The films of Michael Powell Powell and Emeric Pressburger tend to diminish in the 1950s in the estimation of most critics and film reviewers. Certainly the mid 1950s was the time when The Archers partnership eventually broke down and the two filmmakers went their separate ways but the films themselves are still very much worth watching. The Battle of the River Plate remains a favourite for me, partly no doubt because I saw it as a small boy with my father in early 1957 during its first cinema run. I didn’t then know who Powell and Pressburger were, although I had probably already seen The Thief of Baghdad (UK 1940) on TV. The Battle of the River Plate is now generally seen as just another British war picture of the 1950s and as a film lacking the imagination of the 1940s Archers’ war pictures. However, I think there are some interesting aspects of both the film’s production and the presentation of the final version that appears on screen. Why did The Archers make a film like The Battle of the River Plate? I don’t think there is enough space here to tease out all the reasons, but mainly I think it was a matter of finding a property/an idea that they could develop in the circumstances in which they found themselves after leaving Korda’s London Films and dallying with ABPC for the artistically interesting but not very profitable Oh Rosalinda! in 1955. They would develop their naval war picture with first 20th Century Fox and then once more with the Rank Organisation.
The British war films of the 1950s present different views on wartime events compared to the wartime productions which are all in some way influenced by wartime propaganda considerations. Most of the 1950s films celebrate successful campaigns, often in ways which seek to bolster British prestige during a period which is either ‘post-imperial’ in South Asian narratives or grappling with the final days of the Empire in Africa, elsewhere in Asia, and in the Caribbean. Robert Murphy in his book, British Cinema and the Second World War (Continuum 2000) titles his chapter on the 1950s films, ‘Reliving Past Glories’. Murphy points out that ‘The Battle of the River Plate’ features strongly in For Freedom (UK 1940), a British propaganda film from Gainsborough that is a mix of documentary and fiction about the early events of the war that was hastily compiled and distributed.
The ‘Battle of the River Plate’ was a naval battle in the early months of the war which saw three British light cruisers force the German pocket-battleship the ‘Admiral Graf Spee’ to scuttle in the estuary of the River Plate between neutral Uruguay and pro-axis Argentina. A ‘pocket-battleship’ was the British term for a German design that attempted to create a powerful ‘ship destroyer’ while staying within the constraints laid down by the Treaty of Versailles. The resultant ships were only one third of the tonnage of the later German battleships like the Tirpitz. They were diesel-powered, lighter but more efficiently armoured than Royal Navy vessels. They also had larger guns with greater range. This meant that they could outgun, smaller cruisers and destroyers and outun capital ships. Initially they were to be used to destroy British and Allied merchant ships in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The film sticks fairly closely to the real events of the engagement and its aftermath, so much so that at least one of the IMDb comments refers to the film as a documentary (and MUBI calls it a ‘docudrama’). It isn’t but it does represent a factually detailed story. It is interesting to watch and compare with contemporary films featuring similar engagements in that The Archers were able to find either the original ships or closely-related sister ships – at least on the British side. They had the advantage that production manager John Brabourne was the son-in-law of Louis Mountbatten who commanded the Mediterranean fleet of the Royal Navy in the early 1950s. The ‘Graf Spee’ was impersonated by the US Navy heavy cruiser USS Salem. There was only a limited amount of studio tank and ship model work required. Much of the movement of ships was actually shot in the Eastern Mediterranean. Michael Powell was able to shoot footage of three Royal Navy ships on exercises, so that the Archers didn’t have to pay to hire the ships. Similarly, the USS Salem was on duty in the Mediterranean. This did mean however that Chris Challis had to shoot, using the heavy Vista Vision camera, in very tight time slots with virtually no preparation. The overall schedule for such an epic production was very tight and was acknowledged by the trade press (Kine Weekly) which praised The Archers production for efficiency.
