This film makes an interesting comparison with The Hill, being another production for MGM-British in 1965, also partially scripted by Ray Rigby with Emeric Pressburger (working under the pseudonym of Richard Imrie) and Derry Quinn. Their work was to adapt an original Italian story by Duilio Coletti and Vittoriano Petrilli. Why an Italian story? It’s simply because this production was instigated by Carlo Ponti who also brought his wife Sophia Loren to the package. MGM-British then added George Peppard (under contract to the studio) as an American star for what would be a prestige production. Ponti was the producer for MGM and the production was based at its Borehamwood studios and used various UK locations. Yet this is a British Second World War story and the director is Michael Anderson, best known in the UK for The Dambusters (UK 1955), arguably the biggest box office war film of the 1950s in the UK (or at least equal to The Cruel Sea (1953)). I remember the film’s release but not its prestige. I now realise that it is part of the pattern of ‘international blockbuster’ films, often produced as Hollywood ‘runaways’ by various producers based in or used to working in Europe. The Heroes of Telemark (UK 1965) is another similar title.
‘Operation Crossbow’ refers to the British and American attempts to attack the German ‘secret super weapon’ programme which produced the V1 and V2 rockets. British Intelligence was very good and a committee of the War Cabinet was formed to deal with the threat, headed by Duncan Sandys, son-in-law of Churchill and Minister of Works. He is played in the film by Richard Johnson and his appointment marks the start of the narrative. Running in parallel are the German attempts to correct a fault in the early production models of the V1 in 1943. The first V1s were launched on London soon after the D-Day landings in June 1944. A galaxy of British star names appear in the film and Sandys finds himself supported by John Mills as a senior Army figure and Maurice Denham as his RAF equivalent. Trevor Howard plays a Government scientist who is sceptical that any such ‘V’ weapons exist. (This character is historical, but seems to be exaggerated. There were other official scientific advisors who were much more positive.) As well as good intelligence, the British also have extensive air photography results and it is via educated guesswork and analysis of photographs that they discover the test site at Peenemünde on the German Baltic coast. Eventually they launch a major bombing raid when V1s begin to arrive over London. However, the film narrative now moves on to the more problematic V2 rocket which is impossible to stop once launched.
The British and Americans attempt to send agents masquerading as engineers into the main V2 development site in Southern Germany. This shifts the genre somewhat from an ‘air warfare’ combat picture to a form of spy film with Tom Courtenay, George Peppard and Jeremy Kemp as multingual scientists/engineers parachuted into Holland. This is a rushed job that means the agents are given the identities of feasible European engineers who are believed to have died, but this will cause problems later on. The agents’ aim is to open the doors protecting the rocket silo in time for a night bomber raid to attack the site effectively. Sophia Loren has a small part as the wife of one of the dead men whose identity has been used by British intelligence. I’m not going to list all the stars (mainly British and German-speaking) involved but this is one of the starriest casts I can remember.
I was quite surprised by the film which turns out to be more historically accurate than I imagined. All the characters appear to be based on real historical figures or are portrayed in a believable way. The film isn’t particularly gung-ho (apart from the climactic scenes) and the Germans are not typecast. All the dialogue in the film is delivered in the appropriate language and subtitled. Naturally I think this was a good idea and I thought it worked well, even if the language spoken by the Brits and George Peppard sounded like they were English students speaking another language for an oral exam. The photography by Erwin Hillier is excellent and there is a rousing Ron Goodwin score. Sophia Loren has only a cameo role and much as I admire and respect her, she is upstaged by Lili Palmer. Nevertheless she presumably attracted international audiences, possibly more so than George Peppard who was a big star in Hollywood at the time but lost that status at the end of the 1960s. Peppard and Jeremy Kemp would be reunited a year later playing First World War German flyers in The Blue Max. Operation Crossbow was shot using Panavision lenses and printed at 2.35:1 ‘Scope ratio. In London’s West End where it played for several weeks the film was projected in a 70mm blow-up and would I think have been impressive. Puzzlingly it doesn’t seem to have made it onto 70mm in the US.
What to make of the film now? Although it received some good reviews, the film failed in the US. In the UK it was reasonably popular, but I don’t know how it fared elsewhere in Europe. The problem appears to be that the attention to detail was appreciated but this also led to a possibly incoherent narrative. It is true that there is a switch from a ‘war combat’ narrative to more of an espionage drama, the two being linked by the scenes of the War Cabinet Committee. Perhaps critics and the general audience stumbled over the locations? The contemporary reviews in Sight & Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin both make mistakes in their synopses and plot details. Even Robert Murphy in his book British Cinema and the Second World War (2000) suggests that the V2 development base is in Holland, but we clearly see the agents entering Germany, complete with a title ‘Empire of Germany’. I do wonder if, because of all the documentaries and publications about the V weapons that have become available over the last 75 years, it is now much easier to follow the film narrative than it was in 1965? Perhaps also the film tries to do too much and as a result misses out key facets of the story? For instance, there is coverage of the V1 attacks on London and the successful anti-aircraft fire which destroyed a significant percentage of the V1s before they reached their target. However, Allied fighter-interceptors downed roughly the same number of V1s but this isn’t shown (far too expensive and technologically difficult?). The V2s couldn’t be stopped but they could be ‘diverted’ from the target towards open country, partly through intelligence directed against German technicians – again this is not mentioned.
To return to my starting point, in comparison with The Hill, Operation Crossbow suffers because of its much more complex historical narrative. It is also focused on the progress of the war, something which The Hill can ignore completely. The Hill has an American director and Operation Crossbow has an American leading man, but both provide evidence of the capabilities of UK-based production at the time which could attract major American names. Operation Crossbow also stands as a good example of the kind of American-funded international production common in the 1960s with the leadership of independent producers such as Carlo Ponti and the participation of a host of European actors. The film is available on BBC iPlayer for around 3 weeks. It’s a shame there is no UK Region 2 DVD, but the Italian and Spanish DVDs are available with the original soundtrack (but I’m not sure what that means in terms of the subtitled sequences). A US Blu-ray is also available and the film can be streamed on YouTube. Operation Crossbow is solid entertainment and worth investigating.
In the clip below Barbara Rütting as test pilot Hannah Reitsch attempts to find out why the V1 is unstable and veers to one side. Reitsch was a historical character who did fly a V1 with a specially constructed cockpit.
Some of the most popular stars and most popular films of past decades are virtually unknown by modern audiences, simply because the films aren’t shown much. Of course, it is also true that tastes change and many so called ‘classic films’ were not popular at the time of their release. But I would argue that at least part of the reason is that screening rights are lost or held by libraries that can’t (or won’t) exploit them.
After many years of watching British films at the cinema or on TV, I’ve only seen two or three of the films of Anna Neagle, yet she was arguably the biggest star of British cinema during its years of peak popularity in the late 1940s. Neagle was a major star of stage (especially musical theatre – she began her career as a dancer) and screen from the mid 1930s to the 1950s. In 1943 she married Herbert Wilcox her director since 1933 with his own production company. Wilcox had developed a relationship with the Hollywood major RKO which involved some Hollywood-based films for the pairing. I mention this because Odette (a ‘Wilcox-Neagle Production’ made at Elstree Studios) was shown in the morning graveyard slot on BBC2 usually filled with RKO films, including British-based productions.
Anna Neagle’s most popular films were the trio of titles in which she was paired with Michael Wilding – Piccadilly Incident (1947), The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1948) and Spring in Park Lane (1948). These were frothy, lightweight romances and all feature in the BFI’s list of the 100 films with the biggest admission figures in UK film history (Spring in Park Lane is at No. 5!). If I’ve seen any of these titles, I don’t remember them and I’ve always assumed that they weren’t for me. I have seen the films of the more earthy female stars of the same period such as Margaret Lockwood (at No. 9 with The Wicked Lady), which have retained a stronger place in popular cultural memory.
