Friday, October 06, 2017

Dawn (2014 digital transfer by EYE Film Institute)

Dawn (GB 1928). Sybil Thorndike as Edith Cavell. Photo: Cinémathèque royale de Belgique / Koninklijk Belgisch Filmarchief, Brussels

Edith Cavell, "Englannin valkoinen sisar" / La Tragédie de Miss Cavell [title of the print]. GB 1928, D: Herbert Wilcox, scen: Herbert Wilcox, Robert Cullen, based on  the story by Reginald Berkeley, photog: Bernard Knowles, des: Clifford Pember, cast: Sybil Thorndike (Edith Cavell), Ada Bodart (herself), Gordon Craig (Philippe Bodart), Marie Ault (Madame Rappard), Mary Brough (Madame Pitou), Mickey Brantford (Jacques Rappard), Richard Worth (Jean Pitou), Colin Bell (Widow Deveaux), Dacia Deane (Madame Deveaux’s daughter), Cecil Barry (Col. Schultz), Frank Perfitt (General von Zauberzweig), Haddon Mason (Assistant Provost Marshal), Griffith Humphrey (President of the Court Martial), Edward O’Neill (Priest), Edward Sorley (German soldier Rammler), prod: Herbert Wilcox Productions, British & Dominion Film Corporation, DCP (from 35 mm, incomp.), 91 min, titles: FRA, NLD; final reel: 35 mm, 1040 ft, 14 min (20 fps), titles: ENG, source: DCP: Cinémathèque royale de Belgique, Bruxelles; final reel: BFI National Archive, London.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone: Canon Revisited.
    Grand piano: Stephen Horne, also at the drums and the flute.
    Teatro Verdi, e-subtitles in English and Italian, 6 Oct 2017.

Daniël Biltereyst, Bruno Mestdagh (GCM 2017): "Although Herbert Wilcox’s Dawn (1928) is rarely revived, it was one of the most controversial feature films of the 1920s. Dawn tells the story of British nurse Edith Cavell, shot at dawn by the Germans on 12 October 1915 in Brussels for setting up a rescue network for Allied soldiers. During the First World War, Cavell became a world-wide propaganda icon and her death was used as a compelling story illustrating German war atrocities in Belgium. In particular, the circumstances of Cavell’s execution played a crucial part in British propaganda around the brave martyr. Contributing to this narrative was the myth that a certain private Rammler, supposedly part of the German firing squad, refused to shoot and was executed as well, followed by Cavell’s fainting and subsequent fatal blow from the commanding officer’s revolver."

"Wilcox’s Dawn was not the first feature film based on Cavell (these include Nurse and Martyr, GB 1915, and The Woman the Germans Shot, US 1918), but it was certainly the most hotly debated one. This was partly due to Wilcox’s intention to make a realistic and historically accurate film. Although most of the shooting was done at London’s Cricklewood Studios, Wilcox included original archive material and location footage from the Belgian capital. The realistic touch was also visible in Clifford Pember’s set designs (based on existing photographs and visits to locations in Brussels), in the chronological narrative, and even the choice of actors: one of Cavell’s collaborators, Ada Bodart, played herself, while the role of Cavell was given to prominent actress Sybil Thorndike, who bore a physical resemblance to the nurse. In addition, Wilcox tried to draw a more balanced picture of the Germans, who mostly play secondary roles as bureaucratic executors of a heartless war machine. However, Dawn’s portrayal of Germans remains ambivalent, best illustrated by the execution scene, shown in Pordenone in two versions."

"The Dawn controversy started in September 1927, when British newspapers reported on Wilcox’s intention to make a new movie based on Cavell. The report was repeated abroad, resulting in intense international diplomatic activities which lasted for several months. Besides the fear that Dawn could revive anti-German sentiments, both the German and British governments saw the film as a threat to the normalization of international relations following the October 1925 Locarno Treaties. The announcement of a new British Cavell movie threatened Britain’s role as a broker between the Continental powers, and Germany asked that the film’s production be stopped, although the British Foreign Office claimed the government had no censorship powers. Germany made similar requests in Belgium, where Wilcox started shooting in October 1927. Although it’s not clear to what extent the director was affected by pressure from the authorities, it is known that Pauline Frederick, in Brussels to play Cavell, suddenly withdrew from the project, according to Wilcox due to pressures from the German embassy."

"Dawn became a major diplomatic problem, though the results varied within each country. In the British case, Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain publicly denounced the movie and pressured the president of the British Board of Film Censors. When the BBFC effectively banned the film in February 1928 on grounds of public expediency, press comments suggested this was a result of German pressure. Early in April 1928, after a long all-night sitting, the London City Council gave permission for Dawn to be shown for adults, though only once cuts were made, particularly in the execution scene."

