Hot on the heels of the propagandist’s wet dream that was The Young Mr Pitt (1942), and probably desperate for a whiff of mid-war modernity and crazy, Robert Donat‘s twelfth film – and second of WW2 – lands with a whizz-bang and a blitz. And it’s all a bit mad. For he plays Captain Terence Stevenson, bomb disposal expert, master of accents, chemistry, spying and pomade. And one of those accents is of a Romanian gentleman, who nips into Czechoslovakia to stop the Germans’ plans for chemical warfare – all played out in The Adventures of Tartu.
Donat plays Stevenson who plays Jan Tartu of the Romanian Iron guard – who is actually dead. Early scenes show off his decency as he strides into the remains of a barely post-blitz hospital, chatting with a nurse and bed-bound boy, whilst straddling a bomb and pulling out its detonator. Here, Donat gives full value as British Hero, stiff of lip and curly of quiff. He’s adorable.
The high-ups then bundle him off for a briefing and to tell him stuff about himself that he already knows (fluent in Romanian and German – huzzah!). He has a bizarre goodbye scene with Mabel Terry Lewis as his Mum (there’s talk of zipped lips and tidying up), and jumps out of a plane before landing in a Czech street somewhere in South Bucks. Bad luck then hits the plan, as 90 minutes worth of propaganda-friendly Germans (venal, selfish, rich with betrayal and studies in deceit) walk into the meeting-point shoe shop and Donat’s contact is dragged away before he can finish the scene.
Still, keep buggering on, old man.
Pretending to be all Iron Guardy, Donat’s Stevenson’s Tartu gets put up in a house of angry locals. And then the confusions of the plot really get going. His mission is to get into the gas weapons factory, shove bombs into a series of vats, and run like crap as some special effects go off. Before that, he gets very gung-ho with the locals.
There’s Glynis Johns, a mix of whining kid and absolute hero, as Paula Palacek – member of the resistance, factory worker and, in my favourite scenes, killer running from the Nazis. Not the modern woman of Donat’s later war adventure Perfect Strangers / Vacation from Marriage (1945), here she is noble, pained and – in an agonising sequence in the bomb factory – all that we hoped of our civilian allies…
And then there’s Valerie Hobson, very much a sigh-worthy-beautiful woman playing with her reputation. All those Secret Army scenes, the resistance looking like collaborators in their café, came to mind. For Hobson’s Maruschka Lanova is desired by every German officer, Donat’s Stevenson-Tartu and old Jack here. Crikey, she gives off classy and unattainable whilst, it turns out, being one wash of Tartu’s pomade from an evening snog. Yup – Tartu gets lucky in the garden. Things rather fall apart thereafter, Maruschka working against Donat for a while cos he’s confusing everyone in his tortuous search for the Resistance and, well, watch the film.
It is, as you’d expect, a masterclass of quality acting from Donat. He is British and solemn, Romanian and comic (with a touch of the idiot in play), tortured and in love, and occasionally looks longingly past the camera with the propagandist’s nobility. He does pretend-drunk with a quality toss of his drink at one point, and keeps the thing alive throughout. Which it needs. Alas, the plotting in the middle of the film gets messy and mildly confusing. On the bright side, come the final scenes, some comedy business with a Nazi guard and a key gets Donat into an industrial world of sci-fi.
Which is weird. I just sort of stared – that’s Mr Chips running along gantries. I half expected his old theatre buddy William Hartnell to stumble past chased by some metal bastards demanding his extermination. But Donat keeps the tempo going, now fully into action hero.
Ultimately, The Adventures of Tartu is a strangely titled, morale-boosting potboiler with a stellar actor giving it popular. It took me a while to find it on the internet. Grandpa Gus, the family Donat lover, had often mentioned it, but never happened on a chance to watch it with me when I was a teen. And the cinemas were too dangerous that year. So, watching it in the TV room with the crumblies was a bittersweet delight. Grandpa would have loved being there, much as we warmed to each silly but heroic turn of events.
And now it’s on the YouTube. Not a great copy, but give yourself some fun and try it out. Even if the writers weren’t, Donat was at the top of his game.