Covenant with Death opens in 1942, with two young men – Magnus Anderssen (Bradford Dillman) and Ivar Kolstrom (Don Borisenko) – leading an elderly couple through the woods. Joseph and Sarah Blumfield (Arnold Marle and Lily Freud-Marle) show signs of flagging and stop for a rest. Magnus and Ivar then both pick up rocks and it’s clear that they intend to kill the Blumfields.
The action then moves to a courtroom shortly after the end of WW2. Magnus and Ivar are in the dock, accused of the Blumfields’ murder. But why would two war heroes (they had been members of the Norwegian resistance) kill a defenceless couple? The prosecutor (Allan Cuthbertson) is convinced of their guilt, whilst their defense attorney (David Kossoff) struggles to find a way to prove their innocence. As might be expected, there’s more to this story that meets the eye …..
After the opening credits, a caption helpfully tells us the exact setting and time – Tonstrand, Norway, October 9th 1947. You might wonder why so many Norwegian nationals (like Cuthbertson) speak perfect English, but that’s par for the course with a series shot in the UK. It may be a little incongruous but it’s preferable to everybody attempting dodgy Norwegian accents. And as touched on previously, the fact this was an American co-production necessitated that the two Norwegians in the dock, Magnus and Ivar, were played by an American and a Canadian respectively.
Allan Cuthbertson is his usual immaculate self as the prosecutor. He seems to have a very solid case – both Magnus and Ivar confessed their guilt to the police and when Ivar was arrested he had Joseph’s gold pocket watch in his possession (he also admitted to the police that he took the watch from Joseph’s dead body).
A recess provides an opportunity for Ivar and Magnus’ attorney to speak to them. He urges them to change their plea to guilty, but Magnus refuses – they may have killed the couple, but he tells him it wasn’t murder. This intriguing statement drives the rest of the narrative as slowly the events of five years earlier are uncovered.
Several lengthy flashbacks help to stop the story from being a static courtroom tale. The first flashback also helps to bring the character of Joseph Blumfield into sharp focus – his Jewish heritage meant that he was under increasing pressure from the Nazis, one of the reasons why he and his wife decided to flee.
Kossoff, like Cutherbertson, impresses, as he slowly teases out the story from the defendants. Ivar tells the court what happened immediately after the deaths of Joseph and Sarah. “After we did it, it was suddenly very quiet. Like we’d killed everything in the forest except ourselves. The old man bled a lot, for some reason the woman didn’t seem to, but we knew they were both dead.” Don Borisenko is perfect as the twitchy Ivar, a man who lacks the certainty of his friend Magnus that they did the right thing.
Although Joseph and Sarah have been presented as harmless and helpless victims, Peter Stone’s screenplay constantly teases us that there must be more to the story than a simple tale of opportunistic murder and robbery. It’s strongly hinted on several occasions that during wartime people have to do things which would be unthinkable during a time of peace. If Magnus and Ivar felt that the security of their organisation was threatened by the old couple it would explain why they had to die.
Apart from Cuthbertson and Kossoff, other familiar faces pop up, most notably Alfred Burke and Aubrey Morris. In the present day, Burke (as Ivar’s brother, Gustave), sports a natty eye patch, which is absent when the action flashes back to 1942. Burke’s contribution is small but he was such a good actor that he could make even a handful of lines come alive. His jousting with Cuthbertson is a special treat – Gustave angrily wonders why the court is attempting to prosecute two war heroes, which incenses the prosecutor. “Many of the men in this room, and the women too, risked their lives in the struggle against the Nazi occupation. Some of us suffered just as much as you. Torture, imprisonment under death sentence, but we didn’t sink so low as to murder those we had pledged to protect, to save our own skins.” It’s an electrifying scene.
Covenant with Death shows how moral absolutes are a luxury often denied during a time of war. The scene of Joseph and Sarah in the moments before their deaths is very powerful – both know they will shortly die, both are afraid, but they’re also reconciled that it’s the only way. But was it? It’s is a question that remains right until the end and no doubt each viewer will have their own opinion as to whether Magnus and Ivar were guilty or innocent.
Although espionage doesn’t form any part of the story, this is a deeply thought-provoking tale that, even when the verdict is delivered, doesn’t seem to bring closure for the men in the dock.