Operation Crossbow Oct 8, 2011 5:04:20 GMT -5
Post by Eddie Love on Oct 8, 2011 5:04:20 GMT -5
When Quentin Tarrentino fashioned his epic homage to "Guys-on-a-Mission" WWII movies, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, the likely suspects of THE DIRTY DOZEN and the original BASTARDS were sited as obvious influences. I'll bet that further forensic DNA testing would reveal an earlier title was in the mix as well: 1964's OPERATION CROSSBOW an international, espionage adventure that similarly delivers more than just thrills, but also some unsettling shocks to the system.
Though there are no placards or opening legends detailing what may be true or inspired by real events, I guess we're to assume some of what takes place here has some basis in fact. (Like QT's picture, this one features a cameo by Churchill.) The plot concerns a rocket race between the British and Nazis during the Second World War. As soon as the British learn of an airstrip from which the Germans can launch guided missiles towards England, the Brits destroy them. When the Jerries start developing a bigger rocket with a more awesome payload in a giant underground facility, the allies have to infiltrate using a band of saboteurs who could pass as German scientists.
The movie has a unique, if not to say strange, structure. It's a "guys-on-a-mission" picture that doesn't introduce the guys or the mission until half an hour into its under two-hour running time. Before that there are back-and-forth scenes between the allies and Nazis that are interesting from a procedural standpoint, but are off-putting in their lack of dramatic stakes. Someone tuning into these early scenes could tune out this picture as a bit of a staid bore.
But once we meet the team who'll go undercover in the Nazi rocket compound and watch their training and infiltration into occupied territories, things really pick up. We focus on three guys; George Peppard as the brash American (is there ever any other kind in these pictures?), Tom Courtenay as a bookish Dutchman, and Jeremy Kemp as a German born Brit. All three are superb. Peppard's a curious star with his strangely winning, soft-spoken blandness and Courtenay's unassuming manner make his displays of heroics that much more affecting. If there's a standout, it's Kemp who perfectly pivots between British effeteness and German imperiousness. I really wish his role had been larger. Together these actors create an instant chemistry that enlivens the picture far more than the impressively cast, stiff-upper-lip Whitehall scenes that open the movie. The trio is marvelously engaging and there's even a training scene where we clearly see all three of these actors actually perform a test parachute jump that drops each of them hundreds of feet off the ground. No stand-ins and no cuts. It's a daring touch that helps you get fully wrapped up in these guys and their fate. And similar to Tarrentino's ambitious conceit, the cast here delivers a good portion of their performances in another language as about a third of the film is in German.
When their mission gets going this picture is really good, in fact, the middle third is great and delivers some really shocking reversals. These begin with the entrance of the film's top-billed star (and the film's producer Carlo Ponti's wife) Sophia Loren as the ex-wife of the scientist whose identity Peppard has assumed. Again, the tone and texture of the film shift and the two have a long scene, most of it just one take, where they guardedly take each others measure. It's finely played by the pair and very well written as are most of the individual scenes in this film. In fact, the daring aspects of this blunt picture come through from the script; they aren't the result of any cinematic risk-taking. The suspence is drawn 'from the taut exchanges of the actors and backed up by a pulse-pounding score more that it is teased out with directorial flourishes. And the script doesn't shy away from some brutal, war-is-Hell asides while it serves up white-knuckle espionage.
The final section of the picture plays out in the German's underground compound and it's a very impressive set worthy of one of the 60s Bond pictures. Unfortunately, the climax is diluted with drawn-out scenes of missiles over Britain that simply isn't as exciting, although played by a supporting cast shot through with sterling British talent. (I especially like Trevor Howard as a skeptical scientist.) If the picture were more tightly focused on the team of saboteurs, it would probably be a finer effort. Yet, at the same time, there just is something striking about it's all-over-the-place storytelling that's oddly satisfying as we see how the actions of the guys further the war effort in ways that others will never comprehend or acknowledge.
This film serves as a missing link between the gung-ho post-war action films and the more jaundiced titles that emerged towards the end of the 60s, films that dared to cast a cynical eye on "the good war". OPERATION CROSSBOW doesn't belong to that latter category, but nor does it fully belong to the first either. For all the heroics it portrays, it's not rousing. In fact, it's a little disturbing at its heart. There's a bit of Union Jack-waving right before the credits, but not enough to relieve the sense of disquiet this hard-hitting picture evokes with the brutal sacrifices of what's gone before.