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I don't remember Operation Daybreak hitting theaters anywhere near me, and in 1975 I scoured the newspaper every week for something interesting to see. The well-made British production can be applauded for its fairly faithful account of a WW2 assassination mission called "Operation Anthropoid". Although the facts were kept secret at the time, the world heard that the Czechoslovakian resistance patriots had succeeded in gravely wounding Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the Final Solution. Heydrich was serving as the Reichsprotektor of Prague and had earned the names "The Hangman" and "The Butcher of Prague" for his utterly brutal actions. Czechoslovakian industry and agriculture was enslaved to provide support for the German war effort, and Czech citizens were little more than slaves.
Heydrich served to focus for hate and loathing in two American movies from 1943, both made by directors from the German film industry. Fritz Lang's superb Hangmen Also Die! invents a (beautifully plotted) fantasy of intrigue in which patriotic assassins, a Communist resistance organization and the general public join forces to foil the German occupiers. Lang and his writers took the liberty of characterizing Heydrich as a mincing pervert who wears makeup and flashes a degenerate smile as he flaunts his power. Douglas Sirk had been making German movies up until the late 1930s, some with pro-German propagandistic content. When his PRC poverty row production Hitler's Madman was bought by MGM, Sirk enjoyed a career breakthrough. Heydrich is played by John Carradine, who had played many stock villains but wasn't yet established as a horror film star.
"The Hangman" also figures prominently in the powerful 1984 film The Wannsee Conference, an enactment of the exact minutes of a January 1942 meeting in which Heydrich laid out the basic plan to relocate and murder Europe's Jews. Heydrich runs the meeting like a corporate briefing, intimidating attendees too slow to see what's being proposed. He projects his authority, delivers his talking points and sidesteps dissent. It's as if he's pushing through a controversial marketing strategy.
Czech director Jiri Sequens filmed a true-life account of the "Anthropoid" mission called Atentát in 1964, butit wasn't seen in the U.S. any more than any other Soviet Bloc production. The factual story wouldn't be dramatized in the West until 1975's Operation Daybreak. The no-nonsense docudrama was adapted by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) from a book by Alan Burgess. The director is the capable Lewis Gilbert, of Alfie, and the movie was filmed on the streets of Prague by the celebrated French cinematographer Henri Decaë (The Sicilian Clan, Castle Keep). In keeping things realistic, Gilbert and producer Carter DeHaven downplay the personal sub-plots. Believe it or not, the daring leader of the kill mission picks fell in love with a beautiful Czech girl in the course of his mission .... a development that apparently really happened.
The story begins in London. The Czech resistance in exile decides to shake up the German occupiers by sending in a commando team to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich (Anton Diffring) right in the middle of Prague. Sgt. Jan Kubis (Timothy Bottoms), Sgt. Karel Kurda (Martin Shaw) and Sgt. Josef Gabcik (Anthony Andrews of Danger UXB and Under the Volcano) parachute into the country, are helped by Czechs sympathetic to their cause, and stay with Marie Moracová (Diana Coupland), a fervent anti-Nazi who risks her entire family to harbor them. When a couple of initial ideas -- including shooting at Heydrich with a high powered rifle as he passes in a moving train -- are rejected or fail, the two agents simply join with several newly arrived comrades to ambush Heydrich's motorcade and shoot him right in front of his machine gun-toting guardst. On the morning in question, they have incredibly good luck: Heydrich is in a hurry, and orders his open staff car to speed into town. His security vehicles are left far behind.
What happens from then on pretty much follows the historical accounts. Good luck is followed by unpredictable events and terrible misfortune. The killers think that they've failed until it is learned that Heydrich has been seriously wounded by shrapnel from Kubis' grenade. Faced with leaving his local family, one of the assassins suddenly decides to choose their security over the lives of his comrades.
