OPERATION CROSSBOW entered the fray as one of twelve WW2-set movies in 1965. Ample budget. Large cast. Desperate mission. Based on fact. The war that keeps on giving.*
As D-Day approaches, the Nazis feverishly seek to perfect their rocket program. After daunting setbacks, first their V-1 buzz-bombs, then their massive supersonic V-2s, begin to pulverize London. The frantic Allies send in a team of saboteurs, posing as scientists and engineers, to locate, infiltrate and blow up the German bases before the missiles turn the coming invasion into a fiasco.
Director Michael Anderson had previous experience handling do-or-die demolition missions with The Dam Busters, and producer Carlo Ponto was to-die-for rich (this was one of six pix he produced that year, including the mammoth Doctor Zhivago). With a slew of durable British and European pros, a popular American added for the vital US market and Ponti’s beauteous wife Sophia Loren front-loaded for glamour and prestige, it seemed a sure-fire hit.
In Britain, it was, but it lagged in America, 21st place in an overloaded field. Watchable, serviceable, with some nifty scenes here & there over 115 minutes, it’s also too frequently on the dull side, given to more bland talk than galvanizing action, and hampered by an overbearing score from Ron Goodwin. The special effects are good, especially of the ominous V-2s and the terrifying havoc they wrought. Impressive large-scale sets and plenty of period props help. Taking a cue from The Longest Day, the German actors speak in their own language, and realism isn’t insulted by having them portrayed as buffoons. The script does leave out the barbarous treatment of slave laborers, thousands of whom were worked to death building the rocket sites at Peenemünde and Nordhausen—“it’s a war movie: you don’t want to bum out the audience”.
Loren doesn’t show up until 42 minutes in, and is only around for a few scenes: she’s fine—and, as ever, great to look at—but her “STAR!” cameo feels like an obvious tack-on. The token Yank is George Peppard, performing what was just a contract job dutifully but with little urgency. The same holds for the rest: none of them muff it, neither do they rise above what feels like standard fit-uniform/spout-exposition material. I wish I’d seen it as kid: would probably cut it more slack. In a small role, the most interesting moments go to the striking Barbara Rütting, playing famed Luftwaffe daredevil test-pilot Hanna Reitsch. **
Furrowing brows as the Allies: Tom Courtenay, Richard Johnson, Trevor Howard, Lilli Palmer, Jeremy Kemp, John Mills, Richard Todd, Patrick Wymark, John Fraser, Sylvia Sims, Richard Wattis, Robert Brown and Allan Cuthbertson. A sturdy lot.
Displaying zeal as the Nazis: Anthony Quayle, Helmut Dantine, Paul Henreid, Karel Stepanek, George Mikell, Ferdy Mayne and Anton Diffring. A formidable crew.
* Fitting neatly into the era’s spy craze, three more of the year’s war flicks dealt with espionage: 36 Hours, Morituri and The Heroes Of Telemark. Fighting for democracy and screen time, they shared levels of glory and folly with Von Ryan’s Express, Battle Of The Bulge, The Hill, None But The Brave, In Harm’s Way, King Rat, McHale’s Navy Joins The Air Force (not a good idea), and Up From The Beach. On the home-screen front, Combat! and Twelve O’Clock High battled for ratings. The less-satisfying non-fiction mire in Vietnam was represented on the news, in draft notices and by a steadily increasing number of telegrams.
** Bavaria-born (in ’27) Barbara Rütting: good actress, notable citizen, made her marks as author, animal rights activist and Green’s Party politician. At the other end of the plane, Hanna Reitsch’s aerial exploits were legendary, her courage unmatched. Her politics varied from adamant support of Hitler to a close postwar relationship with leftist Ghanian leader Kwame Nkrumah.