"In Belgium, the Dawn affair was headline news for several weeks, especially after the government refused to agree to German demands, with the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Paul Hymans arguing that his government could not intervene. But unlike in Britain, the Belgian censors accepted the movie for public screening, even for children and without cuts. This uncensored version, which had its world premiere in Brussels’ biggest cinema, the Agora, on 9 March 1928, depicted Rammler’s disobedience and execution by the commanding officer (off-screen), followed by Cavell lying on the ground, ending with a shot of Cavell’s grave."

"At one point the Cinémathèque royale had two nitrate prints of the Belgian release version, one of which was discovered in a treasure trove of more than one hundred silent films acquired in 1984 from a fairground manager. The archive then embarked on a restoration plan that involved evaluating the precarious condition of both prints, both affected by partial nitrate decomposition. A preservation and a projection print were made using the best material from each source. Then in 2012, when the European Film Gateway’s EFG1914 project offered archives the chance to compare their First World War film lists, it was discovered that the EYE Filmmuseum and the Deutsche Kinemathek also had material on this title. By coincidence, the Dutch version was missing the last reel, whereas the German footage consisted solely of the last reel, with Dutch intertitles. This new material was examined in Brussels, where the Berlin material enabled the Cinémathèque royale to complete the execution scene truncated in the Brussels fairground print. Thanks to the EFG1914 digitization project, the internegative of the new restoration was scanned and the film made available on DCP
. Daniël Biltereyst, Bruno Mestdagh"

"The Belgian print will be screening with the very final scene of the British “version”, which is held at the BFI National Archive in its form as passed by the British Board of Film Censors. This tones down the disobedience of Private Rammler – we don’t see him shot, even off-screen, and titles cover the final action giving Cavell’s words, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no bitterness towards anyone.” Such anti-war sentiment fell in line with post-Locarno British government policy." Bryony Dixon


Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.

Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

– Henry Francis Lyte (hymn quoted in the intertitles and played by Stephen Horne in the finale)

In the context of the centenary of World War I this film based on a true story provides an account of everyday courage and genuine dignity. Dawn is a resistance film in which the protagonists are women.

There is often an approach of almost documentary realism. The location footage is excellent. The film is a thriller, but the suspense is based on the reality of danger in organizing a people smuggling network in German occupied Brussels. A sneeze can be fatal. Looks and hand signs convey crucial messages.

There are instances of a fine sense of mise-en-scène by the director Herbert Wilcox and his cinematographer Bernard Knowles. Dawn was one of Knowles's first films, but already here we can sense some of the touch he brought to the Alfred Hitchcock classics 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Sabotage, and Young and Innocent, not forgetting the original Gaslight by Thorold Dickinson. Wilcox's last film assignment was as the uncredited director of Magical Mystery Tour (1967) next to the credited The Beatles.

In the best scenes of Dawn there is something of the austere intensity of a Dreyer or a Bresson, including of their interpretations of the tragedy of Jeanne d'Arc.

The finale is deeply moving. The dignity of Socrates comes to mind in the way Edith Cavell faces the German firing squad. Especially in her attitude of transcending the circumstances: "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no bitterness towards anyone".

Stephen Horne contributed a deeply felt musical interpretation. In the finale his theme was, as indicated in the intertitles, the hymn "Abide with Me", written in 1847 by Henry Francis Lyte and composed in 1861 by William Henry Monk as "Eventide" (and yes, there is also a Thelonious Monk interpretation, and even a John Coltrane one). Nurse Edith Cavell is said to have sung this hymn the evening before she was shot. It was also one of the final tunes of the orchestra of The Titanic. In Finland the tune is known as hymn 555, "Oi Herra, luoksein jää".

Dame Sybil Thorndike was one of the greatest actresses. Her career lasted from 1893 until 1970. Her main career was always in the theatre, but I have seen her also in films such as Stage Fright (1950) and The Magic Box (1951). Perhaps her most often revived film is The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). She got on well with Marilyn Monroe, and in My Week with Marilyn she is portrayed by Judi Dench. These are marginal accomplishments in comparison with Dawn.

In Herbert Wilcox's sound remake Nurse Edith Cavell (1939) the leading role was played by Anna Neagle, Wilcox's wife and regular star in the 1930s.

In this special screening we saw first the full-length Belgian version and then the censored finale of the British version.

There are instances of overacting.

The cinematography is often excellent.

The visual quality in the screening was very watchable, sometimes with slightly duped look.

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