The movie makes some unusual, welcome choices. Actor Anton Diffring, a German expatriate who specialized in Nazis and mad doctors, finally gets to play a credible Nazi. Observed at an SS wedding, a Christmas party and other social gatherings, Heydrich is a proud and polished executive who commands the respect of his SS subordinates. When "greeting" some Czech officials, he listens contemptuously to one of their number pleading for mercy for some workers sentenced to death as hostages. Heydrich lets his interpreter speak his curt response: "What happens to any Czechs doesn't concern me in the least". Heydrich knows he's being groomed for even higher position within the Reich, so any rumors about his callousness will only enhance his "corporate profile".
Overall Operation Daybreak gets high marks from war movie fans that value accuracy. Only a few details have been altered. Timothy Bottoms is probably too quiet and unassuming to make Jan Kubis into a two-fisted hero, a detail that will appeal to viewers looking for historical credibility. The Germans eradicate the town of Lidice in reprisal for the killing of Heydrich. The local Gestapo chief Fleischer (Rene Koldehoff of Playtime and Soldier of Orange) is getting nowhere when one of the conspirators just walks in to inform on his comrades. The ensuing roundup is appalling; the Moracová family is caught unawares. Marie's husband (Ronald Radd of The Kremlin Letter) has no idea what his wife is up when the Germans break in. Jan Kubis leaves his girlfriend Anna (Nicola Pagett) on the street to duck into the downtown church where his fellow conspirators are quietly hiding. Just by coincidence, this is the very moment that hundreds of German troops surround the building.
The finale is played out in the actual historical location. With surrender not an option, the defenders gun down scores of Germans attempting to break in, until Fleischer realizes that the fighters are holed up in a basement with no drain. He has firemen pump water in through a (now famous) window in the thick stone walls. A few feet away, Anna watches the whole ordeal helplessly from behind a police barrier.
The movie ends by telegraphing the fates of some of the survivors. Although we get the general idea of what happened to Marie Moracová and her son, those interested in the grisly details will need to consult a book or the Wiki article. Few of the major players survive very long, not even poor Anna, who was rounded up in a general reprisal raid and shipped to a concentration camp.
It's not a pretty story. We're told that over 13,000 people were arrested. The out-of-proportion reprisals may have convinced the Allies not to pursue other assassination attempts, although they did try to knock off Hitler once or twice. Curiously, Jan Kubis' hard luck began back in England. He was a last minute replacement for another agent injured during training. Kubis had to be sent with almost no preparation. The Czech that didn't go was named Svoboda, the name given to the successful assassin in the Fritz Lang movie.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Operation Daybreak is a good-looking transfer of a film that may have been given only a limited release in 1975 (any help with this?). 1 We're accustomed to seeing places like Prague portrayed on small Hollywood sets, which makes the broad streets and beautiful buildings of the city all the more impressive; if this were my town, I'd want the invaders driven out as well, at any cost. David Hentschel's suspenseful music score avoids overloading the picture with martial themes, a cliché of so many war movies.
One detail looks like a mistake, but might not be. The Czechs speak in English and the Germans speak in unsubtitled German, often for fairly long scenes. This may add to the realism, but important things appear to be being discussed and we haven't a clue as to what they might be. One of the other Germans is supposed to be Karl Frank, another major Nazi villain. At least one viewer on the IMDB claims that he saw the film when new and it had no subtitles. This is one case where adding subs would be a correction, or a positive revision.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Operation Daybreak rates:
Dear Glenn: I don't recall this getting any playdates in Michigan, and I never saw a New York Times review. [I faintly recall a Variety review at some point in 1975.] I was in Los Angeles in the Fall of '75, and I can assure you that it didn't play LA that autumn. I know it did get a British release; I recall reading some English reviews. I caught up with this when it played HBO a few years later. Warners had a couple of other essentially shelved pictures around that time [The Ultimate Warrior, The Squeeze]; the studio might have briefly tested this and decided not to pursue general domestic distribution. Best, Always. -- "B"
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