A clever mixture of detail and derring-do, World War Two picture Operation Crossbow (1965) – based on the true story of Allied infiltration of a German rocket factory – was a surprising hit at the British box office. The picture took a risk in keeping star George Peppard hidden from view for the first 28 minutes (top-billed Sophia Loren took nearly another 20 minutes to show up). Prior to their appearances the opening sequences were loaded up with a roll-call of British stars familiar with the genre in the vein of John Mills (Ice Cold in Alex, 1958), Trevor Howard (Cockleshell Heroes, 1955) and Richard Todd (The Dam Busters, 1955). Anthony Quayle, who puts in a later appearance, was also a war movie veteran after turns in Battle of the River Plate (1956), Ice Cold in Alex and The Guns of Navarone (1961).
Most war films relating to destroying a vital enemy base involved bombing (The Dam Busters, 633 Squadron, 1964), sinking (Sink the Bismarck!, 1962) or blowing things up (The Guns of Navarone, 1961). Operation Crossbow falls into the last-named category. The story breaks down into four sections: the discovery towards the end of the war by the British that the Germans are forging ahead with building V1 and V2 rockets; the recruitment and training of spies to parachute into Occupied France; a tense sequence abroad where complications arise; and, finally, attempts to obliterate the rocket plant.
Director Michael Anderson (The Dam Busters) switches through the genres from docu-drama to spy film to action adventure, further authenticity added by bold use (for a mainstream picture) of subtitles, all characters speaking in their native tongues. Various real-life characters are portrayed, among them photo reconnaissance expert Constance Babington Smith (Sylvia Sims), German aviatrix Hannah Reitsch (Barbara Rutting) and Duncan Sandys (Richard Johnson) who was on the British War Cabinet Committee.
Trevor Howard, at his irascible best, is the scientist pouring scorn on the idea of rockets – until they start raining down on London. Volunteers – Peppard, Tom Courtenay (Billy Liar, 1963) and Jeremy Kemp (who appeared with Peppard the same year in The Blue Max) – trained to spike the new weapon are recruited primarily on their language skills. Character is sketchy, Peppard designated a womaniser because he arrives in a taxi with two women.
But the operation has been assembled in such haste that not enough attention has been paid to the identities assumed by the agents. Courtenay’s character turns out to be wanted for murder. Peppard is accosted by his character’s divorced wife (Loren). So the mission faces immediate exposure. Although Loren’s role in terms of screen time amounts to little more than a cameo, she delivers a powerful emotional performance to a picture that could as easily have got by on tension alone. The harsh realities of war are shown in abundance. Twists come thick and fast in the second half, not least that Peppard’s face has become known, before the movie reaches a thrilling denouement.