Though it pales in comparison to modern-day military movies, Judge Bill Gibron still enjoyed this non-Gravity's Rainbow look at the Allies attempts to thwart the Nazis' V-Rocket program.
They were schooled in sabotage, licensed to kill, and sent to destroy the world's deadliest rocket base!
After the Nazis successfully build a "flying bomb" that can reach Britain and deliver undeniable devastation quickly and efficiently, Winston Churchill decides that the intelligence community must do something about the growing Reich rocket program. Tapping three divergent members of the military—U.S. rogue John Curtis (George Peppard, Breakfast at Tiffany's), Danish ex-patriot Robert Henshaw (Tom Courtenay, The Dresser), and proper Englishmen Phil Bradley (Jeremy Kemp, Top Secret!)—the government gives them new identities and ships them off to a secret German research center. Since the Reich is so desperate for engineers that it will take just about anyone, the U.K. hopes to discover the enemy's secrets before they can use them against the Allies. The Allied spies take the IDs of dead men, but trouble arrives in two distinct forms: a wife (Sophia Loren, Two Women) shows up to blow Curtis's cover, then Henshaw's persona turns out to be wanted by the police. In the meanwhile, bombs are dropping at an alarming rate, and the British are convinced that long-range rocket attacks are imminent. It is up to our brave spies, and their infiltration of the underground bunker, to make Operation Crossbow a success. The fate of the free world rides on it.
The story behind Germany's pursuit of long-range missile technology and the development of the V-Rocket series is the stuff of rousing military intrigue. Many World War II scholars believe that, if the Reich had perfected their propulsion systems and found a less problem-prone manner of delivering bombs to Britain (and other Western locales), the tide of the conflict could have been turned toward the Nazis. Somewhere along the way, however, time and science caught up with Hitler's regime, and the planet was saved from a frightening Fascist takeover. If we are to believe this fictionalized account of the Swastika students' downfall, all that was required to undermine the Fatherland was a smarmy American G.I., a slight Dutch volunteer, and a cool, collected Englishman. Through their double-crossing and derring-do, they can help defeat the rocket program from the inside out—at least, that's Operation Crossbow's initially intriguing premise. Unfortunately, a movie that wants to be The Guns of Navarone ends up a twisted collection of broken storylines, misplaced plot points, and fake action antics. That we still find something favorable within all these cinematic stumbles is a testament to the man behind the camera, and the faces he puts in front of it.
The amazing Michael Anderson, responsible for such memorable motion pictures as Around the World in 80 Days, The Shoes of the Fisherman, and Logan's Run, sure understands his way around a broad celluloid canvas. He sweeps us away to Third Reich research facilities that look like abandoned sets from the James Bond series, and recreates the Blitz that tormented England with bomb-blasting brilliance. Sure, some of the special effects are a little dated (especially the toy model rockets and various aircraft dotting the skyline) and the sheer force of the "on location" explosions tend to diminish the more fantastical elements of the action-adventure eye candy, but there's no denying Anderson's way with spectacle. He's the perfect choice to channel this material. Similarly, the casting is really first-rate. George Peppard, fresh from The Carpetbaggers, does the smug, if sincere, joking G.I. bit with just the right amount of seriousness and strength. Equally fine are Brit boys Tom Courtenay and Jeremy Kemp. They create the other two pieces of the spy-game puzzle, working well with Peppard to help us find our way through the occasionally complex narrative. Besides, you can't fault a film that puts such stellar thespian talent as John Mills, Paul Henreid, Trevor Howard, Richard Palmer, and Lilli Palmer in what are essentially supporting roles.
This brings up the issue of Sophia Loren, however. Wildly out of place here (she looks like she's traveling to a swinging '60s party, not the heart of Nazi-occupied Europe, with her raccoon eyes and bouffant hairdo) and reduced to a few insignificant scenes, it is obvious that she's in the picture as a kind of matrimonial favor from producer hubby Carlo Ponti. There is actually no reason for her to be in this movie, and her scenes really slow down an intriguing tale of military espionage. Indeed, Operation Crossbow frequently feels like a movie that has its first and third acts perfectly worked out, but can't find a way through its muddled middle. There are some exciting moments sprinkled throughout the central sequences in the film (Courtenay's betrayal, Peppard's introduction to the underground rocket research center), but they never really add up to much. Anderson could have easily clipped this content—or at least edited in a manner that keeps it from freezing his story's forward motion—and Crossbow would suddenly seem exciting. Thanks to a 116-minute running time, however, there is a lack of kinetic energy that frequently deflates the movie's more intriguing intentions. In fact, the whole U.K. angle, with British intelligence desperate to discover the Nazi's air artillery plans, makes for a far more fascinating story than the whole infiltrate and sabotage situation.
Still, there's enough here to satisfy those fans of classic Hollywood flag-waving. The heroics feel heartfelt, even if they fail to register on a real emotional level, and we root for our trio to take down the hideous Fascist war machine and its laser-like desire to rule the world. But Operation Crossbow is also a little unsure of its overall message. The flying bomb tests are reminiscent of the sequences in The Right Stuff when Chuck Yeager attempts to break the sound barrier. Anderson actually films the material as a pattern of unfortunate failures, building up an inherent desire to see a single success—even if it means pulling for the onerous enemy. In addition, a couple of characters are killed in such cruel, craven manners that we wonder why anyone would find their sudden sacrifice dignified. One in particular comes so completely out of left field that the performer's presence in the film has to be seriously questioned. In fact, there are more than a few facets to this film that beg modern-day reconsideration. Though mostly based on true stories, there is a great deal of silly spy gaming going on. Operation Crossbow never crosses the line into pure pop silliness, but it comes a little too close to be a jolly jingoistic hit.
For its first time on DVD, Warner Brothers banks on fan favoritism to get this film past a few technical flubs. Operation Crossbow comes complete with a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image and a newly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Frankly, neither is very compelling. The transfer is fuzzy, age defects and a lack of clear colors a definite minus. Similarly, the only time the new audio mix makes an impression is during the action sequences. Otherwise, the dialogue is discernible, even when the occasional subtitles get lost in the whiteness of their surrounding backdrop. As for added content, a vintage featurette on the film's factual history is interesting, but it's not enough to compel new audiences to the presentation. Without a clear contextual link to contemporary moviemaking, the packaging of Operation Crossbow is strictly for the already converted.
If you're looking for an example of old-school espionage that has as many pros as cons, Operation Crossbow will satisfy your casual cloak-and-dagger dynamics perfectly. Those who want more out of their World War II works will have to settle for this more symbolic treatment of the battle for Britain.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Vintage Featurette: "A Look Back at Crossbow"
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