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.
I’ve been meaning to watch this film for a long time and now, with the release of Suite Française, it seems appropriate. This is the first film to be directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the major influences on the French New Wave. The ‘silence’ of the title refers to the mute ‘resistance’ of an elderly man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) in the face of the German Occupation of France in 1940 and specifically the ‘occupation’ of their house when a German officer is billeted there. The film is an adaptation of a major novel of the Resistance published by ‘Vercors’ (Jean Bruller) in 1942 and one of the first post-war films about ‘résistance‘ (which was highly mythologised at the time). Bruller was reluctant to allow an adaptation that might misrepresent his novel and the resistance itself, but Melville, himself doubly ‘signed’ as both a member of the Resistance and a Jew, persuaded him – and indeed then got the author to agree to his own home being used as the main location of the film.
The background to the production is described in detail by Ginette Vincendeau in her excellent introduction to the film on the Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD. Melville was fiercely independent, putting together a crew and a small group of actors from outside the French industry. (I’m not usually in favour of using non-unionised crews but Melville who had a very limited budget couldn’t afford to do it any other way.) He had no formal training but chose his team well. The photographer Henri Decaë had never shot a fiction feature but here found a very effective approach. Later he would become one of the principal creators of the look of the French New Wave. Nicole Stéphane and Jean-Marie Robain had not been credited before and they both went on to have film careers and to work with Melville again.
The film is highly unusual in that the central couple remain silent throughout the film. I think the uncle might utter one line, but the rest of the time he ‘speaks’ to us via voiceover narration. The niece never speaks. The narrative proceeds through the uncle’s narration and the German officer’s monologues, all addressed to the couple in beautifully enunciated French that even a cloth-ears like me could follow at times. Played by the Swiss actor Howard Vernon, the Leutnant is a music lover and a francophile. He explains that he loves German music but that he thinks France has the greatest number of literary giants. Later in the film he has a short holiday in Paris, trying to view the famous sites. However, as he mingles with his fellow officers he realises that the war is not being conducted in the way he thinks it should be. Eventually he will leave to go to the Eastern front.
I hope I haven’t spoiled the narrative. This isn’t a film about plot development and very little happens in an obvious way. I should say that there are subtle presentations of the impact of the Occupation revealed by posters on the wall. Otherwise the film works through the metaphor of the ‘occupation’ of the house. The Leutnant is an interesting figure, both disturbing and seemingly benign at the same time. Melville works with a low-key lighting style and elements of a film noir mise en scène to create a disturbed domestic setting and the first shot of the Leutnant’s arrival is very dramatic with a low angle shot of his face illuminated from below by the key light and framed in the doorway against the dark night sky. Howard Vernon has an unusual face and I wasn’t surprised to learn that later he was cast as the heavy or in roles in horror films. The camerawork generally is ‘disturbing’ with several close-ups and framings from low and high angles. One particular shot is repeated in which the Leutnant stands in the room (he’s quite tall) looking down on the couple who ignore him. We see Nicole Stéphane from above, behind or over the shoulder, baring her beautiful white neck, almost as inviting an attack. At other times, out of his frightening Wehrmacht uniform, ‘Werner’ talks about art and civilisation and incidents from his youth – each of which show him to be sensitive.
The presentation of the ‘occupier’ is such that we see the presentation of the Occupation as almost seductive, like a ‘test’. The couple resist by refusing to engage, although at points as the narration (and the musical theme) emphasise they find themselves drawn to the Leutnant’s monologues. Mute resistance does not sound dramatic and it is difficult to make it ‘cinematic’, though as Vincendeau points out and I certainly noticed, he emphasises the silence by making the ‘ticking’ of the clock louder at times and sound is very important in creating the atmosphere of tension. I was completely engaged over 80 plus minutes.
In the first years of the occupation, silence was in fact a good strategy. In 1940 there was little co-ordinated resistance. This would come later with control from London (where Melville was at one point) and support from active resistance within France. The first step was to give nothing away, to retain identity, to observe and prepare for the future. The original novel by Vercors was an inspirational text in 1942 and Melville alludes to this in the opening and closing scenes of his film. Melville went on to make another two films in the 1960s specifically about the resistance and for a long time he was one of the few filmmakers in France to really understand how to represent the period of Occupation.
Melville’s great resistance film is L’armée des ombres (Army of the Shadows, 1969). Another more recent (and excellent) film exposing the mythology of the resistance is Jacques Audiard’s Un héros très discret (Self-Made Hero, 1996). Melville’s Léon Morin, prêtre 1961 is on my future viewing list.