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The 1960s saw a spate of big-budget, grand-scale international productions with large all-star casts of famed actors, many of them appearing only in brief cameos. A number of these pictures were political/spy thrillers or epics of World War II, and director-cinematographer team Michael Anderson and Erwin Hillier were responsible for at least three. Operation Crossbow (1965) was their first, followed by The Quiller Memorandum (1966) and The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968). The story follows the efforts of a team of mostly British operatives (and one American) to find and destroy the V1 and V2 rockets the Nazis had developed and begun to deploy near the end of the war. The action moves from the highest halls of British power (with actors playing Winston Churchill and his son-in-law, Tory government minister Duncan Sandys) to the rocket installations in Germany. The film, however, was shot entirely in England, with London's St. Pancras Power Station standing in for an underground rocket factory.
The story, while dramatized, is based on fact, right down to the fate of the operatives who infiltrated the rocket program. The operation had a stateside component as well; mock bunkers and launch sites were built on Eglin Air Force Base in North Florida in order to test the best means of destroying them. The results caused much debate within Allied command, since the Americans favored lower-level bombing raids, while the high-altitude British approach proved less effective. The bunker area is now an officially designated National Historic Site.
An ironic historical footnote to the story: Sandys, portrayed as one of the prime movers behind the heroic operation, had by the time of this film been vilified as the man who destroyed the British aircraft industry for his insistence (as Minister of Defense in the late 50s) that missiles had made airplanes obsolete as military weapons.
The screenplay credits bear the name "Richard Imrie," a pseudonym, in fact, for Emeric Pressburger. The co-creator (with Michael Powell) of such British film classics as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), I Know Where I'm Going! (1945), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) had fallen on hard times by the 1960s. His financial situation, aggravated by extravagant spending, was rocky, and he found himself in the position of having to take on any film work he could get. He was brought in to doctor Derry Quinn and Ray Rigby's script for Operation Crossbow only a few weeks before shooting began in June 1964. He frantically re-wrote scenes and dictated new ones and dialogue to his assistant, who then rushed them to the studio, often only a few hours ahead of the camera. He received screen credit as Imrie, a name he chose not so much to protect his reputation but to re-launch his career when he was no longer much in demand. In a diary entry around that time, he mused on the dual natures of Pressburger and Imrie: "While one retires at the age of 65, tired and forgotten, the other is an unknown but talented youngster just starting a glittering career." He used the name again on his next project, They're a Weird Mob (1966), which reunited him with Powell.
There's also a bit of deception going on in the casting. Top-billed Sophia Loren, although key to one particular sequence, appears in what is basically a cameo role. But she was at this time a major box office draw and Academy Award® winner- and her husband Carlo Ponti was the producer. Second only to Doctor Zhivago (1965) as the most expensive production Ponti had undertaken to that time, most of the $12 million budget went into special effects, including a climactic explosion that was one of the most colossal ever filmed. Because the production was filmed in bits and pieces and later assembled into the correct order, Loren never got to work with or even see much of the huge cast. Co-star Tom Courtenay later recalled a scene in which George Peppard says goodbye to Courtenay, then turns to greet Loren. "But all three of us were never on set together," he remarked. " In fact, I finished my scenes before Sophia started hers. I never met her at all."
When the picture got a lukewarm reception on its U.S. release, distributors briefly changed the title to The Great Spy Mission, believing the original title would lead people to believe it was a medical film, a genre that was not doing well in the mid 60s.
Director: Michael Anderson
Producer: Carlo Ponti
Screenplay: Derry Quinn, Ray Rigby, Richard Imrie (pseudonym for Emeric Pressburger)
Cinematography: Erwin Hillier
Editing: Ernest Walter
Art Direction: Elliot Scott
Original Music: Ron Goodwin
Cast: George Peppard (Lt. John Curtis), Sophia Loren (Nora), Trevor Howard (Prof. Lindemann), John Mills (General Boyd), Richard Johnson (Duncan Sandys), Tom Courtnay (Robert Henshaw), Jeremy Kemp (Phil Bradley), Anthony Quayle (Bamford), Lili Palmer (Frieda), Paul Henreid (General Ziemann), Sylvia Syms (Constance Babington Smith), Helmut Dantine (General Linz).
C-117m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon