Operation Crossbow (1965)

operation_crossbowThe 1960’s were the heyday of World War II movies, epic films with all-star casts that became classics of the genre and in some lesser-known cases, immense fan favorites. I love The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, The Devil’s Brigade, The Guns of Navarone and many others…but everyone knows those, right? One of my underrated favorites is today’s review, 1965’s Operation Crossbow.

It’s 1943 and World War II is raging in both the European and Pacific theaters. While armies clash, efforts in Germany are being made to develop a devastating new weapon that could alter the course of the war. The Germans are building flying pilot-less bombs that can be thrown at London, but in more frightening fashion, the scientific effort is making startling discoveries in building an immense rocket, the first of its kind. Allied Intelligence is doing everything in their power to slow down, sabotage and cripple the continuing efforts, including one desperate ploy. Three agents (George Peppard, Tom Courtenay, Jeremy Kemp) are sent into Germany posing as engineers and scientists hoping to infiltrate the rocket facility. Their chances? Slim at best.

Loosely based on the true story of the Allied effort to thwart the German rocket effort, ‘Crossbow’ is rarely mentioned as one of the better WWII movies from the 1960’s. Director Michael Anderson (The Dam Busters) turned in a much longer finished product only to see it severely edited. What remains is a 116-minute running time that’s disjointed in spots but nonetheless very entertaining. The cuts give the movie three episodic stories — the German effort, the Allied response, the agents going in — while covering about three years worth of history. I’m curious what Anderson’s full version was intended, but what’s here is an above-average, highly entertaining finished product.

‘Crossbow’ doesn’t have the A-list star power of some of its 1960s WWII contemporaries, but this is a pretty cool cast full of true actors, recognizable faces and character actors. Anderson’s film is at its strongest when focusing on the three agents, Peppard’s Curtis, Kemp’s Bradley and Courtenay’s Henshaw. This trio isn’t true spies but highly intelligent members of the military with science backgrounds thrust into a life of a spy. The story delivers one intense, stomach-turning moment after another as they try and pull off the ruse. There are some cruel twists delivered along the way for one of the trio, and a general sense of the reality of what they’re doing. It isn’t glamorized or romanticized. This is life and death not only for the agents but thousands of other people.

Plenty more folks to look for. Richard Johnson is excellent as Duncan Sandys, the British official tasked with leading the anti-rocket effort, with John Mills as a ranking MI6 officer and Trevor Howard as a doubting scientist. Don’t miss Richard Todd either in a key part. On the German side, look for Paul Henreid, Helmut Dantine and Barbara Rutting. Other essential parts include Anthony Quayle and Lilli Palmer. Producer Carlo Ponti also managed to get his wife, Sophia Loren, a key part that stretches on a little too long in delivering a potentially cool twist that never quite delivers. Still, it’s Sophia Loren! She’s on-screen for about 10 minutes or so but still gets top billing!

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): ***/****

The Guns of Navarone (1962)

gunsofnavaroneI love westerns, I love war movies, and throw in some heist flick, sci-fi epics and secret agent movies, and I’m a happy camper. But let’s get a little more specific with my favorite sub-genre across all movies. We’re talking of course of Men on a Mission movies. One of the first and still the best, here’s 1962’s The Guns of Navarone.

It’s 1943 in the Aegean Sea and some 2,000 British soldiers are trapped on the small island of Kheros. The only option to save them is to send six destroyers in the dead of night to rescue them, but there’s a problem. The only route through the sea is defended by two immense, radar-controlled super-guns that are protected in a seemingly impregnable cave on the island of Navarone. With so much on the line, a commando team is sent in to destroy the guns, including Mallory (Gregory Peck), a commando/spy and former mountain climber, Stavrou (Anthony Quinn), a former Greek officer and Mallory’s partner, and Miller (David Niven), an explosives expert. Time is running out though, and the odds are stacked against the team. Can they somehow pull off the suicide mission and save the men on Kheros?

The late 1950s and much of the entire 1960s were packed with epic WWII movies, and ‘Guns’ belongs in that conversation right up at the top. From director J. Lee Thompson and based off a novel by Alistair MacLean, this men-on-a-mission epic has definitely stood the test of time. There are flaws (more later), but as a pure popcorn film full of excitement and adventure, it is hard to beat. Filmed on location in Rhodes and Gozo, it is a beautiful film, fully taking advantage of the widescreen format. The look of a WWII epic can get overshadowed, but it adds an element here. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin turns in an Oscar-nominated score as well, a memorable score with a good theme and familiar notes.

But how about a team of specialists on an impossible mission?!? ‘Guns’ was one of the first films to use that basic premise to its full potential. Countless others followed in the 1960s and have ever since. The formula is simple. Assemble your team of specialists, all with their unique skillset, and give them something highly dangerous and likely deadly to perform. Who makes it out? Will the job get done? There’s nothing too crazy with the premise, but when handled correctly, it’s a gem. It belongs up there with The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare (another MacLean novel) as one of the sub-genre’s best.

This effort succeeds so well because of the casting. On my recent viewing, I came away impressed with Peck’s Mallory more than previous viewings. A capable officer, he’s thrust into an unlikely leadership role that forces him to make some incredibly uncomfortable decisions. An interesting part, and a solid character arc. Quinn is at his understated, scene-stealing best as Andrea Stavrou, a steely-eyed killer who hates the Germans. The Mallory/Stavrou history adds an excellent, mysterious edge to the story as well. And rounding out the lead trio, Niven lends some comedic effort as Miller, the explosives expert who has no real interest in war. Three Hollywood legends, and wouldn’t you know it? They all deliver.

The team also includes Brown (Stanley Baker), a mechanical expert and knife fighter, Pappadimos (James Darren), the born killer, and Franklin (Anthony Quayle), the team leader. They’re joined on Navarone by two resistance fighters, Maria (Irene Papas) and Anna (Gia Scala). Not enough for you? Plenty of familiar British faces lend supporting parts, including James Robertson Justice, Richard Harris, Percy Herbert, Bryan Forbes, Allan Cuthbertson and Walter Gotell.

It’s easy to take for granted what an impact ‘Guns’ has had on the action/adventure genre since its release in 1962. The men-on-a-mission angle especially is the key, but it laid the groundwork for so many like-minded movies in the years to come. There are flaws — a touch slow at times, especially the cliff-scaling scene; the Germans seem too stupid for their own good at times — but there are few movies that are as exciting, as fun, and simply put, well-made, as this flick from Thompson and a talented crew.

A classic for a reason. If you haven’t seen it by now, make a point of seeking it out. Hopefully you’ll like it just as much as I did!

The Guns of Navarone (1962): ****/****