Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Operation Crossbow (aka The Great Spy Mission)

Operation Crossbow (Michael Anderson, 1965) There actually was an "Operation Crossbow" during the second World War of the 20th Century, designed to stop the next generation of weapons the Nazi's were dabbling in, after the costly Battle of Britain and before an anticipated amphibious landing on the shores of Great Britain—the V-1 (or "buzzbombs") and the V-2 rockets (predecessor to both the American and Russian space programs, but designed to deliver explosives and blind destruction). The reality was a bit more mundane than here, which is staged like The Guns of Navarone (the script was initially drafted by Emeric Pressburger of "The Archers") with a team of experts charged with infiltrating the German development complex with a plan to destroy it from without and within.

As with so many of these "true stories" of the war, it's only partially true:  the threat was real; dealing with it was another matter. The film is comprised of two sections: the administrators of the mission (Richard Johnson, Trevor Howard, John Mills) coming up with various strategies to deal with the pilotless weapons and the recruits (George Peppard, Tom Courtney, and Jeremy Kemp) whose job it is to drop behind enemy lines, pose as dead or missing German engineers and infiltrate the Peenemünde rocket-works, gather information and/or sabotage the facility.
Bunker windows are letter-boxed!
Watching a V-1 test—actually the most interesting part of the film.
From the beginning, the mission is sabotaged by a lack of complete intelligence and by infiltrators in the process: one of the missing Germans is missing for a reason—he's wanted for murder and sticks out like a sore thumb to the authorities when he suddenly shows up in plain sight; one of the specialists volunteering to break into the rocket plant is a German spy (Anthony Quayle) who goes back to Germany and runs interference throughout the rest of the film.
"You want us to...what?"  Courtney, Kemp and Peppard
Operation Crossbow
Then there's Peppard's alias—seems his German has a wife (Sophia Loren) who comes looking for him when she learns that he's suddenly turned up in a German hotel. Well, that complicates things when she discovers the man with her husband's name and identity is a total stranger. She's kept under wraps by a resistance couple (Lili Palmer, Philo Hauser) until the trio can escape the scrutiny of the German authorities.
"Uh...what's she doing here?"
Loren's role is completely unnecessary—and very brief—as there are enough complications with the purloined identities to make things rough going. No, she's there to be confused, wistful, play slightly drunk, and exit, and not too quietly. Oh...and get top billing to bring in the crowds, and to provide the unnecessary (and frankly irrelevant and mislabeled) "love interest"—although it hardly qualifies—for a film that is essentially all-male in character and scope.* 
While the historically valid "Crossbow" occurs in the skies over London with the various anti-aircraft measures designed to blow the missiles out of the skies or at least knock them off-course, the trio of infiltrators (minus one) get recruited at the vast underground missile complex and begin the process of finding the weaknesses of the weapons (while ironically working to fix them to maintain their cover) and the complex (which they, unironically, intend to destroy).
Peppard and Kemp compare notes on missiles—Peppard has appeared to be
beaten up, although that sequence was cut from the film.
The film did not do well at the American box-office, prompting the studio to re-name the film The Great Spy Mission (check out the poster paste-over to the right) upon re-release as they thought the "Crossbow" reference might have confused audiences into thinking it was involving knights and archery (and as the movie-going public was in the midst of being bombarded with everything James Bond...hey, it couldn't hurt). The film, whatever its title, has more in common with The Guns of Navarone than with Bond, although the next year the Bond producers would begin work on You Only Live Twice, which, itself, more resembled Navarone and this film than anything from Fleming's source-novel. Certainly, Crossbow's imagining of Peenemünde has as much basis in reality as a hollowed-out volcano space-command does. And the writers-producers have upped the ante by introducing a new weapon that has come online—the "New York" bomb, that city presumably being the target because, hey, bombing London just isn't enough, especially if you're trying to sell a film to an American audience.
Peenemünde looks like a very big place...
As dumb as that idea is, and the whole puffery of the thing, you do have to give some sort of pointage to a film that had the balls (Spoiler Alert) to kill off two its major stars before the half-way point of the film and eliminate all of its heroes by the film's end. For all the fantasy that the film imparted to the war, it dared to not reward courage but show the indiscriminate horror of war, despite all efforts and good intentions. America was in the midst of the Vietnam war at the time, and despite its trappings of fantasy amidst the threads of the true story, it dared to show the true nihilism of war—in the generation of deliberate destruction, no one gets out alive. Operation Crossbow has real problems as a film, but it dared to not cave in to a happy ending with garlands and celebration, or even of satisfaction with a mission accomplished. It leaves the viewer with a realization of cost towards the noble in the most ignoble of times.

*Not entirely true, that: some of the best scenes involve a German aviatrix, Hannah Reitsch—yes, she did exist—who worked on the project investigating why early test pilots of the V-1 in its planning stages were being killed trying to land the thing.  She discovered the V-1's had a tendency to stall and lose all guidance capabilities—not good if you're targeting something.

No comments:

Post a Comment