I have always been fascinated by Disney’s ‘dark’ period, which commenced with The Black Hole in 1979 and wound up with the catastrophic failure of The Black Cauldron in 1985. Disney has always leavened its family films with elements of darkness and horror, but in that six-year period they went on the most peculiar bender of horror, shocks, mature concepts, violence and other comparatively confronting material. In The Black Hole there were cyborg zombies and someone getting murdered by effectively having a chainsaw shoved through their chest. Dragonslayer had live human sacrifice and an unbelievably cynical take on Christianity. In Return to Oz there was electric shock therapy and a witch who wanted to cut off Dorothy’s head and wear it like a hat. Almost certainly the best of this crop of films was Jack Clayton’s 1983 thriller Something Wicked This Way Comes, based on the Ray Bradbury novel. It boasted top-notch performances by Jonathan Pryce and Jason Robards, a cracking plot and a distinctive sense of creeping dread.
These films, while unsuccessful at the time, have since become perennial favourites with strong cult appeal. One film from the period that missed a resurgent audience, however, is Night Crossing. It is a 1982 drama based on the true story of two East German families attempting to defect to the West in a hot-air balloon. Superficially it seems an odd choice of film for Disney to make. Taken in the context of the 79-85 ‘dark’ period, it fits in quite perfectly. There is implied torture. There is a prolonged sense of menace and paranoia. There is the brutal on-screen murder of a teenage boy. But that is Disney for you, isn’t it? Overly sweet and cloying, saccharine, and ruthlessly commercial. Except, of course, if you actually watch their films.
John Hurt stars as electrician Peter Strelzyk, who hatches the ambitious plan to escape East Germany by secretly constructing and building a hot air balloon. It seems redundant to say that he is very good in the role: it is John Hurt, who never delivered a poor performance in his life. There is one particular scene, when things seem particularly hopeless, where Strelzyk slowly breaks down and bursts into tears. It is an unexpectedly mature moment for what is ostensibly supposed to be a family film.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, particularly Jane Alexander as Strelzyk’s wife Doris and Beau Bridges as his conflicted best friend Günter. For those playing ‘where have I seen them before’ at home, the film’s antagonist – the coldly driven Major Koerner – is played by Günter Meisner who memorably played Slugworth in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He has the face that pretty much demands he plays frightening and unforgiving villains.
The story is relatively predictable, but then it is all-in-all a family film and narratively never steps too far out-of-field. The end is also a foregone conclusion, really – it is, after all, based on a true story – but director Delbert Mann (this was his final film) still manages to extract an enormous amount of suspense from the final half hour.
There is also a peculiar problem throughout the film with accents. English cast members use their English accents. The Americans all sound American. Germans sound German. Ian Bannen, who has a brief part, can’t hide his own Scottish accent. It all takes a little getting used to.
There is one scene in the film that sticks in the mind. It is very early on, and is very much the story’s inciting incident. A teenage boy tries to break through the border crossing using a stolen bulldozer. He is shot to pieces by machine gun-wielding guards for his trouble. Standing over his body one of the guards exclaims that the boy is still alive. ‘So leave him for a while,’ says his captain, ‘we’ll pick up the body later.’
Oh Disney. So sweet. So saccharine.
Recently there has been a fresh adaptation of these events, via the German film Balloon (reviewed here). That, understandably, feels the more authentic picture thanks to language and a fully mature level of storytelling. That in mind, Night Crossing still feels a valid and alternative take. It is one of Walt Disney’s more quiet achievements, hiding in obscurity for an appreciate audience to find it.