‘Mission impossible’ escapism about high-stakes wartime sabotage looks at an authentic, dramatic episode of WW2 — the onslaught of futuristic V-Weapons on London — and then veers into fictional fantasy (think big explosions). George Peppard toughs it out to get free of his MGM contract. Lili Palmer and Barbara Rütting do the heavy lifting, while Sophia Loren is in as a glamorous sidebar. Weirdly, the movie all but lionizes the Germans that develop, test and fire the V-Weapon rockets at England … exaggerating their scientific progress and giving them a strange kind of ‘Right Stuff.’
Warner Archive Collection
1965 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 116 min. / Street Date November 12, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Sophia Loren, George Peppard, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Richard Johnson, Tom Courtenay, Jeremy Kemp, Anthony Quayle, Lilli Palmer, Barbara Rütting (Rueting), Paul Henreid, Helmut Dantine, Richard Todd, Sylvia Sims, John Fraser, Maurice Denham, Patrick Wymark, Richard Wattis, Allan Cuthbertson, Karel Stepanek, Milo Sperber, Ferdy Mayne, Anton Diffring, Charles Lloyd Pack, Jeremy Spenser.
Cinematography: Erwin Hillier
Film Editor: Ernest Walter
Special Effects: Tom Howard, Brian Bennett
Design and Art Direction: Elliot Scott
Original Music: Ron Goodwin
Written by Richard Imrie (Emeric Pressburger), Ray Rigby & Derry Quinn, story by Duilio Coletti, Vittoriano Petrilli
Produced by Carlo Ponti
Directed by Michael Anderson
Operation Crossbow is an exciting, historically flawed war/spy/action thriller, that references the German V-Weapons that gave WW2 a taste of future techno-terror. Producer Carlo Ponti pushed things just a little too far, hiring enough fine actors for four movies and distorting a fascinating chapter of war history into conventional action fantasy.
The show can boast a fine writing pedigree — unbilled. In 1957 Emeric Pressburger co-wrote a spy film about a true-life espionage caper called Ill Met By Moonlight. Two daring English agents penetrate German security on Crete, kidnap a top Nazi general and spirit him away to Cairo. Yet, in the realistic film, the spies never fire a shot nor meet any sexy females. They spend most of their time living with goats.
Eight years later, action movies had just been taken over by the fantasies of the James Bond craze. In the tradition of Carl Foreman’s The Guns of Navarone, Carlo Ponti’s Operation Crossbow gives the allied opposition to Germany’s rocket program a mix of patriotic fervor and 007-style exaggeration that grossly misstates history. Emeric Pressburger was one of the writers, using his alias Richard Imrie.
In 1944, Winston Churchill (Patrick Wymark) is made aware of possible Nazi super-weapons in the works. He assigns Duncan Sandys (Richard Johnson) to determine if the Germans are building rocket weapons. Professor Lindemann (Trevor Howard) denies that such a thing is possible, but General Boyd (John Mills) supports the notion. In great secrecy, the German high command is working on three projects simultaneously: The V-1 ‘Buzz Bomb,’ the sub-orbital V-2 rocket and a project called the V-10, an intercontinental ballistic missile. Spy volunteers John Curtis, Phil Bradley and Robert Henshaw (George Peppard, Jeremy Kemp and Tom Courtenay) pose as engineers conscripted from the occupied countries and working for the Nazis. Curtis runs into a sticky problem: the wife of the man he is impersonating (Sophia Loren) shows up at his hotel, wondering why Curtis is using her husband’s name and passport.
Operation Crossbow tells several stories simultaneously, with groups of characters that never meet. “You’ve got to find out about those rockets,” orders a stern Winston Churchill, and a succession of earnest British strategists take drastic counter-measures against the V-1 base in Peenemünde. Experts spout exposition and make sober decisions in the face of a terrible threat.
Richard Johnson leads the London-based contingent; his character Duncan Sandys has a limp, which reminds us of the handicapped David Farrar character in Powell & Pressberger’s superior The Small Back Room. When Sandys’ efforts are threatened by red tape, he authorizes his military aides to just ignore the rules — a detail that makes good sense if one knows that the real Duncan Sandys was Winston Churchill’s son-in-law.
Meanwhile, a trio of dauntless young recruits trains to parachute into the continent. George Peppard and Jeremy Kemp go about their business with a cavalier swagger while Tom Courtenay’s meek Dutch sailor walks into danger with only good intentions on his side. The aspiring saboteurs don’t know it, but a cunning German counter-spy is waiting to ferret them out.
