...a decent espionage escapade and a fairly suspenseful thriller that passes an entertaining few hours.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Operation Crossbow" (1965) is one of those big, sprawling World War II adventure movies so popular in the 1960s, issued by MGM in both 35 mm and 70 mm prints and featuring an all-star cast (albeit in this case mostly British). For me, it got rather lost and forgotten amid "The Longest Day," "The Great Escape," "The Guns of Navarone," "The Dirty Dozen," and their ilk. But "Crossbow" is a decent espionage escapade and a fairly suspenseful thriller that passes an entertaining few hours.

Interestingly, "Operation Crossbow" was one of several winners of "DVD Decision 2006," an initiative co-sponsored by Warner Home Video and Amazon.com. The idea was to give movie fans nationwide the opportunity to choose their favorite WB titles for release on DVD (titles not previously available on disc). The ten movies that received the most on-line votes were "Operation Crossbow," "The Illustrated Man," "Presenting Lily Mars," "Up Periscope," and "There Was a Crooked Man," which WB released in December, 2006, and "The Arrangement," "Band of Angels," "Gymkata," "Looker," and "Madame Curie," released in January, 2007.

It is admittedly an odd selection of titles, maybe the result of WB's having already issued most of their biggest hits in the previous ten years of the DVD era. Among the first discs, I chose to watch and review "Operation Crossbow" because even though I could barely remember it, I felt it was one of the better releases among WB's initial batch of winning selections. I wasn't far wrong.

The story is based on a real-life espionage mission. Late in the War, 1943, Churchill had gotten wind of a new rocket the Germans planned to use against England. If the enemy did enough damage with their missiles, they could hold up the D-Day invasion of Western Europe. It was imperative that the British send a team of spies into occupied territory to investigate the German rocket activities and stop them from going ahead with their plans.

Screenwriters Richard Imrie, Derry Quinn, and Ray Rigby based their story on the successful attempts by the British to thwart the German V-1, V-2, and V-10 rocket programs. Had the British not prevailed in crushing Germany's plans for missile superiority, Hitler might have destroyed London and possibly won the War. Although the details of the film's espionage plot are somewhat fictionalized, the overall concept is pretty accurate, and under the direction of Michael Anderson ("Around the World in Eighty Days," "The Shoes of the Fisherman," "Logan's Run") the story makes for a reasonably gripping motion picture.

Although I enjoyed most of "Operation Crossbow," a few things that dampened my enthusiasm slightly were George Peppard's rather flippant, wise-guy, typically Hollywood hero, Lt. John Curtis; a sometimes over-the-top musical soundtrack; and a shoot-em-up ending where the heroics fly fast and loose. Most of the plot and characters seem pretty realistic, but I suppose there had to be some concessions to viewers expecting a conventional spy yarn. Nevertheless, this isn't a James Bond adventure, and I could have done particularly without the finale's inflated histrionics.

In addition to Peppard in the lead role, he's got two others on his team: Tom Courtney as Robert Henshaw, a nervous young fellow, and Jeremy Kemp as Phil Bradley, a rich, superior type. They have to pose as Dutch rocket scientists sympathetic to the German cause and infiltrate the missile plant. Then there's Sophia Loren. Oh, I didn't mention Ms. Loren earlier? She is top-billed in the movie, yet she has probably less than ten minutes of screen time as a reluctant bystander who gets sucked into the plot against her will. Then she's gone. Undoubtedly, her name sold tickets. Veteran British actors Trevor Howard, John Mills, Richard Johnson, Richard Todd, and Anthony Quayle round out the rest of a first-rate cast.

Even though the film is not overly long at just under two hours, there are parts of it that could have been trimmed. The entire opening sequence before Peppard and his team enter the picture tends to go on too long. It's there more for historical purposes and to provide a back story, but it means we have to wait quite a while for the real plot to kick in. Nor is there a lot of action in the film compared to others of its breed, so expect some slow sections.

Still, "Operation Crossbow" provides a few good moments of tension, especially as things do not always go as the spy team plan. Most important, you can also expect some brutal scenes that might surprise you (and some double agents that probably won't). This is not your typically exaggerated, sentimentalized, glamorized spy yarn, nor is it a piece of WWII propaganda, even if all the Germans are robotic and cruel, barking out unsmiling commands as they do in all WWII films.

Finally, I should warn you that the Germans in this film speak German, not English with a German accent. Therefore, be prepared for a good number of subtitles. It actually helps make the film feel more authentic, so I don't think anyone will be bothered by it. Besides, on DVD there is always the pause control.

Warner Bros. have been careful these past many years in obtaining the best possible prints for transfer to DVD, cleaning them fairly well, and transferring them to disc in anamorphic widescreen where applicable and at a high bit rate. "Operation Crossbow" is no different. The screen size measures a ratio of about 2.20:1 across my screen, close to its 70-mm release dimensions. The image throughout is rock solid, the blacks deep, the colors rich, and the definition above average. The outdoor stock footage does show some grain; otherwise, things are relatively clean. About the only minor drawback is that faces can look a mite veiled, with a dull sheen to them.

The audio engineers transferred the sound to disc in Dolby Digital 5.1, which does what it can with a big, forgettable soundtrack score but reproduces a remarkably wide front-channel stereo spread. One notices only a small amount of rear-channel activity, though, mainly in the form of very light musical ambience enhancement. Nothing of any serious interest happens in the surrounds. Then, too, while the dynamics and clarity of the sound are excellent and the bass can be thunderous during explosions, the high end tends to be slightly hard.

There are only two bonus items of consequence. The first is a ten-minute, vintage featurette, "A Look Back at Crossbow," which provides a glimpse at the early real-life rocket programs of America and Germany (the Germans actually bought American patents for rocket designs) and how the real Operation Crossbow ultimately foiled Germany's plans for world domination through rocket science. The second item is a non-anamorphic widescreen trailer for the movie.

In addition, there are a generous twenty-seven scene selections, but no chapter insert; English and French spoken languages; and English subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
"Operation Crossbow" may seem like an old-fashioned kind of spy picture by today's rock 'em, sock 'em standards of high-voltage action and CGI special effects. Yet it carries the day well enough by concentrating on the recruitment and training of the spies involved and their generally realistic attempts to do their duty. Yes, there are still some heroics involved, and, yes, some things do blow up. This is, after all, a war film. It just isn't your ordinary war film, so don't expect the good guys to come through unscathed. Indeed, you may find the film's devotion to authenticity a little depressing. You live with it.


Film Value