Reinhard Heydrich was the ruthless and powerful Nazi SS commander appointed by Adolf Hitler to be “protector” of occupied Czechoslovakia, where he became known as the Butcher of Prague. His abject brutality, and the concern among Allies that he would succeed Hitler if the opportunity ever arose, led to an assassination mission in 1942 dubbed Operation Anthropoid. Three Czech members of the British army agreed to parachute into Czechoslovakia and launch a commando raid to kill Heydrich. The operation was successful but led to severe reprisals by the Nazis, who razed the village of Lidice, killing all the male inhabitants and sending some 300 women and girls to concentration camps. Thousands of other Czechs were arrested or killed in further retaliation.
The first Hollywood films depicting this episode were made right away, during the war: Hitler’s Madman (1943), stylishly directed by Douglas Sirk, produced by poverty row PRC, then purchased and released by MGM; and Hangmen Also Die! (1943), a bigger-budget fictionalized production directed by Fritz Lang and released through United Artists. Both remain powerful and striking pictures, but a 1960 book by Alan Burgess about the mission and its aftermath, entitled “Seven Men at Daybreak,” eventually inspired another, even more ambitious film production: Operation Daybreak.
Produced by Warner Bros., the film employed a large international cast and crew led by a prominent British director, Lewis Gilbert, who is best remembered for Alfie (1966) and three James Bond movies – You Only Live Twice (1967), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). With his French cinematographer Henri Decae, Gilbert fashioned a documentary-like visual approach to this story, shooting on actual locations in Prague and elsewhere in Czechoslovakia to create a feel of authenticity. The screenplay was by the South African-born, Britain-dwelling Ronald Harwood, who would return to this milieu with his wrenching, Oscar-winning screenplay for The Pianist, directed by Roman Polanski in 2002.
In a 1996 oral history interview for the British Entertainment History Project, Gilbert looked back on Operation Daybreak with pride and some sorrow, describing it as “a good film” that received “very good notices,” but “there was no audience for it.” The studio, he said, “didn’t really understand [the film] because there was nobody in it.” The three commandos are played by Timothy Bottoms, a rising star who had appeared in only a handful of films, including The Last Picture Show (1971) and The Paper Chase (1973), and British stage and television actors Martin Shaw and Anthony Andrews, far from household names.
But even more than the unflashy cast, Gilbert attributed the movie’s lackluster release and performance to the fact that such war films were not in fashion anymore. “It was a good story, but nobody could relate to it [at the time] ... It was made like a documentary [but] it was too late to make that kind of factual film.” Indeed, it was during the previous decade that large-scale recreations of actual World War II battles had become audience hits, with such titles as The Longest Day (1962), The Battle of Britain (1969) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) finding acclaim. By the 1970s, many World War II movies had moved on to a satirical or inverted approach to the genre, rather than relying on straightforward, docudrama realism.
Among the other movies that tell the story of the mission to kill Heydrich are the British film Anthropoid (2016) and the French-Belgian production The Man with the Iron Heart (2017).