RogerBW's Blog

Operation Crossbow 26 January 2014

1965, dir. Michael Anderson, George Peppard, Sophia Loren: IMDb / allmovie

This is a highly-fictionalised account, a triple-stranded story of the German V-weapon development programme, the British efforts (the actual Crossbow) to work out what was going on and develop countermeasures, and as part of that a mission to insert agents into the rocket development and construction programmes. Most of the narrative effort goes into the latter, which is understandable given the need for a simple human story of espionage but seems rather a shame; in particular, there's no mention of the false hit data fed back through turned German agents (implying that the weapons were overshooting, so that the Germans adjusted them to fly less far and they ended up striking empty ground in Kent), nor of the fighter pilots' efforts in confusing the V-1 guidance system by tipping their wings. Indeed, the re-release title of "The Great Spy Mission" is rather more apt to the actual business of the film.

For this reason, the early scenes are the most interesting to me: a completely invented incident in which Hanna Reitsch flies a modified V-1 to work out a problem in its airframe, and Constance Babington Smith's analysis of recon photographs to locate launch sites and other hardware at Peenemünde. After that, we mostly deal with the covert operation, with only occasional shots of V-1 launches, hits, and a rearrangement of anti-aircraft guns to defend against them, to keep the tension up. (This film repeats the usual error by showing that the V-1 engine cut out before it started its dive; actually, it was intended to be a power dive, but problems with the fuel feed tended to starve the engine after the missile had tipped over. That fuel feed problem was even fixed on later models. But the engine cutoff has entered popular legend...) What it gets rather more right, though, is the complete unexpectedness of the V-2 attacks: no warning engine sounds or whistling, just an explosion followed by the airflow sounds catching up with the supersonic rocket. (It would be asking a bit much of a film that it should point out the huge cost of building the V-2s compared with the amount of actual damage they did, and this one doesn't.)

Anyway, our heroes are selected, are given identities as real, but dead, Dutch or German engineers, and are parachuted into Europe. This is where Sophia Loren's cameo comes in, just a few scenes as the wife of one of the engineers who's divorcing him and has tracked him down to get him to sign papers allowing her to take her children back to Italy. It hardly justifies her star billing, but she carries the thing off well enough, and many war films suffer from the problem of not really knowing how to work female characters into the plot. Anyway, most of the agents make it into the secret rocket base, a series of excavated rooms that allow the action to stay conveniently studio-bound. There's no mention of the slave labour actually used in the construction of the things.

The climax is a race to get the main launch doors open in time to mark the place out for a bombing raid to destroy the A9/A10 (here referred to as the "New York Rocket"), though of course historically it was never close to being ready to use -- and indeed would have needed a pilot.

The menacingly-friendly SS officer in trenchcoat is straight out of Central Casting, but perhaps wasn't such a cliché in those days. Similarly, the massive underground rocket base is surely inspired by the first few James Bond films (particularly Doctor No), and was just as surely the inspiration for You Only Live Twice. The whole place is curiously ready to explode under the bombing raid when just a single set of armoured doors is opened, mind you. However, the sets are beautiful and detailed, and add a solid atmosphere to the sometimes thin action.

Things that strike me as amiss while watching include the sudden switch from colour to black-and-white stock footage when the anti-aircraft gunners are shooting at V-1s, and the curiously minimal exhaust plume from the V-2s in flight. But I've probably seen rather more film of real V-2s than had the audience in 1965.

The storyline is sometimes a bit shaky and the script could have done with being tightened up, but for a melodramatic mix of a real problem and cinematic action taken to solve it, in a format that rarely drags, one could certainly do worse.

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