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In the middle of WW2, a trio of daring British volunteer officers for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) penetrated an important Greek island occupied by thousands of German paratroops, to carry off a highly unlikely feat of espionage right under the noses of the Wehrmacht. The highly regarded movie of this famous exploit is not The Guns of Navarone, but the final film by The Archers, England's most creative and original filmmaking team. Moving on from exotic dramas, delirious movies about artists and quirky musicals, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had just enjoyed a big success with a big-budget sea-going war film, an account of the trapping of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee. The exciting Battle of the River Plate was filmed in color and VistaVision, and was one of the most celebrated British productions of its year.
The Archers then signed with United Artists to distribute a show about another patriotic war incident for the unofficial "How I Won the War" sub-genre. In 1944, British adventurer-spies Major Patrick "Paddy" Leigh-Fermor and Captain William "Billy" Stanley Moss joined with Greek resistance on Crete to kidnap the German commander General Heinrich Kreipe, sneak him halfway across the rocky island, and ship him off to Egypt. The allies couldn't kick the Germans out of Greece, but as crazy secret spy raids go this was a better-than-average symbolic gesture. The embarrassment to the German high command must have been withering.
What makes Ill Met by Moonlight great is that it tells the story almost completely straight. Our adventurers bed no gorgeous Greek women between "recce" (reconnoiter) outings. 1 They instead end up sleeping in shacks with smelly goats and Greek partisans that smell like goats. A third Brit agent named Sandy (Cyril Cusack) mans a radio post under deep cover, and hasn't bathed in six months. He tries to be polite by standing downwind when he can. True to the facts, there are no major shootouts with the Germans. The daring Leigh-Fermor seizes Kreipe's command car by means of a simple stick-up. Wearing German uniforms, the kidnappers sneak through a couple of dozen German roadblocks and then force-march the General for days over the Cretan mountains. At one point they must drive through a town packed with German soldiers just getting out of a movie show. When the fugitives reach the shore their scheduled rendezvous with an English speedboat is blocked by German troops stationed on the beaches. How will they avoid being caught by a German patrol?
Ill Met by Moonlight has a prestigious cast headed by top English star Dirk Bogarde as Major Patrick Leigh-Leigh-Fermor, dubbed "Philedem" by his Greek allies. As his confederate Captain William Stanley Moss, David Oxley (The Hound of the Baskervilles) shares the slightly devil-may-care attitude revered by young adventure lovers, that Rudyard Kipling spirit that assumes that being caught and executed is a foregone conclusion. If the situation is that absurd, why not stay cool, keep a sense of humor and tough it out? Properly outfitted and well versed in the language, Leigh-Fermor and Moss wander about Greek towns in full view of the enemy. Unmasked in a dentist's office by a pair of Germans, they don't have to be fancy martial artists: their Greek minders are eager cutthroats. 2
I mentioned The Guns of Navarone up front because it and Ill Met by Moonlight have almost nothing in common, despite similar content. The later color epic pretty much pushed the "How I Won the War" subgenre aside in favor of wholly escapist thrills. Anticipating the James Bond fantasies to come, the Gregory Peck-David Niven film balances its realistic, spectacular special effects with Germans that can't even keep spy prisoners under arrest. They also carry those very special Bad Guy guns that can't hit anything. The Germans of Navarone should just throw away their gunboats, airplanes and bombs, as they're only an inconvenience to the team of British spies.
That means that Ill Met by Moonlight will appeal to fans who want to know how it really was. We quickly realize that the Brits have a good chance because the Greeks support them, apparently to a man. Nobody betrays them, at least not on purpose. The reprisals after the raid must have been terrible; the show's Greeks insist that they just don't care. Any way to strike back at the occupiers is okay by them.
Frequent Archers actor Marius Goring plays the General, a clever man who does his best to hold up the escape by injuring himself. He also leaves a trail of medals and buttons in hopes of guiding the thousands of paratroops sent out to recover him. The crucial dramatic conflict in the film comes when the eager young partisan Niko (Demetri Andreas) joins the group. Niko is desperate to earn a pair of proper boots, which are reserved only for adult fighters. General Kreipe gives Niko a rare gold piece to trade for German footwear. As his entire army is aware of his lucky gold piece, Kreipe knows the boy will be immediately arrested and forced to betray the partisans.
Also in the show are Laurence Payne (The Crawling Eye), Michael Gough (Batman), Paul Stassino (Thunderball, The Stranglers of Bombay) and John Cairney (A Night to Remember as Greek patriots, Christopher Lee as a German soldier and Christopher Rhodes (Gorgo) as another German General. An officer briefly spotted on the bridge of the motor launch is none other than David McCallum (The Great Escape), looking like he's still in high school. Does it ever seem like British filmmaking was a really closed system, with the same 50 actors appearing in everything?
The final big plus for Ill Met by Moonlight is the energetic music score by Mikis Theodorakis. This appears to be the great Theodorakis' first assignment for a non-Greek picture, and his contribution is major. One of the songs is "Philedem", which sounds like something traditional until we realize that it's being sung in honor of Major Leigh-Fermor. In any case, fans of the music for Phaedra, Zorba the Greek and "Z" will be highly interested.
In his autobiography Michael Powell expressed his frustration with his decision to film the show in the VistaVision. The format's bulky cameras required his crew to go to a lot of extra effort lugging heavier equipment over the Greek hills. The superior visuals obtained should have been worth it. After all that trouble, Powell complained that the final prints didn't look appreciably better than if it had been shot in standard 35mm. Watching Ill Met by Moonlight on the Hen's Tooth disc, we can tell that its camera format was VistaVision because the few emulsion scratches we see run sideways, not vertically. I've seen plenty of Paramount VistaVision shows in B&W with excellent film quality, so it's a shame that in this instance the technology let Powell & Pressburger down.
Final note: the movie is based on William Stanley Moss's book of the same name, which is a quote from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ill Met by Moonlight rates:
1. American viewers should prepare to hear plenty of Britishisms ... which are very easily deduced, thanks to Hen's Tooth's accurate English subtitles.
2. Actually, in his memoirs Patrick Leigh-Fermor was haunted by the killings that took place on the raid. His hope was for a bloodless kidnapping, to lessen civilian reprisals, but he couldn't control his own knife-happy Greek fighters. This aspect appears to have been minimized in the film version -- perhaps because a secondary aim of Ill Met by Moonlight was to better Anglo-Greek relations.
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T'was Ever Thus.