“AVENGING ANGELS to conquered peoples!”, the film’s trailer promised. “FIGHTING DEVILS to their foes! A never-to-be-forgotten emotional experience!”
For an event billed as a world premiere, the celebration was distinctly muted. The marquee was dark, the neon left unlit. No searchlights blazed the night sky. No Hollywood stars were in attendance, nor did invitees wear formal gowns and evening wear.
Eighty years ago this month, on December 17, 1942, a crowd gathered outside the Capitol Theatre in downtown Victoria. The cinema was showing the Columbia Pictures feature Commandos Strike at Dawn, a war movie intended to bolster patriotism on the home front.
About 1,400 spectators, most in military uniform, crowded into the movie house. Many had served as extras in the film, which had been shot at several locations on southern Vancouver Island.
Decades before British Columbia became known as Hollywood North, the island’s geography and the presence of military bases filled with trained soldiers who could be used as extras made Victoria the perfect site to film wartime entertainment—and propaganda. The armed merchant cruiser at the naval base in Esquimalt was an added attraction.
The movie tells the story of a Norwegian patriot who organizes a resistance against the brutal Nazi occupation of his fishing village, succeeding when a raid by Allied commandos overwhelms German troops defending an airfield. The screenplay was written by Irwin Shaw, who would become a bestselling novelist after the war, based on a fictional magazine story by the novelist C.S. Forester, later known for his Napoleonic Horatio Hornblower naval series.
Paul Muni starred as Eric Toresen, a Norwegian fisherman. Lillian Gish portrayed a housewife in her return to motion pictures after a decade on the stage. Anna Lee provided a love interest for Muni, while Sir Cedric Hardwicke showed a stiff upper lip as the rear admiral in charge of the raid. Ontario-born actor Alexander Knox played a villainous Nazi officer.
Commandos Strike at Dawn was directed by John Farrow, who had just completed filming on the war movie Wake Island, an action drama that would earn him an Academy Award nomination for best director. Farrow, who was born in Australia, travelled from Hollywood to Vancouver in 1939 to enlist in the navy (his father had seen action at bloody Gallipoli in the First World War.) The director served on anti-submarine patrols before contracting typhus, which led to invalidation from active service, though he remained in the reserves with the rank of lieutenant commander. Farrow was married to actress Maureen O’Sullivan, who, in 1945, gave birth to their child and first daughter, Maria de Lourdes Villiers Farrow, who would become a movie star as Mia Farrow.
A marina on the west side of Saanich Inlet was selected as the site for the Norwegian fishing village. Workers cast concrete steps down from the Malahat Highway to a waterfront locale where several temporary buildings were constructed. The seaside with a mountain backdrop resembled a Norwegian fjord.
The site was known informally as Stacey’s Boathouse after owner Percy Stacey. The public was invited to visit the set on weekend afternoons, and a modest admission fee (25 cents for adults and a dime for children) raised about $50 each weekend for the Canadian Red Cross. Dorothy Stacey, wife of the boathouse owner, sewed a quilt, which she then had the movie stars autograph. It was auctioned, raising an astounding $550 (about $9,500 in today’s dollars) for the Red Cross.
Like many families in the area, the Staceys had relatives serving overseas. Their son, Jack Stacey, a private, suffered a back injury while in the service and was sent home to British Columbia to recuperate in 1943.
Other exterior scenes were filmed at Heals Rifle Range in Saanich and the new air station at Patricia Bay outside Sidney. Interior scenes were shot in sets built inside the hall of the main exhibition building at Willows Fairgrounds.
Not surprisingly, the arrival of Hollywood crews excited the two daily newspapers, which published several stories about visiting actors and crew. A reporter was on hand when little Ann Carter, a six-year-old from California appearing in the movie, visited sick soldiers in hospital.
Despite the attention, not everyone was aware Hollywood had come to town.
Knox caused a sensation one morning when he strode through the lobby of the Empress Hotel in full German officer’s uniform followed by jackbooted stormtroopers. “Guests sitting about the lobby looked on in amazement,” the Victoria Daily Times reported, “rubbed their eyes and wondered, pondering over the possibilities of invasion and occupation.”
Knox also posed for a publicity shot in a barber’s chair at the hotel while wearing his Nazi uniform, including an Iron Cross medal. His eyes wide, he feigns nervousness as barber Jack Holyoake scrapes his neck with a straight razor.
The actor, who was born in Strathroy, about 35 kilometres west of London, Ontario, said he was looking forward to playing a heartless German officer. “I want to sneer and play tough,” he told the Daily Times. “It will be different to the roles I have been cast in recently. In my last picture, This Above All, I was cast as a clergyman.”
