When war is declared, the lovers Else and Alexis (serving as a diplomat for the unnamed foreign power) are divided. She is forbidden by her father, General von Wimpfen, to see him and he returns home to fight for his own country. The General and his son Erik (Psilander) join their own army. In parting, Else has given Alexis a carrier pigeon so that he can contact her during the war.
Inevitably the protagonists all come face to face, with the general and his son commanding an important gun battery in the front lines while Alexis is an officer in the opposing army. Back home the family palace has been converted into a military hospital where Else is serving as a nurse.
There is a traitor in the home camp who crosses the no man's land dividing the two armies to betray details of the all-important battery which he then proceeds to sabotage. A lovesick Alexis decides to dispatch a carrier pigeon with a message to Else warning her of the treachery. She sets off at once for the front to warn her father and brother. The battery blows up but Erik arrives in time to protect his father from the results but the traitor escapes in the confusion. The enemy offensive is then comprehensively defeated and all their retrenchments captured....
....except the one commanded by Alexis, against which Erik is now sent. He and Alexis do literally come face to face in the ensuing fight and he tells his sister, now a nurse in the front line, after the victory that he believes her lover to be dead. They search together for him among the prisoners of war and among the dead and dying on the battlefield...
The rump of the enemy army, the despised and now repentant traitor along with them, has retreated to a mountain bunker where it intends to resist to the last man but Erik has a plan for taking the fortress and, at great personal risk, scrambles across the no man's land to effect his plan....
So the finale, which I shall not reveal, concerns a women and three men - Else (whose loyalties are torn between her family and the man she loves), the honourable enemy Alexis (dead or alive?), the traitor (will he redeem himself?) and the hero Erik (will his plan succeed). The ending (for the US market?) is grotesquely happy (which I suppose rather answers all those questions) and one rather hopes that they shot a darker alternative for the Russian market (which they were in the habit of doing). It is a film, from a detached Danish neutral perspective, without ideological or propaganda content that, despite its title, is more about good old-fashioned personal honour than it is about patriotism.
It is not a particularly inspiring story but Blom directs with his customary skill and the location shooting by Johan Ankestjerne is excellent. Neither had any lessons to learn from D. W. Griffith or Billy Bitzer. Indeed the film looks strikingly "modern" by comparison with The Birth of the Nation which came out at almost exactly the same time. Much more natural in its acting style and mise en scène and without any of the rather old-fashioned tableau effects, "facial" close-ups that Griffith and Bitzer chose to use.
The title (a very common one in these years) comes of course from the famous Horace tag famously described by British poet Wilfred Owen as "the "old lie" Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. Denmark was in an embarrassing and complicated position during the Great War. With significant economic ties both to Britain and Germany, it did its best to stay neutral but was in practice led by purely geopolitical and economic considerations to favour Germany, agreeing to mine the Baltic Sea on their behalf. Later in the war, an Anglo-American blockade of Denmark would cause severe economic difficulties and an increasing reliance on German imports.
So the nation of "patriotism" did not really have quite the same ring for Danes as it did for the more ideologically committed combattants. The war for Denmark was quite simply a nuisance, an embarrassment and and an economic disaster while the country also had a strong pacifist tradition. So this film has none of the propagandist tone that became increasingly marked in British, French and Italian films and reached hysterical proportions in the US Kaiser-bashing films of 1918.
The war shown here is therefore very much s traditional and rather gentlemanly affair (the caddish traitor apart) which shows no awareness of the traumatic realities that the combattant nations were experiencing and which would only really begin to become common knowledge from 1916 onwards. It is, if you like, the war that Europeans thought they weer going to fight in 1914 not the ghastly murderous imbroglio they in fact found themselves immersed in.
In this respect the US had more relevant experience. The American Civil War had very much pointed the way for the horrors to come and the US was, prior to 1914, the only country to have really experienced the reality of modern warfare; the European experience was limited to the one-sided slaughter of colonial warfare. So the scenes of battle in The Birth of the Nation should in a sense have been more realistic except that Griffith and Bitzer follow Ince, the expert in the field, in presenting rather a glamourised picture of trench-warfare. The war-scenes in Blom's film, filmed in part in a sort of matte-shot slide-show (a technique not by any means invented by Bitzer), illustrate both the dominance of heavy artillery and the carnage that followed any offensive but remain more "charge of the light brigade" than "battle of the Somme". The battle-scenes in neither film much resemble representations of warfare that become common in films after 1916-17 (following the release of British and German documentaries about the Battle of the Somme).
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