Decision Before Dawn (1951): Best Picture Oscar-Nominated War Film

Nominated for the 1951 Best Picture Oscar, Decision Before Dawn (made by Fox) didn’t win any awards, but it ranks as one of the finest accounts of U.S. military intelligence.

The narrative shows how American Army recruits German prisoners to use as spies against their own people. German actor Oskar Werner plays a sensitive young young medical corpsman who’s captured just West of the Rhine and is willing to serve as a spy. Humble to a fault, he naively believes that by working with the U.S. forces he can bring war to an end faster and save his country from further degradation. He’s trained in espionage and performs his duties, but in the end, sacrifices his life while saving American officer (Richard Basehart) on way back to their lines.

A straightforward undercover spy film, “Decision Before Dawn” offers a clear and sober look at Germany during the last year of WWII, showing compassion for German soldiers who turn traitors by their own will. The screenplay by Peter Viertel, based on novel “Call It Treason” by George Howe.

This stirring drama, about Germany’s moral collapse, benefits from a good dramatic use of actual war-scarred German locations. The depiction of shattered cities and still uncovered ruins contributed to the picture’s sense of authenticity. And while not made as an explicitly agit-prop, it does convey its humanist anti-war message, without the usual sentimentality.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Picture, produced by Anatole Litvak and Frank McCarthy
Editing: Dorothy Spencer

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

In 1951, Minnelli’s musical “An American in Paris” was the surprise Oscar winner in a tough competition that included the War movie, “Decision Before Dawn,” two impressively acted adult-themed dramas, “A Place in the Sun” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and the popular historical epic, “Quo Vadis”

The winner of the Editing Oscar was William Hornbeck for “A Place in the Sun.”