Operation Crossbow (1965) ****

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 Busters633 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.  

Producer Carlo Ponti’s wife Sophia Loren took top billing even though her role amounted to an extended cameo.

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.

The Bedford Incident (1965) ****

A belated entry into the Cold War thriller genre that appeared to have peaked with Dr Strangelove (1964), Fail Safe (1964) and Seven Days in May (1964). The Bedford Incident, filmed in black-and-white with a less-than-stellar cast nonetheless holds its own as an examination of men under pressure, a cat-and-mouse actioner, as well as a stark warning of the dangers of nuclear war.

The top-billed Richard Widmark turned producer on this one, as he had done for The Secret Ways (1961), not so much to greenlight a pet project as to hold onto a spot at Hollywood’s high table just when that seemed to be slipping out of his grasp after the commercially disastrous John Ford roadshow Cheyenne Autumn (1964). In truth, Widmark’s position as an outright star appeared questionable. He seemed to transition all too easily between top billing (Warlock, 1959, The Long Ships, 1964) and second billing (Two Rode Together, 1961,  Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961, and Flight from Ashiya 1964).    

Also putting his neck on the line was James B. Harris who was making the jump to director from producer of Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957) and Lolita (1962).

Widmark is a maverick U.S. Navy destroyer captain hunting down Russian submarines should they stray into territorial waters. He has been passed over for promotion, despite having previously successfully forced a Russian sub to the surface. Into his meticulously-run ship are dropped photo journalist Sidney Poitier (re-teamed with Widmark after The Long Ships) and doctor Martin Balsam and, in effect, their presence is a simple device to put Widmark under the spotlight, in some respects challenge his operational methods, and to provide an excuse to tell the audience everything they need to know. 

Among the ship’s crew and with privotal roles are James MacArthur as a young ensign and Eric Porter an a German former U-boat commander who acts as an advisor and if you keep your eyes peeled you might spot a fleeting glimpse of Donald Sutherland as part of the medical crew.

The newcomers are afforded insight into how this ship is run and into its hunting methods, for example, dredging up waste from the sea in order to examine it for evidence of a Russian presence. There is a bundle of interesting technical data – a submarine has to surface for air, as another example – and the soundtrack mostly consists of endless sonar. Apart from the German, who appears to subsist on Schnapps, the crew is unusually top-quality, the sick bay deserted, the enterprise run under wartime conditions, every person on board dedicated to fulfilling the captain’s every wish.

The tension is in triplicate. First of all, there is the obsessive captain who could just explode from tension; secondly, there is the hunt for the submarine replete with tactical maneuvers and hunches; and finally, always in the background, there is the nuclear element and the fear that untoward action could trigger a holocaust. And there’s also time to take down a peg or two the holier-than-thou visitors, Balsam revealed as a civilian doctor returning to the service as a refuge, Poitier as a rather spoiled individual who complains when dangerous maneuvers interrupt his shower. Eric Porter is excellent as a hunter who has the unenviable task of trying to rein in his boss. James MacArthur (a graduate from the Disney school) shows maturity as a young officer cracking under pressure. Poitier is excellent in a more relaxed role.

But Widmark steals the show. His over-acting often stole the show when he had a supporting role, but this is a finely nuanced performance. An admirable, instinctive commander, he is loved by his men (such adoration not easily won) with a gift for battle and outfoxing an opponent, often barely containing his own tension. It would have been easy to ramp up the pressures he felt in the way of Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954) but there’s a big difference between a man about to crack and one who loves battle and is desperate to score victory. 

Harris makes a sound debut, the decision to film in black-and-white paying off, and enough going on through personality clash and the sub hunt to keep the pace taut. Authenticity was added by filming aboard naval vessels (although British in this case) and what little model work there is does not look out of place. A bigger budget would have made better use of the actual hunt (as The Hunt for Red October, 1990, later proved) but sound effects rather than visual effects suffice. I had not at all expected the shock ending. Another point in this film’s favor is that the threat of nuclear apocalypse has not gone away and the fact remains that the world as we know could disappear at the touch of a button.

The Blue Max (1965) ****

Quite how working-class George Peppard makes the transition from grunt in the trenches to Germany’s elite flying corps is never made clear in John Guillermin’s glorious World War One aerial adventure.

But he certainly brings with him an arsenal of attitude, clashing  immediately with upper-class colleagues who retain fanciful notions of chivalry in a conflict notorious for mass slaughter. He climbs the society ladder on the back of a publicity campaign designed by James Mason intent on creating a new public hero.

On the way to ruthlessly gaining the medal of the title, awarded for downing twenty enemy aircraft, he beds Mason’s playful – although ultimately treacherous – mistress Ursula Andress, for once given the chance to act. Mason’s aristocratic German somewhat redeems the actor after his appalling turn the same year as a Chinaman in Genghis Khan.

While the human element is skillfully drawn, it is the aerial element that captures the attention. The planes are both balletic and deadly. Because biplanes fly so much more slowly than World War Two fighters, the aerial scenes are far more intense than, say, The Battle of Britain (1969) and the dogfights, where you can see your opposite number’s face, just riveting. Recognition of the peril involved in taking to the sky in planes that seem to be held together with straw is on a par with Midway.

I was astonishing to discover not only was this a flop – in part due to an attempt to sell it as a roadshow (blown up to 70mm for its New York premiere) – but critically disdained since it is an astonishing piece of work.

Guillermin makes the shift from small British films (The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, 1960; Guns at Batasi, 1964) to a full-blown Hollywood epic with ease. His camera tracks and pans and zooms to capture emotion and other times is perfectly still. (Films and Filming magazine complained he moved the camera too much!).

The action sequences are brilliantly constructed, far better than, for example 1917, and one battle involving planes and the military is a masterpiece of cinematic orchestration, contrasting raw hand-to-hand combat on the ground with aerial skirmish. Guillermin takes a classical approach to widescreen with action often taking place in long shot with the compositional clarity of a John Ford western. Equally, he uses faces to express emotional response to imminent or ongoing action.

Peppard is both the best thing and the worst thing about the picture. He certainly hits the bull’s eye as a man whose chip on one shoulder is neatly balanced by arrogance on the other. But it is too much of a one-note performance and the stiff chin and blazing eyes are not tempered enough with other emotion. It would have been a five-star picture had he brought a bit more savvy to the screen, but otherwise it is at the top of the four-star brigade. Mason is at his suave best, Jeremy Kemp surprisingly good as the equally ruthless but distinctly more humane superior officer and, as previously noted, Andress does more than just swan around.

One scene in particular showed Guillermin had complete command over his material. Peppard has been invited to dinner with Andress. We start off with a close up of Pepperd, cut to a close up of Andress, suggesting an intimate meeting, but the next shot reveals the reality, Peppard seated at the opposite end of a long table miles away from his host.

The best scene, packing an action and emotional wallop, will knock your socks off. Having eliminated any threat from an enemy plane, rather than shoot down the pilot, Peppard escorts it back to base, but just as he arrives the tail-gunner suddenly rouses himself and Peppard finishes the plane off  over the home airfield, the awe his maneuver originally inspired from his watching colleagues turning to disgust.  

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Blue-Max-DVD-George-Peppard/dp/B007JV72ZO/ref=tmm_dvd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1592640176&sr=8-2