So, Odette is a completely different film from what might be expected from a star with Anna Neagle’s persona. It’s a biopic about one of the most celebrated female agents of SOE (Special Operations Executive), a Frenchwoman living in the UK who volunteered to be sent to France in 1942 to aid the résistance. In a prologue Maurice Buckmaster, the British officer who sent Odette to France, introduces the film (in which he plays himself) and tells us that the events all took place and as far as is “humanly possible” the actors attempt to represent what actually happened. This I fear is rather a hostage to fortune as the film narrative is necessarily structured as a commercial feature and, although it is relatively early in the cycle of such espionage films, it is already evident that certain generic types are being developed. This is partly a function of casting. Peter Ustinov, that multi-talented personality who could speak several languages fluently but who always seems to play with a comic touch, is indeed a slightly comical figure, set against a stern but decent Trevor Howard. Marius Goring is the sophisticated and charming German military intelligence man. All three characters are immediately recognisable in the role that they play.
These generic touches are highlighted by the contrast in the scenes in which Odette is tortured by the Gestapo. It has been argued that the poor critical reception of some of Anna Neagle’s most popular films was that the fashion in critical circles was for the ‘harder’ and more intense drama found in neo-realist films from Italy in this period. The first and one of the most influential of these films was Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City, Italy 1945) in which there is a particularly disturbing scene in which a Gestapo officer forces a priest suspected of aiding the partisans to watch a man being tortured. To find a similar scene of brutal torture in Odette is indeed disturbing. Little is shown but the brutality is suggested very well. This scene is matched by location footage of action shot in the south of France and in the Alps, often in long shot and again invoking the neo-realist style. But despite this, much of the rest of the film is conventional and doesn’t seem to exploit the possibilities that the extra budget for overseas shooting has offered. This is emphasised by a strange narrative device in the section dealing with Odette’s incarceration at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Several of the scenes set at the camp begin with an image composed in depth with a small orchestra of female prisoners playing in the foreground. Other prisoners are in the middle ground behind barbed wire and far in the background is a tall chimney belching black smoke. I assume that the chimney is meant to symbolise the industrial scale of the killings in the camp. Ravensbrück was not an ‘extermination camp’ as such but the women who worked as slave labour were killed when they were too ill or too weak to work – and some were gassed because this was less time-consuming than shooting them. In this analysis the image is powerful in the way that it represents the contradictory cultures of the camp – but its repetition seems to make its meanings banal. I sometimes felt that there were other scenes, especially between the two leads, which might have been triggers for later parodies of the stiff-lipped British officer and the brave female agent.
Anna Neagle judging on this performance was a fine actress and a charismatic screen presence, but she was rather older than the woman she played had been at the time (45 rather than 30). I don’t think that this is a problem and I was happy to accept her as a believable French agent, but it may be that she offered a slightly different presentation than might be expected from a younger woman. It would be interesting to compare Odette with Carve Her Name With Pride (UK 1958) in which Virginia McKenna plays Violette Szabo, another of the SOE agents sent to France. McKenna was much closer in age to her character – and had a rather different screen persona as an ‘English rose’ type.
Odette was a successful film that did have an impact and certainly moved audiences. I can see why that was the case but I do feel that it is a film with some inconsistencies – perhaps that saves it from the blandness that afflicts some other British films of the period, especially some of the war films. One last oddity. The late 1940s was actually quite a strong period for European cinema in the UK with several notable releases, including some Italian neo-realist films. There were also several European stars working for British studios as well as some European directors. I was intrigued to note that in Odette, several scenes began or ended with characters speaking in French or German which was not subtitled. Unfortunately I don’t speak either language well enough to know how ‘authentic’ this speech was. The dialogue was not of great import but it was certainly part of the scene. The lead actors mostly spoke in English of course, but occasionally they spoke in French. Peter Ustinov and Anna Neagle sounded fine in French but Trevor Howard’s accent seemed very poor to me and threatened the credibility of the character. I don’t know how to read this language usage – does it suggest that the industry was less sensitive than it became only a few years later? The problem of language use in films like this has remained throughout the last sixty years and still often undermines the commercial prospects of such films in the international marketplace. What does anyone think is the best solution?