Battle of Britain (1969)

Battle of BritainThe 1960s were the age of big budget war flicks, all-star casts leading the way in stories about World War II films. The most notable is The Longest Day – the telling of D-Day – but there were plenty more, including The Battle of the Bulge and today’s review, 1969’s Battle of Britain.

It’s summer 1940, and Germany’s Third Reich seems on the verge of winning World War II following the disaster at Dunkirk. But as Great Britain prepares for an inevitable invasion, the Germans crossing the English Channel, Germany pulls up and waits, giving the Brits time to prepare. What will decide the coming battle? Air superiority, the mighty German Luftwaffe and its 2,500 plans ready to square off against the British RAF and its 650-plus planes. With the odds overwhelmingly stacked against them, the British prepare for a battle that could save or lose the country.

As far as history goes, you wouldn’t believe that the history actually happened this way unless the books told us. It’s crazy. If Germany had kept pushing soon after Dunkirk, World War II may have been over in 1940. Instead, in one of the most world-altering decisions ever, German forces halted, basking in the win and prepping for the invasion. So…yeah, a story that makes for an excellent feature film.

From director Guy Hamilton, ‘Britain’ is a more than solid telling of the battle of Britain, condensing four months of fighting into a 132-minute final run time. At times, the story feels a little too quick, too condensed, but you always have a sense of what’s going on and where the British and Germans stand. It’s a whirlwind final product, but as a viewer, you never feel lost. You’re able to keep up and go for the ride, the exhilaration kicking in as we start to see the tide of the battle turning.

So I’ve written 4 paragraphs without a mention of any specific cast members. What’s wrong with me?!? ‘Britain’ isn’t the biggest all-star cast, but there are plenty of British and German actors filling out some major roles. The pilots include Michael CaineIan McShaneChristopher PlummerRobert Shaw and Edward Fox among several other familiar faces. The RAF higher-ups include Trevor HowardLaurence Olivier, Nigel Patrick and Patrick WymarkHarry Andrews, Michael Redgrave and Ralph Richardson also appear as British government officials.

What’s cool here is though the story is British-heavy, the Germans are fairly portrayed and not shown as monsters, simply soldiers trying to accomplish a mission. Well, except Goring, he’s a lunatic. Curd Jurgens makes a quick appearance as a German representative while Karl Otto Alberty appears briefly as a high-ranking German officer.

It’s an interesting mix, following the high command in their war rooms with maps and radar equipment spread everywhere mixed in with the footage of the pilots waiting for the call to take off and battle the incoming German fighters and bombers. Plummer gets a love interest too, romancing Susannah York in his free-time. Not just lovey-dovey story either, but an actual emotional subplot. A good mix overall in an encompassing story that strives to do a ton and mostly succeeds.

High point beyond the cast is pretty straightforward. The aerial sequences are second-to-none here. World War II-era planes go toe to toe, battling over England for aerial control. The action is set to composer Ron Goodwin’s energetic, patriotic score (reminiscent of his Force 10 from Navarone theme), and you can just sit back and watch the crazy action develop. It’s never overly graphic, but the violence can be startling too, both blood squibs and then just the quicker, more visceral explosions as a plane blows up.

An excellent World War II film, solid casting and amazing aerial sequences.

The Battle of Britain (1969): ***/****

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The Cockleshell Heroes (1955)

Writing reviews about World War II, I’ve watched epics about large-scale battles, personal stories about the home front, behind the scenes stories about government/administration, but my favorite has always been the men-on-a-mission sub-genre, commandos, specialists and secret agents working together to pull off an impossible mission. One of my favorites I recently rewatched for the first time in quite awhile is 1955’s The Cockleshell Heroes.

Early in 1942 with WWII’s outcome still very much in question, Royal Marines Captain Stringer (Jose Ferrer) has been tasked with an improbable mission. German ships operating out of the French city of Bordeaux have been wreaking havoc on Allied shipping, and Stringer must attempt to reach the harbor city with a small group of commandos, destroying as many ships as possible. The catch? They’ll be doing it by paddling up the Garonne River in two-man canoes. With help from a career Marine officer, Captain Thompson (Trevor Howard), Stringer goes about training his team of volunteers for a mission that seems suicidal to everyone involved.

From star and director Ferrer (one of 7 films he directed), ‘Heroes’ is based on the true story of Operation Frankton which took place in December 1942. I watched it as a kid on the History Channel and have always remembered it fondly. Released in 1955, it is more of a heroic look at the bravery these commandos showed on their mission. It doesn’t yet have the darkness, cynicism or reality of so many WWII movies released a few years later in the 1960s. There is still an innocence to the story, a “nice” factor. The commandos are the heroes, their Nazi counterparts stereotypically evil. ‘Heroes’ is only 98 minutes long and was shot on a smaller scale (some cool English locations providing good background) with the focus on this specific mission. There’s no sense of a bigger issue or the state of the war. Instead, it’s about 8 commandos and the officers leading them. When handled right, who needs a bigger scale than that?

Not a hugely well known movie, ‘Heroes’ doesn’t have the same name recognition in its cast so many other war films have. Ferrer is solid but not particularly memorable as Major Stringer, the unlikely, volunteer commander of the mission. He has several strong dialogue scenes with Howard’s Thompson as a rivalry develops about how the mission should be handled, but there’s little doubt who the star is. Trevor Howard is a scene-stealer, putting a spin on the stiff upper lip British officer. He’s prim and proper and interested in the bottom line — the success of the mission — more than how the men feel about him. Thompson is the only character given any real background and Howard does not disappoint.

The commandos include Victor Maddern as Sgt. Craig, Thompson’s right-hand man, as well as the Marine volunteers; Anthony Newley as Clarke, the smart-alec, David Lodge as Ruddock, the strongest of the Marines, Peter Arne as Stevens, the capable Corporal, Percy HerbertGraham StewartJohn Fabian as Cooney, the Irishman, John Van Eyssen, and Robert Desmond (The Great Escape). Newley, Maddern and Lodge stand out from the group as memorable.

At its heart, this is a men on a mission movie. It just so happens to be based on a true story, the results of the movie mission exaggerated a bit relative to the actual history. Truth or not, ‘Heroes’ follows a familiar formula. The story is pretty clearly divided in two parts; the training for the mission and then the execution of said-mission. I would have liked some more character background on the commandos, but the training scenes do just enough to differentiate them from each other. There are some original, unique scenes, including Stringer parachuting his commandos into England…..dressed as German soldiers. No money, no identification, they must trek some 300-plus miles back to the base without getting caught. These are some necessary scenes, giving us a rooting interest in these men as they head off to their mission.

Not surprisingly then, the best parts of the movie are the actual mission, dubbed ‘Cockleshell,’ as Stringer’s team is dropped off by a British sub (commanded by Christopher Lee) and must paddle over 70 miles up the Garonne River to their target, ships waiting in the harbor. The final 40 minutes are tense and adrenaline-pumping as they navigate the river. It’s here where I started to question. If I didn’t know this was in fact a real mission, I’d say it was ridiculous. The bravery exhibited here in insane, commandos in 2-man canoes paddling exposed up a heavily guarded/defended river. HERE is a Google Map showing how far they actually traveled. The ending is downbeat with a sense of success, Howard delivering a very moving final line. Success at what cost though? Listen to some of the main theme HERE, a whistle-worthy score from composer John Addison. The link below is a documentary about the real-life mission. As for the movie, a hidden gem and one I’ve always enjoyed.

The Cockleshell Heroes <—documentary (1955): ***/****

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): ***/****