“Operation Crossbow” (1965)
Written by Emeric Pressburger, Derry Quinn, and Ray Rigby
Story by Duilio Colletti and Vittoriano Petrilli
Directed by Michael Anderson
Written by Emeric Pressburger, Derry Quinn and Ray Rigby (working from a story by Duilio Colletti and Vittoriano Petrilli), director Michael Anderson’s “Operation Crossbow” is a heavily fictionalized espionage thriller mixed with elements of real history that gives viewers a look at a mostly-overlooked (at least by American audiences) chapter of World War II.
It’s early 1944. As the American, British and Canadian divisions which make up the bulk of the Allied Expeditionary Force prepare for the long-awaited invasion of continental Europe, Nazi scientists are feverishly working on two types of Vergeltungswaffen (vengeance weapons), the V-1 and V-2.
The jet-powered V-1s, forerunners of modern cruise missiles, have a tendency to crash before reaching their targets, thus delaying Hitler’s plan to strike at Great Britain now that his once-mighty Luftwaffe has lost control of the skies and can’t embark on a strategic bombing campaign against England.
In steps Hanna Reitsch (Barbara Rutting), Germany’s most famous aviatrix and a personal favorite of Hitler himself. A skilled and courageous pilot as well as an ardent Nazi, Reitsch volunteers to fly a manned version of the V-1 and discovers that problems with the guidance system are causing the mysterious crashes.
Meanwhile, across the North Sea, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Patrick Wymark) is worried about reports that Nazi scientists are working on several types of Vergeltungswaffen which, if true, will wreak havoc on Allied bases and port facilities in the United Kingdom and terrorize British civilians even more than during the infamous blitz of 1940 and early 1941.
Churchill assigns his son-in-law Duncan Sandys (Richard Johnson) to look into the matter. Eventually, Sandys, who was wounded in action as an operative in Nazi-occupied Norway earlier in the war, is convinced that the Vergeltungswaffen threat is no bluff, even though a top British scientist, Professor Lindemann (Trevor Howard) dismisses the V-weapons as pure fancy…that is, until the first V-1s (nicknamed “buzz bombs” for the noise made by their simple pulse-jet engines) start falling on London sic days after D-Day (June 13, 1944).
After a devastating Royal Air Force attack on the factories and testing ground at Peenemunde on Germany’s Baltic coast, the Nazis transfer their rocket production facilities to more secure underground locations. They also start a desperate campaign to recruit engineers to perfect and speed up production of the V-2 rocket, a larger and deadlier component of the Vergeltungswaffen family. Essentially a forerunner of the Soviet-made SCUD missile used by Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War, the V-2 is more dangerous than the V-1 because it can’t be detected or shot down with the technology available to the Allies in late 1944.
British intelligence decides to send (via parachute into occupied Holland, and from there to the Reich itself) a trio of undercover agents to infiltrate the ranks of Germany’s Vergeltungswaffen developers and discover the underground factories before the Nazis build enough V-2s to seriously affect the outcome of the war.
Unfortunately, a British officer named Bamford (Anthony Quayle) who was not chosen for the mission is in truth a German double agent and he identifies one of the infiltrators (Tom Courtenay), who has been arrested by the Gestapo due to a problem with his cover story.
Fortunately, however, at least one of the Allied operatives makes it past the German security networks: Lt. John Curtis (George Peppard), an Army Air Force officer who is impersonating Erik van Ostamgen, a now-dead Nazi scientist. With a solid engineering background and the ability to speak German naturally, Curtis is “Operation Crossbow”’s best hope for success.
But when Nora (Sophia Loren), the Italian ex-wife of the scientist Curtis is pretending to be, shows up to settle a nettlesome child custody dispute, the operation is apparently more compromised. With the Germans’ furiously working to speed up production of the V-2s and the Gestapo on the Allied agents’ trail, the fate of “Operation Crossbow” lies on what Curtis does next!
My Take: “Operation Crossbow” is an entertaining mix of two different genres – historical dramas and James Bond-style espionage thrillers. Based on (and named after) the Allied campaigns to disrupt or destroy the development and deployment of Hitler’s infamous Vergeltungswaffen, the movie strives to deliver a little history lesson mixed in with audience-pleasing suspense and action along the same lines of Albert R. Broccoli’s adaptations of Ian Fleming’s series of Bond novels.
As is the case with any movie which delves into Allied espionage against the Nazis during World War II, the outcome of the cloak-and-dagger doings in “Operation Crossbow” is hardly in doubt. Just as we know that James Bond will always foil SPECTRE or any of the megalomaniacs he faces off against in that long-running franchise, we know that the Vergeltungswaffen project will be derailed by the likes of Lt. Curtis and his comrades.
The fun of watching “Operation Crossbow” lies, rather, in the details of how the “good guys” overcome the obstacles placed in their path by screenwriters Pressburger, Quinn and Rigby. Some, like the inclusion of Loren’s Nora to complicate Peppard’s character’s mission, are superfluous; she was cast not only because she was a “top draw” in the 1960s but also because her husband, Carlo Ponti, was the film’s producer. Loren gets top billing – yes, her name is listed above George Peppard’s! – even though her character doesn’t get much onscreen time.
Other elements of the story are effective even though they are clichés of the genre. Quayle’s Bamford, for instance, is a key adversary and a deadly threat to our heroes’ plan. The actor’s performance and the effectiveness of his character’s actions makes us forget that many WWII spy/saboteur films (including 1962’s “The Guns of Navarone”) also feature German double agents or disguised Axis sympathizers as dramatic foils.
To add credibility to “Operation Crossbow”’s fictitious narrative, Pressburger, Quinn and Rigby include some real-life figures – from both sides of the war – who were linked in some way to the Vergeltungswaffen and the campaign to destroy them. Winston Churchill, Duncan Sandys and Hanna Reitsch (who, for a time was Hitler’s personal pilot and remained an unrepentant Nazi till her death in 1979) make brief but pivotal appearances in the film, and some of the V-weapons’ teething problems are also depicted with some accuracy.
Interestingly, “Operation Crossbow” uses a technique utilized in more fact-based films (“The Longest Day,” “Battle of Britain” and “A Bridge Too Far”) but rarely in “pure entertainment” World War II fare: German characters or Allied ones who can speak the language while operating in the Reich speak in German (with English subtitles provided). This technique was still revolutionary in the mid-1960s; most World War II movies (produced both before and since “Operation Crossbow”) tend to feature German characters (sometimes even those played by German actors such as Maximillian Schell, Curt Jergens and Jurgen Prochnow) speaking their lines in heavily accented English. (If Metro Goldwyn Mayer had had its way, the German language scenes would have been dubbed into English for the American market; happily, director Michael Anderson convinced the studio to leave the soundtrack in its original form.)
If there are weaknesses in “Operation Crossbow”, they are few and far between. Like in many spy thrillers – even some of the Bond films included – the pacing can be slow, especially in the second act when the Allied operatives are inserted into enemy territory. The film could have used some trimming – Sophia Loren’s scenes, while they amount to a glorified cameo, are not really necessary and add little to the already complicated plot – but on the whole the movie still works fairly well.
- Format: Color, Closed-captioned, Dubbed, Subtitled
- Language: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), French (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)
- Subtitles: English
- Dubbed: French
- Region: Region 1
- Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
- Number of discs: 1
- Rated: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
- Studio: Warner Home Video
- DVD Release Date: December 19, 2006
- Run Time: 116 minutes
- Vintage featurette: "A Look Back at Crossbow"
- Theatrical trailer