Operation Crossbow (1965) Blu-ray Review

I wasn't sure what to expect going into the new Blu-ray of Operation Crossbow, a 1965 British World War II film with a stellar cast, now on Blu-ray from Warner Archive. Having never seen the movie before, I was prepared for an adventure movie set against the backdrop of global conflict, and the cover art, which replicates much of the film's original poster art, seems to promise thrills a minute. The blurb on the poster seems to double down on this promise: "They were schooled in sabotage...licensed to kill...and sent to destroy the world's deadliest rocket base!" As it turns out, that's an apt description, but it doesn't begin to do this film justice. Operation Crossbow is stunning, powerful, tragic, inspiring, and yes, also exciting. It's the kind of experience that the big screen seems to have been made for.

The cast list is a bit deceptive. Sophia Loren, perhaps at the peak of her exotic powers here, gets top billing, yet has minimal screen-time in the film. George Peppard (most recognized by my generation as Hannibal from The A-Team), who receives second billing, doesn't show up until around 25 minutes into film, though he is the closest thing to a lead actor in this ensemble cast. Trevor Howard, John Mills, Richard Johnson, Tom Courtenay, and Anthony Quayle all feature prominently in the story.
And what a story it is! This British film was clearly inspired by the success of James Bond, featuring underground Nazi missile facilities and cutting-edge technology, but this is also a revisionist war story, showing the bloody cost paid by not only the soldiers, but the intelligence agents and specialists, as well. The plot, which takes great liberties with historical fact, is compelling: Hitler wants to build a rocket so he can destroy his enemies from far away. The film shows us both sides of the story; we see the best and brightest Nazi scientists, mathematicians, and pilots struggle to bring the fuhrer's vision to reality, witnessing the human loss of every failed launch. We also see the Allied Powers as they combat the intelligence that they've received and implement plans to stop the pending massacre on home soil. Three soldiers are sent deep undercover behind enemy lines to infiltrate the operation, report their findings, and stop the unstoppable.
The aspect that I was most impressed by is how the film is in no rush, always taking its time to lay the groundwork for the story its building. A solid thirty minutes go by before we really even know what the mission is going to be. And yet, it's that patience and slow build that makes everything pay off so incredibly when the dominoes all start to fall in the last act. We spend time with these characters, witness their growth and plight. We follow our heroes through everything, from their initial interview, to briefing and training, deployment, and eventually infiltration into their new roles, deep undercover. The stakes are very real. Without spoiling any plot elements or getting too specific, the themes and consequences of this film are similar to that of The Dirty Dozen, which wouldn't arrive for another two years. There are also shades of The Longest Day, a 1962 film about D-Day that was filled with some of Hollywood's biggest stars, many of whom didn't make it until the end credits.
The film, known in some markets as The Great Spy Mission, is intense. I was fortunate to come in with no expectations, and that allowed me to experience the story on its own terms, as well as to allow it the patience and the time that it requires to follow through on everything we've been waiting for. It's a roller-coaster ride, but not by modern, popcorn-movie standards. No, this is a movie that takes great pains to make sure we understand exactly what is on the line. We can trust no one, though we can sympathize with just about everyone, especially our Allied characters, who find themselves on a life-or-death mission, ready to lay down their lives anonymously in service of freedom and the greater good. The movie manages to succeed in so many areas: it's a powerful drama, it's a fantastic spy film, and finally, a rousing action film with everything on the line. The director, Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days, Logan's Run) makes sure that everything feels real and that the stakes are immediate at all times.
Warner Archive's Blu-ray offers a solid video presentation featuring a film-like transfer and nice color representation. Operation Crossbow isn't a visually stunning film, often presenting gray skies, drab browns, and dark, muddy conditions. This film recreates the war-ravaged bombings in Europe and the gray, metallic military facilities of Germany's weapons facilities. The new Blu-ray does a great job at bringing these atmospheres to life. The disc features the original theatrical trailer and a vintage news-reel style promotional piece that focuses on the real "Operation Crossbow" mission. The promo reel uses footage and images from the film, but never feels like a puff piece or part of an electronic press kit.
Operation Crossbow really surprised me. I was expecting a fun, sixties action film set against the backdrop of World War II. What I got was something incredibly deep, human, and memorable. This is not a movie that does just one thing, instead offering just about every element that we love about cinema in a single package. The new Blu-ray serves as a reminder of the power of cinema, made during a time when big-screen spectacle and deeply-human story co-existed alongside each other on a weekly basis, and presenting an experience that delivers both thrills and emotion in a single, rousing package.


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