The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

21 Hours at Munich

It was an event in history that captivated the world in its truth. The Munich massacre in 1972 at the Summer Olympic Games was unbelievable in the sense that it really happened. It is an event that shows how far motivated people will go to accomplish what they want, the depths they'll go to. As far as film versions go, the story spawned Steven Spielberg's Munich, a story about the fallout after the massacre, but there is a version of the facts, a TV movie from 1976, 21 Hours at Munich.

It's early on September 5, 1972 and the summer Olympic games are in full swing in Munich, West Germany. In the predawn darkness, eight members of the terrorist group Black September headed by a man named Issa (Franco Nero) sneak into the Olympic Village where athletes from around the world bunk and take 11 Israeli athletes captive. German officials from both the police and the government descend on Olympic Village, including Dr. Manfred Schneider (William Holden), the Chief of Police, to negotiate with the terrorists and find out what they want in exchange for the Israeli hostages. The clock is ticking though, the demands more ludicrous than they could have ever imagined. With the lives of the hostages at stake, the German government and the Olympic committee work to resolve the situation knowing that Issa and his compatriots will kill their hostages if they feel their demands won't be met. What can be done either way?

Besides a lousy print on Netflix, I'd never been able to track this one down until I found it recently on MGM-HD on TV. Finally a good print for a pretty good movie. From director William A. Graham, 'Hours' was originally a TV movie that received a theatrical release in some countries overseas. While the scope isn't huge like a theatrical epic, it doesn't have that distinct feel of a TV movie. Shown on TV just four years after the real-life events that inspired it, it certainly seems like the wounds would have been too fresh for audiences. That's probably going to go a long way in determining if you will like or dislike this movie. It isn't supposed to be entertaining. Interesting? Yes, very much so, but if you're remotely aware of the incident, you know how it ends. It becomes more and more uncomfortable to watch, a painfully tense movie that builds to its inevitably dark, frustrating conclusion.

Sticking as close to the facts as possible, 'Hours' is particularly memorable because of the facts. The truth of the story leads to some incredible set pieces to watch. If you've seen Steven Spielberg's Munich, you've got an idea of what to expect. Sneaking into the Olympic Village and taking the Israeli hostages, the opening sequence is beyond tense. Done with almost no dialogue, it's like we're there with them as the athletes run, hide, fight back as they realize what's going on. The Israeli wrestling coach, Moshe Weinberg, fights back in an incredibly heroic way, as does Yossef Gutfreund (Paul L. Smith), an Israeli wrestling judge), who first discovers the Black September attackers and desperately tries to hold them back at the door. Knowing the truth, reading about it, it all adds up to that incredibly discomforting level that makes it incredibly tough to watch. But at the same time, seeing the harrowing truth of it all makes it real in a visceral, blood-curdling, shiver up your spine way.

The same qualifies for the finale as the hostages and their Arab captors have been transported to an airport/airfield outside Berlin. A plan has been devised to take out the Black September members, but it's come together quickly, not to mention it's pitch dark and far from an ideal situation of how to rescue the Israeli athletes. We see how the plan crumbles in execution, all the little things becoming big problems. Without giving anything away (for those that don't know the truth), it's an incredible ending, a moving, equally uncomfortable finale to a story that defies logic, in the sense that something this horrific could happen at all.

Taking a backseat to the story is a very capable cast. Nero ends up delivering the best performance as Issa, leader of the Black September terrorists. It's a great part because it is a villainous part -- a pretty obvious one -- but Nero makes Issa a human being, not some ridiculously cliched international villain. Sympathetic? Nope, not supposed to be. Fascinating? You bet. His cat and mouse negotiating game with the always solid William Holden becomes the most interesting part of the fast-developing story. Also look for Shirley Knight as an Olympic committee member tasked with being a go-between with Issa and those trying to stop him, Anthony Quayle as a veteran officer of the Israeli special forces/secret service, Richard Basehart as a member of the German government spearheading the rescue effort, and Noel Willman as another German official closely working with Holden's Schneider.

With the feel of a documentary, 'Hours' presents the facts and lets them be. It was filmed on the actual locations where the Munich incident took place in Olympic Village. The actual on-location sites provide an eerie, dream-like feel to the fast-developing story, knowing what actually happened there just a few years before. If you can track a copy down or stumble onto at MGM-HD, I highly recommend it. Well worth it.

21 Hours at Munich (1976): *** 1/2 /****

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