Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In 1957 Emeric Pressburger wrote a true-life spy film with his Archers partner Michael Powell called Ill Met By Moonlight. Two English agents penetrate German security on Crete, kidnap the top Nazi general and spirit him away to Cairo. The daring espionage caper became famous, yet during their adventure the spies never fired a shot nor met any sexy females. They spent most of their time living with goats.
Eight years later came the fantasies of the James Bond craze. In the tradition of Carl Foreman's The Guns of Navarone, Carlo Ponti's Operation Crossbow treats the allied effort to detect and forestall Germany's rocket program with a mix of patriotic fervor and 007-style exaggeration. The show isn't particularly good history, but it is exciting. Emeric Pressburger is one of the writers, using his alias Richard Imrie.
Duncan Sandys (Richard Johnson) is assigned to determine if the Germans are building rocket weapons. Professor Lindemann (Trevor Howard) denies that such a thing is possible, but others such as General Boyd (John Mills) support the notion. In actuality, the German high command is working on three projects simultaneously: The V-1 'Buzz Bomb,' the 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 from the occupied countries, conscripts 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.
"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.
There obviously were numerous Allied efforts to learn more about secret German weapons programs, and Operation Crossbow shows the recruitment of a trio of dauntless young agents. 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 saboteurs don't know it, but a cunning German counter-spy is waiting to ferret them out.
Operation Crossbow is a Carlo Ponti production. That explains why George Peppard's character shares a night of intrigue with a sexy Italian played by Ponti's wife Sophia Loren. Loren's romantic close-ups are gorgeous but her anachronistic hairstyle and eye makeup are jarring; it's as if Grace Kelly wandered into The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Not only that, espionage film veteran Lili Palmer (Cloak and Dagger, The Counterfeit Traitor) makes a stronger impression. Of the entire cast, only Peppard, Loren and Palmer are given a real dramatic opportunity. The rest of the film sticks to straight espionage thriller mechanics.
The episode dealing with the V-1 program can't help but flatter the Nazi rocket developers, who risk their lives working with cutting-edge technology. The Germans at Peenemünde kill several test pilots in the process of making their V-1 Buzz Bombs fly straight; director Michael Anderson uses dramatic angles for their funerals. We're treated to inspiring close-ups of Ace aviatrix Hannah Reitsch (Barbara Rütting) courageously riding the unpredictable rocket. Hannah Reitsch later flew into and out of Berlin when Hitler was pinned in his bunker, as seen in Hitler: The Last Ten Days and Downfall. Had the Germans won the war this amazing woman surely would have been the subject of many reverent biographies.
The tension takes on a contemporary relevance when Hitler's scientists bombard London with sinister V-1s. Scooting along at 400 mph, the Buzz Bombs are too fast for easy interception and carry enough explosive to blow up several houses. Although associated with 'Nazi Terror,' the V-1's are primitive versions of our own modern cruise missiles. The later V-2 missiles fall so quickly from sub-orbit that they're almost undetectable. A V2 hit can take out the better part of a city block.
For its finale the film swings into fantastic territory: The Germans have built a gigantic rocket lab and launching base deep below eighty feet of solid rock, a fortress that would be the envy of Ernst Stavro Blofeld. The historical V-10 is said to have advanced no farther than the planning stage, but Operation Crossbow pretends that the rocket is ready to launch ... to strike New York City!
The last minute chaos and gunplay in the Nazi fortress resolves Operation Crossbow as a SuperSpy fantasy like Dr. No or the now obscure WW2 spy picture Sabotage Agent (The Adventures of Tartu). In that 1943 English film, Robert Donat single-handedly blows up a vast underground Nazi installation bigger than anything in Metropolis. 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.
In keeping with the 60s trend in escapist war thrillers, Crossbow celebrates elite warriors accomplishing the impossible and 'turning the course of the war.' Civilians like Sophia Loren's unfortunate character matter little in this cold equation. In Sabotage Agent Loren's place is taken by a very young Glynis Johns, a downtrodden forced laborer. Sabotage emphasizes that the war is being fought to save unfortunate Europeans from tyranny. Crossbow is more concerned with glory and cool weaponry; even its heroes are expendable.
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. Every plot turn is underlined with bombastic musical chords from Ron Goodwin's retro score. Elliot Scott's elaborate sets are definitely meant to compete with Ken Adams' work for the James Bond films.
Fans of British acting talent will enjoy the enormous cast. On view are Anthony Quayle (a formidable spymaster), an underused Richard Todd (a photo expert), Sylvia Syms and John Fraser (more photo experts), and Maurice Denham, Richard Wattis, Allan Cuthbertson and Charles Lloyd Pack (more boffins & officers). Patrick Wymark's Winston Churchill conducts the entire war under dramatic lighting, while chain-smoking. Richard Johnson is the dry hero who relays information to the Prime Minister. The German characters speak subtitled German and are played by continentals: Helmut Dantine, Paul Henreid, Karel Stepanek, Anton Diffring -- and our old favorite Ferdy Mayne (Where Eagles Dare, The Fearless Vampire Killers).
Warners' DVD of Operation Crossbow it's a perennially popular 'guy' film like Ice Station Zebra. The enhanced 2.35:1 transfer is sharp and colorful and the lively 5.1 sound mix may have been derived from a six-track stereo original. 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 amusing original ad copy assures us that our fearless saboteurs possess 'licenses to kill.' Trevor Howard's annoying professor character becomes a man of mystery among the cluster of stars in the exaggerated key art painting, which also makes Lili Palmer look like an automobile hood ornament.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Operation Crossbow rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Vintage featurette: A Look Back at Crossbow, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 23, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson