Film, History, Spies, Spy 100 Project

Spy 100, #64: Operation Crossbow

September 12, 2010

An oddly structured film, Operation Crossbow (1965) is an interesting mix of history, intrigue, and suspense.  Set during the latter stages of World War II, its focus is on Allied efforts to derail the German V1 and V2 rocket programs in the run-up to the Normandy invasion.

Assigned by Winston Churchill to investigate alarming reports of German long-distance rocket development, Wing Commander Kendall (Richard Todd) recommends intensive bombing of Peenemünde, a successful raid that drives the German weapons development program underground — literally.  The threat is still very much a concern, though, so Kendall recruits three officers, chosen for their language and engineering skills,  to parachute behind enemy lines and infiltrate the German rocket program at its new site.  Under the hastily assembled covers of dead men, Curtis (George Peppard) and Henshaw (Tom Courtenay) will go in through Holland and, with the help of the Dutch resistance, join the flow of engineers headed toward the suspected weapons site.  A third agent, Bradley (Jeremy Kemp), will be sent into Belgium to relay information.  Things go wrong from the start, however, when Henshaw’s cover turns out to be problematic, and the wife of the man Curtis is impersonating, Nora (Sophia Loren), shows up to complicate the operation.  This thrusts the unlikely Bradley into a new role as the trio of spies improvise their way through occupied territory in an attempt to eliminate the German rocket threat.

The movie feels a little like two films mashed together at gunpoint.  The first film is the true history, focusing on British intelligence-gathering and planning in London, as well as German rocket-testing on the Baltic coast.  Historical detail appears to be the main mission of this first film, to offset the more Hollywood-structured “A-story” of its second film, the secret history, with Peppard and company infiltrating the Reich. Although they don’t entirely work in concert, both films are effective — the former for its accurate, faithful depiction of events (including credibly recreated V1 and V2 attacks), the latter for its nicely orchestrated succession of crises, evasions, and twists as the heroes face peril after peril in Holland and Germany.  It’s kind of patchwork, then, and the pacing understandably stumbles at times as a result, but the stories inform each other, and it all kind of comes together.  And of course, like many spy films, the takeaway is something of a cost-benefit analysis, balancing the many against the few, the heroics of the agents against the dark decisions they have to make.  Peppard, the “star” of the film, is stony and unsympathetic, but Kemp is great fun as the bumbling, unexpectedly resourceful Bradley, while Courtenay’s nervous heroics are inspiring.  The film doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to examining the sacrifices of these men on the ground, which is one of its more strongly delivered messages.

I probably wouldn’t recommend this one to casual movie-goers, but people predisposed to realistic spy tradecraft and World War II history will probably find much of interest in this one.

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