The distortions and detours in Crossbow can all be chalked up to commercial decisions. George Peppard’s young spy shares a night of intrigue with a sexy Italian played by Carlo Ponti’s wife Sophia Loren — who receives top billing. Loren’s romantic close-ups are gorgeous but her anachronistic hairstyle and eye makeup are jarring; it’s as if Grace Kelly wandered into a gritty war movie. Not only that, espionage film veteran Lili Palmer (Cloak and Dagger, The Counterfeit Traitor) makes a stronger impression. The dramatic hotel stopover with Sophia Loren’s character is a perfect example of a sidebar scene that’s completely superfluous — remove it and the story arc is completely unaffected. This can’t have been a preferred part for Ms. Loren, but Ponti wanted an extra jolt of star power.
The weirdest thing about the film is how it inadvertently puts the Nazi ‘villains’ in such a favorable light. The episode dealing with the V-1 program can’t help but flatter the German rocket developers, who risk their lives pioneering advanced space-age technology. The focused military and scientists at Peenemünde are played by a score of top actors, all in fine form and all speaking crisp German: Paul Henreid (Casablanca), Helmut Dantine (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), Karel Stepanek (Sink the Bismarck!), Ferdy Mayne (Where Eagles Dare), and Anton Diffring (Circus of Horrors).
Many movies about WW2 inadvertently generate admiration for Nazi war efforts — not only are these Germans totally dedicated to their program, they have have better technical toys than we do. Even their uniforms are more stylish. Several daring test pilots are killed in the process of refining the V-1 Buzz Bomb. When Director Michael Anderson uses dramatic angles for their funerals, and treats us to inspiring close-ups of Ace aviatrix Hannah Reitsch (Barbara Rütting of Town Without Pity) courageously riding the unpredictable rocket. The real Hannah Reitsch later flew into and out of Berlin when Hitler was trapped in his bunker. She’s depicted in both Hitler: The Last Ten Days (by Diane Cilento) and Downfall (by Anna Thalbach). Had the Germans won this amazing woman surely would have become the subject of reverent biographies.
But we aren’t rooting for the German V-weapons to achieve victory (I hope). Some balance is regained when the first V-1 Buzz Bombs begin raining down on London, soon after D-Day. It’s as if the city were being attacked by sinister weapons from an H.G. Wells fantasy. Scooting along at 400 mph, the unmanned, non-guided flying torpedos are too fast for easy interception. A third of the 9,000 fired from France strike the heart of London. Each carries enough explosive to blow up a house or two.
Although associated with ‘Nazi Terror,’ our military surely admired the V-1 — it was a primitive version of our own modern cruise missiles, push-button weapons flown by remote control, without risking a pilot.
Deployed not much later, the single-stage V-2 missiles are a step upward on the ladder of technical evolution: the Germans have formulated a practical liquid rocket fuel, an amazing feat under wartime pressure. Von Braun’s V-2s fall so quickly from sub-orbit that they’re almost undetectable. A V-2 hit is much more catastrophic — one rocket can take out the better part of a city block. Over a thousand were fired at London, causing massive damage.
The movie abandons the historical record in its third act, when Peppard and Kemp arrive at the secret V-10 rocket lab they’ve been tasked with destroying. This is where the film swings into complete James Bond fantasy. The impressively-designed launching base, built deep in a mountain below eighty feet of solid rock, is an enormous underground city, a fortress that would be the envy of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The sets are ‘Ken Adams’ huge, yet only one art director credit is given. Ponti’s film credits few effects experts as well.
Operation Crossbow makes it look as if the Germans had unlimited resources, when in reality, the failing Reich had to pour a tremendous amount of un-renewable effort and materiel into their V-weapon program. The historical V-10 (A-10?), a massive ICMB, is said to have advanced no farther than the blueprint stage. This show pretends that the two-stage missile is ready to launch … to strike New York City! If Hitler’s rocket science was this far advanced, why did Werner Von Braun need 25 years to put NASA on the moon?
Like so many self-important escapist war thrillers, Crossbow celebrates elite agents ‘turning the course of the war’ via an impossible mission of the kind that Quentin Tarantino deconstructed in his Inglourious Basterds.
