It’s beyond question that a series of sabotage missions by the Allies, aimed at destroying a ‘heavy water’ plant in the mountainous, snowy countryside of occupied Norway, was a key event of World War II. After all, Hitler was convinced heavy water was a key component in developing nuclear weapons for the Third Reich - and that grim prospect would have been unthinkable.
Despite their significance, though, the heavy water missions are less famous or well-remembered than, say, Dunkirk, Pearl Harbour or the D-Day landings. This is surely in part because they have less often been the subject of films. The Heroes of Telemark (1965), which starred Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris, rarely appears on anyone’s list of classic war movies. And in fairness, the forbidding terrain where these missions took place was remote and forbidding, complete with blizzards and deep snow. Not easy conditions to shoot films.
But The Saboteurs, a TV mini-series recently seen in six parts on More4 and now available on DVD, overcomes many of these logistical problems - and while never short-changing the importance or tense drama of these missions, takes its time to explain the complexity and importance of what is at stake – why the plant had to be blown up.
Thrilling action sequnces
There’s a fair amount of talk between the often thrilling action sequences, but it’s telling, intriguing dialogue. (Reassuringly, Adam Price, the creator and head writer of the peerless mini-series Borgen, is listed in the screenwriting credits). And fittingly, given that this is a Norwegian-British-Danish production, plenty of time is given to characters on all sides of the argument to air their views.
Thus early prominence is given to German scientist Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach), a Nobel prize-winner and key figure in the Nazis’ attempts to develop an atom bomb using heavy water. But Heisenberg is too entranced by the possibilities of this scientific breakthrough to comprehend the horror or what might ensue.
In Britain, a colonel named John Wilson (the reliably excellent Pip Torrens) and his colleague Captain Julie Smith (Anna Friel, by the far the most familiar face here) are planning the sabotage missions – with the suave assistance of handsome Leif Tronstad, Norwegian scientist, something of an expert on heavy water, and implacable enemy of the Nazis.
But these are only a small percentage of the characters. We spend time with the Norwegian soldiers parachuted with equipment into the vicinity of the heavy water plant, then with the British whose job it was to destroy the place.
Saboteurs even gives equal time to the managers of the plant itself, and their torn loyalties – between keeping the plant going and its employees working and fed, alongside their misgivings about the Nazis’ ambitions for heavy water.
All in all, this is a satisfying war drama that allows itself to stop and allow contemplation of the issues involved. It’s a refreshing change from gung-ho films about war; yet for all its insistence on talk and ideas, Saboteurs has some terrific action sequences – and they’re genuinely thrilling.