Knox was not the only uniformed actor mistaken for the real thing. Sir Cedric was mistaken for an admiral on the Esquimalt base, the First World War veteran returning salutes because it seemed “the polite thing to do.” The armed merchant cruiser Prince David steamed into Saanich Inlet, firing at pretend German shore batteries at Mill Bay before sending off assault boats crammed with Canadian soldiers.
For the big battle scenes, the filmmakers recruited soldiers from the Canadian Scottish, Royal Rifles of Canada, and Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury regiments. They handily overwhelmed German defenders portrayed by the 114th Veteran’s Guard. The troops were “dynamic,” the War Diary of the Royal Rifles noted, according to historian J.M.S. Careless. “They gave all they had to the performance, much to the delight of the producers.”
Not all critics shared the opinion of the regiment’s official war diarist. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times praised Muni’s “grim sincerity” as he organizes the villagers in resistance, though he found the commando raid of the title overdone.
“For the climactic raid of the Commandos is pretty much of a hoopla affair, much more in the style of the movies than it is of the raiders’ technique,” Crowther wrote. “In the first place, it doesn’t even come off at dawn, as the title suggests, but in broad and effulgent daylight for all the world to see. It pretends that a British transport could move right into a Norwegian fjord and land its troops within jumping distance of a Nazi airdrome without ever being detected, even in the full light of day. And it makes the raid a typical sock-and-bust-’em fight, with the Commandos sweeping in to rescue in good old United States Cavalry style.”
The movie was filmed just before—and released not long after—the disastrous Allied raid on Dieppe on August 19, 1942, an amphibious assault during which 907 Canadians were killed. With 1,946 soldiers taken prisoner, fewer than half the Canadians who embarked for Dieppe made it back to Britain. Those who attended the premiere, as well as moviegoers in Vancouver who saw it at the Orpheum, would have watched with knowledge of the dangers of a commando raid.
The Victoria debut came not long after Canadians wearily marked the third year of being at war. The province’s premier (John Hart) and lieutenant-general (W.C. Woodward) were in attendance, but the best-known figure was Major-General George Pearkes, who had won a Victoria Cross at Passchendaele in the First World War. In this war, the general oversaw Pacific defences. Before the movie began, Pearkes stepped onto the theatre’s stage to thank local citizens and the Gyro Club, a friendship fraternity still active today in the city, for showing hospitality to visiting soldiers.
“These men and women, including many who are French Canadians, are keeping duty watch in lonely spots on the west coast, the Queen Charlotte Islands and Alaska,” he told the crowd. “Our patrols go far out to sea as that timely warning may be given should an enemy attempt to come to this coast. It is dull, monotonous work, and living conditions, in some cases, are bad. But they are serving cheerfully, and I think they deserve every consideration when they come to the cities for leave, perhaps once in three months.”
The $4,000 in proceeds from the premiere were donated to provide comforts for off-duty soldiers in the city.
In British Columbia, attendees delighted in spotting local settings and extras on the big screen, whether Norwegian forests (the Malahat on Vancouver Island), the sabotaging of a railway bridge (the Niagara Canyon bridge along the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway), or former Vancouver Sun editorial employee Gus Sivertz, a major handling public relations in the Second World War who had been shot in the head and left for dead on the battlefield during the first Battle of the Somme in the First World War.
One extra who appeared in the movie but was unable to attend the premiere was Norvald Flaaten, a Saskatchewan farmboy of Norwegian descent. Of the dozens of soldiers stationed at Camp Colwood pressed into service as extras, he got a special role.
The director gave him instructions for his scene. “I want you to pull down the swastika,” Farrow told the young recruit, as he later recounted to journalist Jason Antonio. “Pull it down roughly, ruffle it up and throw it on the ground. Then pick up the Norwegian flag, unfold it very carefully, tie it on to the rope of the flagpole and hoist it up slowly.”
The 22-year-old soldier did as he was told. Later, in 1943, while on leave in Regina, he popped into a downtown movie theatre (it showed at both the Rex and the Grand). He waited nearly the entirety of the movie’s one hour, 38 minutes before he appeared on screen in the closing scene.
Today, Commandos Strike at Dawn is a mostly forgotten film, overshadowed by the romance of Casablanca and director Farrow’s own Wake Island, which was an Oscar nominee for best picture. The Willows exhibition building was destroyed by fire in 1948, and the grounds were converted to housing and parkland. The Pat Bay air station was replaced by a more modern facility as the site of Victoria International Airport. Of course, the stars have long since died, including former child actor Ann Carter, who passed away in 2014.
But if you sail along Finlayson Arm to the Goldstream Boathouse Marina, you can still spot from the water the concrete steps cast by a work crew more than 80 years ago, as a Vancouver Island dock was transported through the magic of moviemaking into a Norwegian fishing village.
Read more B.C. history stories.