The last- minute chaos and gunplay in the Nazi fortress confirms Operation Crossbow as a SuperSpy fantasy, like Dr. No. The precursor in this sub-genre is the now obscure, recommended English WW2 spy fantasy Sabotage Agent (The Adventures of Tartu) (1943). Its conclusion shows a heroic Robert Donat single-handedly blowing up an underground Nazi installation more vast than anything seen in Metropolis. Sophia Loren’s place is taken by a very young Glynis Johns, as a downtrodden, un-glamorous forced laborer. Made during the war, with the outcome uncertain, Sabotage Agent emphasizes that the struggle is essential to save unfortunate Europeans from tyranny. Crossbow is more concerned with glory and cool weaponry; even its heroes are expendable.
The idea of grim storm troopers overseeing captive technicians in a secret factory is reminiscent also of 1957’s Quatermass 2, right down to the machine gun battle finale. Fans partial to explosions will be pleased with George Peppard’s last stand, even though some of the special effects are on the flimsy side. What with the real historical names being used, I wonder if Werner Von Braun is supposed to be in that underground rocket factory. When Crossbow was released, Von Braun and his ‘home team’ were deep into the Apollo program. Did any of the transplanted German experts see the movie? Would they have felt embarrassed, or flattered?
Operation Crossbow shapes up as a commercial cut-and-paste job with ample helpings of flag-waving, grim spy intrigue, fantastic action and a beautiful star for the poster. Director Michael Anderson keeps it all moving. He manages to make all the actors look good, even when stuck in sidebar tragedy (Tom Courtenay, Sophia Loren) or relatively minor support roles: John Mills & Trevor Howard’s feuding science advisors, Richard Todd’s photo analysis expert. Small but expert contributions come from Sylvia Syms & John Fraser (more photo experts), and Maurice Denham, Richard Wattis, Allan Cuthbertson and Charles Lloyd Pack (more boffins & officers). The overqualified Anthony Quayle nails his stint as a formidable spymaster, and Patrick Wymark’s Winston Churchill apparently conducts the entire war under dramatic lighting, while chain-smoking. I’d say that the best impressions are made by Courtenay, Lili Palmer, Richard Johnson, Anthony Quayle and Barbara Rütting.
All of the actors playing uniformed Germans are splendid… enlistment-inspiring splendid. That the movie allows them to speak subtitled German was considered progressive at this time, and lends that part of the show great realism.
Self-indulgent Time Out: While watching this show long ago, I fantasized a demented movie projectionist, who cuts off the second half of Operation Crossbow, and replaces it with the last 20-odd minutes of the Anthony Mann-James Stewart The Glenn Miller Story. The splice-changeover would take place just as a V-1 Buzz Bomb zooms across London skies, where the action would likely match perfectly. After it falls to earth, the second movie takes over, just as if nothing irregular had happened. Glenn Miller would raise the volume of his swing band, his audience would applaud, and the Stewart film would play out to the end … never cutting back to the 1965 Crossbow. What a great way to make an audience furious .. Luis Buñuel would love it.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Operation Crossbow is a sterling encoding of this hybrid adventure yarn, in which historical realism gets steamrolled by feel-good action that panders to the audience. The show is sharper and clearer than ever before: Erwin Hillier’s cinematography is always gorgeous, whether filming Sophia Loren, a super-scientific rocket plant, or a funeral for dedicated Nazis. Every plot turn is underlined with bombastic musical chords from Ron Goodwin’s retro score. The lively 5.1 sound mix may have been derived from a six-track stereo original.
Perhaps the Germans come off as well as they do because composer Goodwin gives them dynamic suspense cues, while the defensive action back in London is scored with standard patriotic ‘King and Country’ music. A featurette from the time of release presents the wild story happenings as historic fact, and the trailer sells the tale with a non-stop montage of action scenes. The producers’ ‘007 vs. Hitler’ intentions are confirmed by original ad copy that assures movie patrons that our fearless saboteurs possess ‘licenses to kill.’
← The ‘star montage’ key art painting for the film’s poster, reproduced for the Blu-ray, is a fountain of exaggeration. Peppard and Loren are presented as a united couple. Trevor Howard’s annoying professor character becomes a man of mystery among the cluster of stars, while off to the right, the odd little image afforded 9th-billed Lili Palmer makes her look like an automobile hood ornament.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Featurette: A Look Back at Crossbow, Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: November 2, 2019
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson