy and the others in espionage techniques; she takes a liking to the young man despite her hatred for Germans.

One day, Devlin receives word that a German general is willing to negotiate the surrender of his entire corps. Naturally, this is given top priority; because of the importance of the mission, an American officer has to go along. Devlin selects Lieutenant Rennick (Richard Basehart), a newcomer who distrusts the German turncoats. Tiger is chosen because he is the only one who knows the area, but he is under suspicion after returning from his last mission without his teammate. Happy is assigned the related task of locating the 11th Panzer Corps, which might oppose the wholesale defection. They parachute out of the same plane into Germany, then split up.

In the course of his search on bus and train rides, in guest houses and taverns, and in military convoys braving Allied air raids, Happy encounters Germans with differing attitudes towards the war, some still defiant, such as Waffen-SS courier Scholtz (Wilfried Seyferth), and some resigned, like the young war widow Hilde (Hildegard Knef). Happy accomplishes his mission by a stroke of luck. Posing as a medic returning to his unit, he is commandeered to treat Oberst von Ecker (O.E. Hasse), the commander of the 11th Panzer, at his castle headquarters. Von Ecker orders the execution of a loyal officer who had deserted to help his bombed-out family. Happy has an opportunity to inject von Ecker with a lethal overdose of heart medicine before he signs the man's death warrant, but does not do so.

Afterwards, Happy narrowly escapes being captured by the Gestapo. He makes his way to a safe house in the ruins of the heavily bombed Mannheim, where the other two agents are hiding out. Meanwhile, Tiger and Rennick have learned that the general they were to contact was supposedly injured, but the hospital where he has been taken is under SS guard; without him, the other German officers cannot and will not surrender to the Allies.

Their radio is knocked out, so Happy, Tiger, and Rennick are forced to try to swim across the heavily defended Rhine River to get to the American lines with the vital information. At the last moment, Tiger loses his nerve and runs away, forcing Rennick to shoot him. He and Happy then swim to an island in the middle of the river. When they start for the other shore, they are spotted by the German defenders. Happy creates a diversion, is captured and executed as a deserter, but his sacrifice enables the lieutenant to make it to safety, with a changed attitude about some Germans.


Klaus Kinski had a minor, uncredited role at the very beginning of the film. He is interviewed as a volunteer by the Allies.


The cities of Würzburg, Nuremberg, and Mannheim where some of the picture was shot were warned via newspaper and radio announcements when battle scenes, some of which were overseen by the U.S. Air Force, were to be filmed.[2]


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."[3]

Bob Thomas praised the film in his 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.

Chicago Reader reviewer 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."[5] However, Jones applauded Werner's "magnetic performance" and thought that Knef "is devastating in her brief turn as a war-weary hooker."[5]

It was nominated for the Best Picture. Dorothy Spencer was nominated for Best Film Editing.


  1. 'Top Box-Office Hits of 1952', Variety, January 7, 1953
  2. "Decision Before Dawn (1951) - Articles". Retrieved 2018-01-21.
  3. Emanuel Levy (January 24, 2008). "Decision Before Dawn (1951): Best Picture Oscar-Nominated War Film".
  4. Bob Thomas (December 24, 1951). "Hollywood". Santa Cruz Sentinel.
  5. J. R. Jones. "Decision Before Dawn". Chicago Reader.
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