The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Operation Crossbow

Most of the war movies I watch are depictions of front-line action or at least the generals/headquarters making the decisions that affect the front-line soldiers.  But what about the Intelligence agencies doing their damnedest to help the war effort through espionage, gaining information and sabotage behind enemy lines.  So goes 1965's Operation Crossbow, a British-Italian production telling the true story of British efforts to slow down Germany's rocket/technological advances as WWII reaches its middle years.

As much as WWII was about one Allied soldier facing one Axis soldier, there was a race at home to be the first country to develop the atom bomb.  On less destructive levels, both sides tried to create weapons technology that could cause more death and destruction than the average grenade or artillery shell.  Obviously, these advances were kept as top secret as possible, but that doesn't mean each side wasn't trying to one-up their enemy by playing a little defense courtesy of the Intelligence community doing a little sabotage.

It's midway through 1943, and the Germans have developed a new flying bomb that they plan to unleash on London and other English cities.  The Allies are aware of the new development, and do their best to slow down the advances by consistently bombing German work sites where they believe the bombs to be built and launched.  But as dangerous as the bombs are, the Germans have a new weapon in the late stages of development; the V-2 rocket, that could drastically change the course of the war, including the D-Day invasion.  Facing such a huge game changer, Allied Intelligence is forced to use a desperate plan; send Allied agents into Germany disguised as engineers who will help develop the rockets.

You might have noticed there's not a single actor/actress listed in the plot description.  Basically, it would have taken too long to include them and make that paragraph a behemoth to read.  Like other big budget war movies, 'Crossbow' utilizes an ensemble cast with talent from all over the world taking part.  And in terms of story, the ensemble works better because the plot is very episodic.  The first 30 minutes is almost exclusively from the German perspective, the next 30 the Allied Intelligence, and the last hour mostly with the agents working deep undercover.  Each of these segments could have been expanded for their own movie, but together they work to form a coherent storyline.

The cast listing is an odd one because producer Carlo Ponti listed his wife Sophia Loren as the lead when really she makes a 20-minute or so appearance and is an add-on more than anything else.  That's not being critical of Loren because she's a fine actress, but big picture her part isn't essential to the movie.  Starring as Germans the ensemble includes Paul Henreid and Helmut Dantine as two high-ranking German generals, Barbara Rutting as German aviator Hannah Reitsch, and Anthony Quayle as Bamford, a secret agent/spy.  Allied Intelligence includes Richard Johnson, Trevor Howard, John Mills and Richard Todd as the men trying to halt the German advances.  The agents sent into Germany include George Peppard, Jeremy Kemp and Tom Courtenay, all posing as deceased scientists so they can access the German rocket plants with Lilli Palmer playing a resistance contact.

The whole movie is a good example of a solid WWII ensemble, but the best and most interesting/exciting part is when the story follows these three agents.  They are all forced to become someone else, knowing if they are caught they will be summarily shot on site.  Even getting to that point is difficult as Peppard's Lt. Curtis finds out when the scientist he is posing as is visited by his wife (Loren).  Courtenay's Henshaw is dealt a cruel twist of fate and must decide how much he is willing to sacrifice.  Kemp's Bradley is dropped into Germany as a last-minute resort with little knowledge of the man he's impersonating.  Their scenes as they try to dupe the Germans are tense and difficult to watch, those scenes where you get butterflies hoping everything doesn't hit the fan.

Crossbow's story covers a lot of ground -- almost a year and a half -- but never feels like we're being let out.  Supposedly a much longer finished product was turned in by director Michael Anderson only to have it cut heavily to the movie we see now which clocks in at just under two hours.  You can see where certain segments were cut, especially the German segment to open the movie, and other odd instances like Peppard gaining a bandage on his forehead, but we never see why.  But these are little things, not big disturbances that could ruin the movie.

While the V-2 rocket was actually used by Germany in WWII -- over 3,000 were fired at England -- the movie does have to have some sort of resolution if not necessarily a happy ending.  The finale is a whopper as Peppard and Kemp desperately try to pinpoint their underground location to a passing bomber force.  The huge underground facilities sets look like something out of a James Bond movie and provide quite an ending to a strong story.  Not as well know as some of its 1960s WWII counterparts, but definitely worth a watch or two.

Operation Crossbow <----trailer (1965): ***/**** 

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