I’m not going to describe all the elements of the battle which is well-covered on Wikipedia. I’ll focus instead on some of the decisions made by Powell and Pressburger. The most obvious P&P touches come with the introduction of of Bernard Lee as Captain Dove of M.S. Africa Shell. The sinking of the Africa Shell is the first action of the film and when Captain Dove is brought over to the Graf Spee it allows us to explore the German warship and how it functions through Dove’s eyes, including his meeting with Captain Langsdorff (Peter Finch). The presentation of Langsdorff is very much in line with P&P’s creation of ‘human’ German characters and the only surprise is that it is not a German or Austrian playing the role (i.e. no Anton Walbrook or Conrad Veidt). Captain Dove had written about his time aboard the Graf Spee (and had played himself in For Freedom) and he eventually he agreed to act as consultant with Bernard Lee taking the role. Pressburger produced a film script in four acts – (1) Captain Dove aboard the Graf Spee, (2) Ajax, Achilles and Exeter, (3) the ‘engagement’ and (4) the intrigue in Montevideo following Graf Spee’s entry into the port for repairs. The film was relatively long at 119 minutes and includes a large number of speaking parts and shoots in various far flung locations from Montevideo to the Moray Firth in the North of Scotland where the Royal Navy provided more ships.
Pressburger’s script works pretty well I think for the first three acts but I feel a little uncomfortable with Act 4. P&P seem to revive the light comedy touch which worked so well in the opening flashback of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), so we experience the comical actions of the ambassadors of Germany and then Britain and France (together) visiting the Uruguayan Foreign Minister in Montevideo and studiously ignoring the other side in the waiting room. The radio commentary by Lionel Murton as an American presenter seems to be just a device to explain the difficult situation that the German Captain Langsdorff finds himself in. For me the touch is too light in both the diplomatic engagements and the radio broadcasts. The final shots of the film don’t provide what in less decorous terms might be called the ‘money shot’ – i.e. the final actions of the captain who doesn’t go down with his ship. IMDb tells me that the German dubbed version has a voiceover explanation of what happened to Langsdorff. I’m surprised P&P ducked the ‘real’ ending. I presume these decisions were partly to gain the wide release that funder Rank required.
It’s worth noting that Rank made the decision, puzzling in retrospect, to produce a slate of pictures using VistaVision. I’d like to spend more time at some point on the undoubted qualities of the format. By running horizontally rather than vertically through the camera, VistaVision produced a much larger negative image and therefore a more detailed image for a projection print, even if the image was cropped to produce a widescreen format. VistaVision and Technicolor together produced stunning images, arguably superior to CinemaScope. However since Rank was distributing and exhibiting CinemaScope prints from other Hollywood producers in 1956 it seems odd to go with Paramount’s rival system. Odeons and Gaumonts under Rank’s control were being equipped for ‘Scope but VistaVision prints were generally narrower at anything between 1.66:1 to 2:1, compared to the CinemaScope standard of 2.35:1. The Battle of the River Plate appears to have been intended for projection as ‘modern widescreen’: 1.85:1. For more on VistaVision, see ‘High Fidelity Widescreen Cinema’, a research project by Stephen F. Roberts, University of Bristol 2018 which includes a detailed case study of The Battle of the River Plate.
The film was chosen for the Royal Film Performance on October 29th 1956. The earlier P&P film, A Matter of Life and Death had been the first Royal Command Performance film in 1946. The Battle of the River Plate opened on general release at Odeon circuit cinemas over the Christmas holiday in a double bill with the classic French children’s film The Red Balloon. Both films were given a ‘U’ Certificate so that family attendance was possible. There were many events in cinemas during its run with Odeons seeking out local men who might have served in the battle. It’s safe to say the film was a big hit with audiences, the biggest for The Archers. It was also the last Archers film, although Powell & Pressburger worked together on Ill Met By Moonlight which was released in 1957 as a ‘Vega Films Production’ for The Rank Organisation.
I don’t agree with the general lack of contemporary interest in The Battle of the River Plate (which was released in the US later in 1957, by Rank, as Pursuit of the Graf Spee). It is less expressionist than most P&P films and more concerned with the detail of the chase and the engagement and its aftermath. It doesn’t portray that 1940s idea of all working together, though we do see something of the ratings on the ships during the battle. The Captain Dove episodes do introduce us to the other captured Merchant Navy Captains and the potential of the Dove-Langsdorff relationship which could have been developed further. But overall it is a magnificent feat of filmmaking – a ‘big picture’, as was P&P’s intention. Naval historians and veterans will spot all the errors because of the use of substitute ships but it is a fine presentation of the historical event.
I couldn’t find a trailer so here is the early scene in the film in which Captain Langsdorff welcomes Captain Dove aboard the Graf Spee:
This is an unusual story even if it is a form of biopic. It follows on from Agnieszka Holland’s previous film Mr. Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine 2019) in featuring one man’s story in Eastern Europe, but this time with a longer time span from 1916 to 1958. This was a festival film that I went into with absolutely no idea what it was about. I also didn’t notice the directorial credit and didn’t realise it was a film by Agnieszka Holland. Sometimes it’s good to have a completely blank canvas on which the narrative unfolds. This narrative begins with the dying moments of Czech President Antonín Zápotocký in 1957. This is followed by a seemingly unconnected scene with a long queue of people outside a large mansion. They are all carrying what seem to be sample bottles, each filled with their own urine. Inside the house the central character in the film, Jan Mikolásek, a man in his sixties, examines each sample simply by swirling it in the closed bottle and observing it against a bright light. His diagnosis is almost immediate and he is invariably correct as to the patient’s ailment. He then brusquely declares a prescription which is registered by his assistant and Mikolásek dispenses it (most are standard preparations). He charges relatively little and nothing at all if the patient has no money. He never lies and may tell a patient that their condition needs a surgeon or that their illness is terminal. He repeatedly tells his patients that he isn’t a doctor. Mikolásek was a real herbalist who lived from 1889 to 1973. The film appears to stick fairly closely to the real story with some fictional episodes and additions/omissions and it ends in 1958. A brief biography of the real Mikolásekcan be found here.
The film’s structure follows a familiar pattern of incidents ‘now’ (in 1957-8) and a series of lengthy flashbacks which gradually reveal how Mikolásek came to be the man we see in the 1950s. In 1916 he’s fighting reluctantly for the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russians and later he will have to contend with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then the communist government of the new Republic after 1948. In the 1920s he learns about diagnosis and because he was brought up as a gardener’s son he develops herbal remedies quickly. He is principled but prickly and although married spends most of his time with his assistant Frantisek Palko. In the 1950s he receives warnings that he is being watched by communist party agents, but because he has always treated leading officials and VIPs with success he assumes he is untouchable. He treated the Nazi leaders in Czechoslovakia, possibly under duress and faced some problems at the end of the war. His problem is that as well as being unqualified to offer what might be defined as medical services, he is also a Christian who believes that faith has a role to play in any healing process. The communist ideology of atheism and science is fundamentally opposed to his practice.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot and there are several important elements I have left out. I found the the story very interesting and I was reminded of various stories and films about Czechoslovakia during both World Wars and into the communist period. Whether this story and in particular its central character will hold the interest of mainstream audiences over nearly two hours is another question. Mikolásek is played by Ivan Trojan with his younger self played by the actor’s son Josef Trojan. The other major role is that of Frantisek played by Juraj Loj. All three performances are very good. I have seen suggestions by one reviewer that audiences will not warm to Mikolásek because of his coldness and rudeness but it seems to me that he has a complex personality that always intrigues. He seems to me a familiar figure with a certain amount of charisma and authority that both demands acquiescence from patients and also engenders anger. I have no idea if he was a charlatan or not, but the evidence suggests that his diagnoses were generally accurate. He is, however, drawn to Frantisek as a sexual partner and has little compunction about ruining his own marriage as well as Frantisek’s. The gay element in the narrative is fictionalised I think. One act in particular is shocking in its cruelty.
I’ve suggested that this is a form of biopic which misses out parts of the central character’s life. We first see him when his fictional version is a frightened young soldier in the Great War (the ‘real’ Mikolásek would have been in his late twenties). We are asked to infer the events of his childhood, just as we are asked to accept that he got married. The only role for his relatives is if they need treatment. It’s almost a surprise when they reappear at the end of the film.
Agnieszka Holland is now classed as a veteran filmmaker who has been directing since the 1970s (she trained in Prague rather than Poland) and has considerable experience of serial television, including working recently in the US. She keeps the narrative moving at a fair lick and I was engaged with the events throughout. The cinematography by Martin Strba and art direction and production design by Jiri Karasek and Milan Bycek are very good but it did seem that the changes in colour palette between the dark and grey 1950s and the sunny 1920s/30s were exaggerated. Overall, I think that this film could find an audience in the UK. The film has been acquired by AX1 (formerly Axiom) for the UK.
The trailer below gives away more plot points than this blog post so don’t watch it if you want to avoid further spoilers. The trailer is 16:9 but the cinema print is 2.35:1.
This film is available on BBC iPlayer for three weeks. I hadn’t seen it before and thought it might make a useful comparison with Ford’s They Were Expendable from a weeks ago. Although I hadn’t seen it, I thought I recognised the title and I think I’d assumed at first that it was a comedy, something also suggested by the still used by the BBC on iPlayer. It’s set during the early part of the Pacific War in 1942 and stars James Garner, then just turned 30 and a contract player at Warner Bros., who had already established himself as the lead in the TV comedy Western series Maverick (1957-62). What I didn’t know was that Garner had been a decorated soldier during the Korean War. This background throws a little light on what Warner Bros. might have hoped for with Up Periscope.
James Garner is Lieutenant J.G. Kenneth Braden who has been trained as a naval demolition engineer and as a Japanese language expert. The film opens with a romantic sub-plot which sees Braden secretly checked out by an attractive young woman from naval intelligence. Unaware he has passed a test, Braden is then shipped to Pearl Harbour and soon finds himself on board the Barracuda, a submarine under the command of Commander Stevenson (Edmond O’Brien). Braden’s mission seems ambitious and potentially dangerous for not just himself but also for the whole crew of the submarine – but only he and Stevenson know what it is. Stevenson has to get the sub close to a Japanese-occupied island so that Braden can get ashore unseen and carry out a daring spying operation – and then return undetected. If he succeeds he will have obtained vital information for a planned attack by US forces. If he fails many men will be killed in future action. What this narrative will then produce is a familiar underwater thriller in which the submarine faces Japanese aircraft and destroyers on its journey to the island and then a tense suspense thriller as Braden carries out his mission. The submarine drama is also driven by the confrontation between Braden and Stevenson as a ‘by the book’ captain whose actions are militarily ‘correct’ but perhaps not understood by his men. The light relief from the drama is provided by Alan Hale Jr., the son of the jovial character actor at Warners in the 1930s, who would later become famous for Gilligan’s Island on US TV (1964-1967).
Up Periscope! is a ‘WarnerScope’ and Technicolor presentation and it’s directed by Gordon Douglas who almost defines a ‘solid Hollywood studio director”. He made nearly 100 films and TV episodes/TV movies. Starting in the mid-1930s with shorts and then B pictures he came into the spotlight in the 1950s when he signed for Warner Bros, staying until 1965. He was probably best-known for Westerns/action pictures and crime thrillers and he made many well-known films during the 1960s. His last major picture was They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! (1970) with Sidney Poitier. He retired at the end of the 1970s. Up Periscope! was in safe hands and I certainly found the film gripping. I even fast forwarded a couple of sequences because the tension as Braden is on the island and mustn’t be seen by the Japanese got to me. I can understand some of the more negative comments in the sense that there are only a couple of (very good) war combat action sequences when the submarine is under attack. Much more time is spent on the spying mission, also very effective but the romantic sub-plot rather detracts from the main narrative, even though it is used as something Braden thinks about while he is waiting for darkness on the island. At 112 minutes the film is arguably too long for its main genre purpose. On the other hand, we might argue that the context of Braden’s recruitment for the operation and the sense of community that is engendered by Ensign Malone (Alan Hale Jr.) are important in grounding this wartime action.
If we do compare this film with a wartime film made in late 1945 such as the Ford film, that sense of community is a key element. In some ways the films are similar. Ford also includes a romance element but it is much more powerful (and doesn’t show a happy ending). He also sends MTBs out on unlikely and ambitious missions and Braden is a Lieutenant J.G. like John Wayne. The submarine is a much more enclosed and ‘closed’ world than the MTBs of the Ford film which means the confrontation between Braden and Stevenson is more personal. Edmund O’Brien has quite a difficult role and pulls it off well. The argument usually is that the wartime films need the propaganda power and big statements that the 1950s war films don’t really need at all. Like the Ford film, Up Periscope! is based on a book, in this case a novel by Rob White. White was born in the Philippines and served in the US Navy. He became quite a prolific author of what are now considered ‘Young Adult’ novels and this includes Up Periscope (the film has a U certificate in the UK, the most accessible certification for ‘all audiences’). White did serve in submarines as well as in aircraft and naval ships. Whether there is any basis in actuality for the story of Up Periscope! is unclear.
James Garner appeared in many films but for UK audiences he may be better known as Brett Maverick in the various TV series or later as Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. I hadn’t seen him this young before, but his later persona is already visible at times as the suave, cocky conman. His role as the intrepid frogman spy was one he felt forced into by Warner Bros. There is another connection to TV series besides Garner and Hale because the submarine’s pharmacy steward is played by Edd Byrnes who was also in Maverick but better known I think in 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64). Warren Oates plays a submariner in what I think is the earliest of his performances I have seen. I don’t know if he played with Edmond O’Brien again before The Wild Bunch in 1969. Up Periscope! is well-made entertainment but not much more I think and catching sight of Warren Oates was one of its pleasures for me.
I approached this film with some trepidation. I’m generally a Fritz Lang fan, but I know that he struggled in Hollywood with some of his 1940s pictures. I generally find the Hollywood ‘undercover’/’spy’ pictures made during the Second World War (that I’ve seen) to be unconvincing next to their British equivalents. I’m also wary of Gary Cooper as a star, though I know he has many supporters. I like some of the films in which he starred (Ball of Fire, Man of the West) but not the ones he is most famous for like the Capra films and High Noon. Given these three potential strikes I was intrigued to see if Lang could overcome the odds. A brace of Blu-ray releases in the US and the UK suggest that this is a film to be re-appraised.
Cloak and Dagger is both a topical secret agent film, focusing on the race to be first to produce the atomic bomb (and to stop the other side getting there at all), and a celebration of the US involvement through the OSS in occupied Europe. The OSS was a similar initiative to the British SOE, sending agents into Europe to gather intelligence, help the resistance and generally to disrupt the enemy’s war effort. The narrative begins with American agents discovering shipments of materials from Spain to Germany which could be part of a nuclear programme. Unfortunately, however, none of the available agents has enough scientific knowledge to compile really useful intelligence on the ground in Europe. OSS decides to try to recruit a nuclear scientist to travel incognito to neutral Switzerland in an attempt to find out more about German plans. Cooper plays Prof. Alvah Jesper, a nuclear scientist from a Mid-Western university who is eventually despatched to Europe. He is a novice agent and makes mistakes, losing his first contact but is then taken secretly to Italy to meet a scientist who is thought to be someone who could be ‘turned’ from working for the Nazis. Jesper may be a novice agent but he has an international reputation in his field and other scientists will talk to him.
I did find that the film moved up a gear with Jesper’s arrival in Italy, partly because of the introduction of Gina, an Italian partisan played by Lilli Palmer. A German Jewish actor who left Germany in 1933, Palmer had been effective in a range of British films since her arrival in the country via Paris, including a small part in Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1935). In 1943 she had married Rex Harrison and accompanied him to Hollywood in 1945. She signed a contract with Warner Bros. and Cloak and Dagger became her first Hollywood film. Her introduction scene is striking. When Jesper arrives secretly in Italy Gina, played by Lilli Palmer is one of the partisans who meets him in the back of a truck to go through a German checkpoint. Taking off her disguise, Jesper is taken aback to see this beautiful young woman, almost glowing in the gloom because of her simple white chemise.
Jesper’s aim in Italy is to speak to a scientist named Polda who might be prepared to be ‘evacuated’ to the US. The partisans in Italy will be able to arrange for a night-time air pick-up. I thought the whole Italian adventure was quite well-planned and, of course, it gives Jesper and Gina time to get to know each other since Jesper can’t survive out in the open and Gina is meant to keep him safe. As several reviews point out there are occasional Langian touches. The most striking references come in a fight that Jesper is forced to have with a Fascist agent in a stairwell. It is a gruesome struggle with hands attempting to gouge eyes and some sickening sounds as joints are dislocated. I was intrigued to discover that the term ‘cloak and dagger’ actually describes a form of combat dating as far back as the 15th century in Europe. Lang references this when Jesper’s assailant approaches him with a flick-knife and Jesper tries to use his coat to blind his assailant. Finally, when the German goes limp, a child’s ball comes bouncing down the stairs to land by the man’s feet, reminding us of a similar scene in M (1931). Also referencing M, during the fight a trio of street musicians is playing a tune (which sounded at times like the British music hall song ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’!). I’m also reminded of the viciousness of Lee Marvin’s character who scalds Gloria Grahame’s face in Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). The horror of this encounter undermines those comments about how this film is ‘hokum’ and only ‘generic spy stuff’.
There are some interesting responses to the film. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, one of the leading newspaper critics in America at the time, goes down the ‘cloak and dagger spy cliché’ route but he confirms that it is “highly suspenseful in a slick cinematic style”. He finishes his review, advising his readers to go and see Rossellini’s Rome, Open City which has just reached New York. That’s a good call, even if there is a closer connection to Rossellini’s Paisa which had not yet reached America. Cloak and Dagger ends with the arrival of an (unconvincing) RAF plane as planned – something which matches aspects of Paisa with partisans and Americans working together and RAF flyers shot down. Crowther is right, Rossellini offers a corrective to any romantic notions that Cloak and Dagger might arouse.
As research for writing this post I used Patrick McGilligan’s book Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (1997, faber & faber). McGilligan gives lots of detail about the production and it is significant that the original property was a fictionalised account of OSS operations acquired by Milton Sperling. A relatively young producer who had already written several scripts for earlier productions, Sperling decided to hire two sets of writers to create a story, one of those was Boris Ingster (the director of the proto-noir Third Floor in 1940). But after Lang came on board the story still seemed thin and Sperling recruited Ring Lardner Jr. (and then Albert Matz was thrust on him by Warners) to write the screenplay. That’s quite a few writers and and with Fritz Lang, notorious for blocking producers and banning them from the set, life for Sperling was not easy. Gary Cooper was paid much more than Lang and Lang treated Lilli Palmer very badly, even though he finally conceded that she gave a very good performance. Sperling was Harry Warner’s son-in-law and when Sperling returned from war service in a photography unit. He set up ‘United States Pictures’ with Warner Bros. to act as an independent production company creating product for the studio. Cloak and Dagger was the first of what would become 14 productions, many with war/military connections, over the next 20 years. For some of those involved who had some OSS connections, the film was a disappointment but for Warner Bros. it was a hit. For Lang it was a job he needed at the time and a chance as McGilligan suggests to hammer “a final nail in the fascist coffin”.
My own response is that after a poor opening, the film picked up the pace and I’m now more inclined to go back to Lang’s earlier attempts to make anti-fascist films in Hollywood. I’m also interested in comparing Lang and Hitchcock’s films about the wartime period. My views on Gary Cooper haven’t really changed. He is serious and sombre throughout with only the occasional lighter moment. Lilli Palmer was a revelation and for me the best thing about the film. The production featured Sol Polito as cinematographer, generally good and a Max Steiner score that at times I found irritating. Overall, however, I think it is a film worth reappraising and although I only saw a print on Talking Pictures TV, the stills on DVD Beaver from the Eureka Blu-ray look very good.
Without its production context this might appear as a fairly conventional war combat picture except for two factors: its celebration of survival masking a defeat is unusual for an American film and its length at 135 minutes is remarkable (and probably not necessary). Digging into that context, however, it becomes something else. John Ford spent the Second World War as head of the US Navy Field Photography Unit and director of several important documentaries for the US Military, two of which won Academy Awards. This film was his final action as a serving military officer in the Naval Reserve and he felt manipulated into making it at the behest of senior figures in the US Navy. The film was produced by MGM, the major studio with which Ford had most problems it seems. As part of the deal to make it, Ford insisted on an enormous fee, not for himself but as something he could use to set up a home for the veterans of his Field Photography Unit. He duly shot the film between February and June 1945 and it premiered at the end of December 1945. I’ve read the accounts in both the Tag Gallagher and Joseph McBride books on Ford and I still don’t understand what the US Navy’s purpose was. There seems to have been a push to get the film made some two years earlier but even that seems odd to me (and impossible for Ford).
