Having the US take on Nazi Germany was never a sure thing. America in the 1930s had a strong isolationist tradition; many saw the conflict in Europe as Europe’s problem, while others were actively supportive of Hitler’s regime. By the end of 1940, with Europe under German control and the British Empire reeling, a Nazi victory looked all but certain. Enter Norwegian Crown Princess Martha.
Norway’s behind-the-scenes role in World War II has largely been overlooked by the history books. Atlantic Crossing aims to right that wrong – or at the very least, tell an entertaining story about a largely overlooked corner of the war. It’s a series that sticks to the facts when it comes to the big picture; it’s when it starts looking into the lesser known areas that things get really interesting.
Atlantic Crossing begins in 1939 with a train journey across the Hudson Valley, USA. The mood is light and flirtatious between Crown Princess Martha of Norway (Sofia Helin, The Bridge) and husband Crown Prince Olav (Tobias Santelmann): she’s taking photos, he’s putting on a cowboy hat, a kiss turns into something more intimate. Then there’s a knock on the door: it doesn’t take much to see the interruption as a metaphor for what’s to come, even if they do arrive to an adoring crowd (who have to wait while the royal couple compose themselves).
With Norway’s large expat population, and America at large, they’re a huge hit. “America’s new sweethearts,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Kyle MacLachlan) calls them during a private chat. He’s laying on the charm, while Eleanor Roosevelt (Harriet Samson Harris) is more interested in the gathering clouds of war. Turns out Eleanor is right to be worried, as the bulk of this gripping episode takes place a year later with the royal family desperately fleeing Norway one step ahead of the invading Nazis, one of whom shoots a dog, in case you were wondering just how evil the Nazis were.
In later episodes the Crown Prince goes to the UK to help form a government-in-exile, while Martha and her three children head to the US. That’s where the real power lies, especially as Olav’s father, Norway’s King Haakon VII (Soren Pilmark) is more focused on staying alive for the post-war world than actively opposing the Nazis in the here and now. It’s up to Martha to focus her diplomatic skills (and work on her public speaking) to try to bring FDR around. That’s where history gets murky.
Because the relationship between FDR and Crown Princess Martha was largely private, there’s a point beyond which we can only speculate. “Nobody knows how intimate they were or how romantic their relationship was,” series creator Alexander Eik has said. There are plenty of sources confirming that President Roosevelt was infatuated with Crown Princess Martha, and the series definitely plays that up, with MacLachlan having a lot of fun as the flirty (and at times fiery) president. As for Martha’s side, that remains a mystery.
What we do know is that Martha was already a passionate advocate for a number of causes before her country was invaded. It makes sense that she’d work hard to promote her country’s needs with the man who could decide the fate of the war in Europe. They also had a lot in common personally – isolated by power, they had few people they could turn to. And FDR was a known womaniser with a string of affairs to his name; no wonder tongues started wagging when he invited the Crown Princess and her three children to move into the White House.
Where Atlantic Crossing has really stirred up controversy is in its portrayal of the women around FDR. Eleanor Roosevelt often seems a sarcastic killjoy, while First Secretary Marguerite ‘Missy’ LeHand (Lucy Russell) – who rumour has it was in love with FDR herself – isn’t much better. “If Hitler wins the war, you’ll be queen of nothing,” she all but snarls to Martha at one point. Considering Martha fled her country at gunpoint, she may have already figured this out.
While this us-against-them dynamic might have a shaky basis in fact, it works well as a shorthand for the difficulties Martha faced in trying to sell America on intervening in the war. It was a struggle where she had few allies. FDR himself was firmly anti-Nazi but he led a country that was largely on the fence, and as politician first and foremost he had to listen to the will of his people. Martha was on her own with the fate of her country resting on her shoulders; sometimes all it takes to change the course of a war is an unexpected friendship.
Atlantic Crossing is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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