A review of the 1940 film, “The Mortal Storm”

James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan

James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan

I just finished watching The Mortal Storm on Turner Classic Movies. It’s a film I enjoy every time I see it.

This is a 1940 film starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, with Robert Young (Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, MD), Robert Stack (The Untouchables), Frank Morgan (the wizard in The Wizard of Oz), and Ward Bond (Wagon Train) in supporting roles.

The story is set in 1933, and concerns the fate of the family of a “non-Aryan” professor in Germany as the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler comes to power. The professor, named Roth (played by Frank Morgan) and his daughter Freya (Sullavan), and most particularly a close friend of the family named Martin, played by Stewart, are dedicated to freedom and truth, and thus are against everything the Nazis stand for.

But the professor’s two stepsons, along with Freya’s fiancé (Robert Young), become dedicated Nazis. The professor is arrested by the regime for his anti-Nazi views, and dies in a prison camp. The rest of the family attempts to get out of Germany, but Freya is stopped at the border and not allowed to leave.

She and Martin try to escape by skiing through the moutains. But a Nazi officer orders Freya’s now ex-fiancé to take a patrol and cut them off. Just as Freya and Martin are about to reach the border, one of the soldiers of the patrol shoots her. She makes it over the border, but dies in Martin’s arms.

Finally, on hearing the news of Freya’s death at the hands of the regime, one of her brothers (Robert Stack) realizes what the Nazis have done to his family, and renounces his allegiance to them.

VIDEO: “The Mortal Storm” opening sequence

Through the years many viewers have considered the poetic epilog to the movie to be particularly powerful. It’s from a 1908 poem by Minnie Louise Haskins called “The Gate of the Year.” As the camera shows the snow-bound gate leading into the now deserted Roth home, the voiceover recites the first lines of the poem:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year

‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’

And he replied, ‘Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!’

I thought the movie was very well acted all around. And it did a great job, as World War II approached, of portraying the brutality of the Nazi regime. Even now, more than 70 years after it was made, this is a movie that still has the power to get viewers emotionally involved.

I think it’s a film that’s well worth seeing the next time it’s on television.


Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia 


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