They Were Expendable is an adaptation of a book by William L White, a biographical account of a ‘real’ US Navy officer John Bulkeley who commanded a squadron of Motor Torpedo Boats in the Philippines in 1941 (known in the US as PT boats, though the official designation was MTB). The central character, ‘John Brinkley’ in the film, is played by Robert Montgomery, who had himself been an MTB Captain in the ‘Pacific War’, as it is known in the US and had served under Bulkeley. The film script had several contributors but appears to have been mostly the work of the retired Navy flyer Frank Wead, who would become the subject of John Ford’s 1957 film The Wings of Eagles. The film narrative deals with a squadron of MTBs, a relatively under-rated form of naval power in 1941. In December 1941, Brinkley and his men, particularly his second in command, Lt. ‘Rusty’ Ryan (John Wayne) are disappointed that the Naval Commander in the Philippines doesn’t appear to rate the MTBs as an effective weapon, using them for ‘messaging’ and carrying important personnel. But when the Japanese attack cripples the US Navy in Pearl Harbour, the MTBs are thrust into the defence of the Philippines. Although distinguishing themselves in various conflicts the MTBs and their crews are finally forced to retreat to the last US stronghold in Bataan and Brinkley and Ryan are finally forced to abandon their men under orders, thus the ‘Expendable’ tag for the crews. The whole narrative reminds me of several British films from early in the war which were released as propaganda pictures with the message: “We have survived and we will return”. The turning point of the Second World War is usually taken to be the defence of Stalingrad in the East and the victory of the Second Battle of El Alamein in North Africa in late 1942. At the same time the Americans were leading a North African landing and conducting an offensive in Guadalcanal. If They Were Expendable had been in cinemas around the end of 1942 it would have made sense. When it finally appeared, the American public was thinking about the aftermath of war and the film must have had a different reading. Ford himself is reported to have disowned the film, outraged by interference by MGM executives who recut parts of the film and added music Ford wouldn’t have chosen.
Lindsay Anderson, who met Ford on location in Ireland for the Quiet Man in 1950 and then at Elstree a couple of years later for Mogambo, was astonished by Ford’s view of They Were Expendable. Ford claimed to be ‘horrified’ by the experience of making the film and claimed to have not even watched the final version. Later he sent Anderson a telegram saying that having been persuaded to watch it, he agreed it might have merit, but several years later had reverted to arguing that it was no good. The mystery in this story is that Ford claimed some of his important scenes were cut but also that his intention was to produce a 100 minute film, which suggests that 40 minutes or more of the final film wasn’t intended to make it into the final cut. This is baffling, but Ford often made contradictory remarks, especially to interviewers. In Ford’s eyes, Anderson hadn’t yet made any significant films so he was just a critic/writer (but Ford still seems to have respected Anderson’s view that Expendable was a fine picture).
What is finally evident in the Warner Bros. restored print on the Blu-ray? There is a standout performance by Robert Montgomery. The black and white photography by Joseph H. August is excellent. August was a Lt Commander in Ford’s Photography Unit and had shot a couple of Ford’s pictures in the 1930s. Wayne is relatively subdued but rather petulant as Rusty Ryan, but he has the film’s only romance, with a nurse (an officer of similar rank) played by Donna Reed, also very good. Two other familiar Ford faces are Ward Bond and Jack Pennick and there is an important cameo by Russel Simpson (Pa Joad and other Ford characters) as a boat repairer. It is a recognisable Ford film in many ways. As a war combat film it is effective with exciting action (but probably unlikely action since US Navy torpedoes were not very reliable in 1941) but also a focus on the relationships between Montgomery and Wayne, Wayne and Reed and most importantly, Montgomery and all his crews. There is a reference to General MacArthur in the sequence in which the MTBs carry departing top brass and MacArthur’s famous phrase “We Shall Return” introduces the closing credits. The film was shot mainly in Florida, which is ironic since Ford himself loved the South Pacific. Several commentators refer to it as having a ‘documentary-style’. I think that is pushing it but there is certainly time spent on procedural issues and it is important that ‘verisimilitude’ is a key issue. Ford had spent so much time in different theatres of war and he knew how service personnel behaved, so the film had a sense of truth about many scenes.
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.