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Dawn (1928)


Main image of Dawn (1928)
35mm, black and white, silent, 7300 feet
DirectorHerbert Wilcox
Production CompanyBritish and Dominions Film Corporation
ProducerHerbert Wilcox
ScriptHerbert Wilcox, Robert Cullen
StoryReginald Berkeley
PhotographyBernard Knowles

Cast: Sybil Thorndike (Nurse Cavell); Ada Bodart (Herself); Gordon Craig (Phillipe Bodart); Marie Ault (Madame Rappard); Mary Brough (Madame Pitou); Mickey Brantford (Jacques)

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For helping escaped prisoners of war in Belgium during World War I, Nurse Edith Cavell is arrested, tried and executed by the occupying German forces.

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One of the greatest British martyrs of World War I, Edith Cavell (1865-1915) was a distinguished nurse who moved to Brussels in 1907 to help establish an independent medical institution outside the control of the established churches. After war was declared in 1914 she became actively involved in helping to smuggle British fugitives out of Belgium, for which she was eventually caught, tried and sentenced to death.

In the first of two adaptations of the Cavell story (the second was Nurse Edith Cavell, 1939, starring Anna Neagle), Herbert Wilcox opted to stage the events primarily in the form of an atmospherically-shot suspense thriller, with an added dose of fatalism in that Cavell's ultimate fate would never have been in doubt. The first third of the film sees her becoming involved in the rescue, concealment and successful smuggling of Jacques Rappart, the son of a close friend. This leads her to repeat the feat on a far greater and more organised scale, until she is betrayed to the Germans. Despite many high-level petitions (depicted in some detail), she is condemned to be shot at dawn, hence the film's title.

It was one of the most memorable film vehicles for Sybil Thorndike, whose naturally granite-jawed face imbued Cavell with just the right amount of defiant resolution. Her friend and associate Ada Bodart played herself, her presence on screen (highlighted by an intertitle at her first appearance) adding considerable conviction to the proceedings.

But the most notable thing about Dawn, especially in light of the censorship problems it encountered, is that Wilcox bent over backwards to portray the Germans in as sympathetic a light as possible under the circumstances. Although those in charge (notably von Sauberzweig, the region's Military Governor) match the historical record, Wilcox offers far more favourable portraits of German soldiers lower down the hierarchy: the officer who spots but refuses to betray the wanted British airman in Cavell's care, or Private Rammler, whose severe misgivings about being asked to shoot a nurse provide the final act with much of its drama.

Despite this balance, the film was refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Censors, on the grounds that its depiction of Cavell's execution deviated from the official German record. However, the London County Council passed it after requesting minor cuts to the final scenes, and most local authorities followed suit, allowing the film to be shown nationally.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
Complete film (1:36:24)
Topical Budget 218-2: Memorial Service for Nurse Cavell (1915)
Thorndike, Sybil (1882-1976)
Wilcox, Herbert (1890-1977)