Operation Crossbow (film)

Operation Crossbow

Directed by Michael Anderson
Produced by Carlo Ponti
Screenplay by Emeric Pressburger
Derry Quinn
Ray Rigby
Story by Duilio Coletti and Vittoriano Petrilli
Starring Sophia Loren
George Peppard
Trevor Howard
John Mills
Richard Johnson
Tom Courtenay
Music by Ron Goodwin
Cinematography Erwin Hillier
Edited by Ernest Walter
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
March 1965 (UK)
Running time
115 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language German
Box office $3,700,000 (US/ Canada rentals)[1]

Operation Crossbow, later re-released as The Great Spy Mission, is a 1965 British spy thriller and World War II film about Operation Crossbow (1943−1945). It was directed by Michael Anderson and written by Emeric Pressburger, under the pseudonym "Richard Imrie", Derry Quinn, and Ray Rigby from a story from Duilio Coletti and Vittoriano Petrilli. It was filmed at MGM-British Studios.[2]

The film is a highly fictionalised account of the real-life Operation Crossbow, made with a large cast of the time's popular film stars, but it does touch on the main aspects of the operation. The scenes alternate between Nazi German developments of the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket, with a German cast speaking their own language, and British Intelligence and its agents who are attempting to defend against the threats.[3]


From 1943, Nazi Germany started working on terror weapons, the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket while British Intelligence learns about a new secret weapon. Technical problems with the V-1 lead the Germans to create a manned version to ascertain the flight problems of the rocket but all the test pilots are killed flying it. Aviator Hanna Reitsch (Barbara Rütting) successfully flies and lands the V-1 prototype, discovering the problem (mechanical shifting of the rocket's weight and change of speed) and how to solve it, which leads to the mass production of the V-1.

Winston Churchill (Patrick Wymark) is concerned about rumours of a German flying bomb and orders Duncan Sandys, his son-in-law (Richard Johnson), one of his ministers, to investigate. Sandys is convinced by intelligence and photo-reconnaissance reports that the weapons exist, but sceptical scientific advisor Professor Lindemann (Trevor Howard) dismisses the reports as extremely fanciful (ultimately he is proved wrong when V-1s start falling on London a year later in June 1944). Bomber Command launches a raid on Peenemünde on 17/18 August 1943 to destroy the factory producing them.

The Germans move their factory underground in Southern Germany for protection and rush ahead with the development and production of the larger, more deadly V-2. The head of British intelligence (John Mills) learns that engineers are actively being recruited across occupied Europe for the new weapon and decides to infiltrate the factory. He finds three qualified volunteers, one an American, all experienced engineers who speak fluent German and Dutch. They are hastily trained and sent to Germany via the Netherlands. Amongst the volunteers interviewed but not selected is a British officer named Bamford (Anthony Quayle), who is actually a German undercover agent.

Just after the Allied agents are parachuted into occupied Europe, British Intelligence learns that one of them, Robert Henshaw (Tom Courtenay), has been given the cover identity of a Dutch sailor wanted by the police for murder. He is arrested but agrees to becoming an engineer to act as an informer for the Germans. However, he is recognised by Bamford, who has returned to Germany as a security officer. Refusing to reveal his mission, he is tortured by the Gestapo and then shot when he refuses to co-operate.

A further complication occurs when Nora (Sophia Loren), the wife of the man whom USAAF Lieutenant John Curtis (George Peppard) is impersonating, comes to visit her husband to obtain custody of their children. Although innocent, the wife can compromise the mission. Curtis assures Nora that she will be allowed to rejoin her children, but, to maintain the mission's secrecy, after Curtis leaves, the German contact, Frieda (Lilli Palmer) who runs the hotel where Curtis is staying, kills Nora.

Curtis and Phil Bradley (Jeremy Kemp) manage to infiltrate the underground factory. Bradley is only able to work as a porter/cleaner, but Curtis manages to work his way into the heart of the project, where he is assigned to fix the problem of engine vibration that is holding up the V-2's development.

The two agents send back information and learn that the Royal Air Force is mounting a nighttime bombing raid on the facility, but the protective doors on the ceiling, that cover the ready-to-launch large A9/A10 "New York Rocket", must be opened to expose the plant and provide a landmark for the bombers. The controls are in the powerhouse; Bradley is killed by Bamford, but Curtis is able to shoot his way in. As the Germans frantically try to stop him, the fatally wounded Curtis opens the doors before he dies. The raid succeeds in obliterating the factory.



Douglas Home, brother of Sir Alec Douglas-Home wrote an early draft of the script.[4] Sophia Loren and George Peppard were cast early on.[5]

To help the box office, Sophia Loren appears, courtesy of her husband and producer of the film Carlo Ponti, in a cameo role. Despite getting lead billing, she has only a modest role in the hotel sequence. She plays the Italian wife of engineer Erik van Ostamgen, a dead man whose identity has been appropriated by Curtis, Peppard's character. He provides her with a travel document, but she is killed to maintain secrecy.

Peppard was chosen for his role because of contract difficulties. MGM held his contract and insisted on a movie before he gained his release and cast him in this film.[6] He signed a new agreement with MGM for which Crossbow was the first - one a year for three years.[7]

Filming started July 1964. Said Peppard, "Mikey Anderson is one of those gifted directors who let you play it your own way and only when you see your own rushes do you realise you've been doing it his way all along."[8]

Said Anderson during filming:

I like working in the extremes of either sheer fantasy - that's what made Around the World in 80 Days such a joy - or sheer reality. Crossbow falls into this second class and has given me a wonderful opportunity to dig into the past and into the truth. I researched Crossbow like an FBI man on a murder case, flying to the States, France, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany because the story concentrates just as much on the Nazi's efforts to get their V rockets into the air as on the Allies' efforts to bring them down. This isn't going to be one of those films where all the German soldiers are square-headed idiots repeating 'Donner und Blitzen'. The Crossbow mission was a vital mission and had it not come off we might well have all been doing the goosestep now.[8]

The sets were the largest ever built at MGM British studios. Stages 6 and 7 were combined into one large set of 30,000 square feet.[8]

Ponti and the production company worried that the authentic name chosen for the film was confusing and led to a poor initial showing. This reappraisal led to new names, Code Name: Operation Crossbow and The Great Spy Mission, the name chosen for a re-release in North America. The film was also known as Operazione Crossbow in Italy.[9]

Realistic props in addition to detailed sets added to the look of authenticity in recreating the German secret weapons projects. The now defunct St. Pancras power station in London was used as a filming location for the power house scenes.


An unusual aspect of Operation Crossbow is that all the German characters, and the disguised Allied characters in their roles, speak (subtitled) German instead of accented English. The same was true of the 1962 film The Longest Day.

Historical accuracy

Some real people were portrayed quite accurately in the film:


Operation Crossbow was one of the 13 most popular films in the UK in 1965.[14]

The New York Times designated Operation Crossbow a Critic's Pick by film reviewer Bosley Crowther, who noted the film was a complex mix of fiction and fact that was a "grandly engrossing and exciting melodrama of wartime espionage, done with stunning documentary touches in a tight, tense, heroic story line."[15]Variety reviewers had a similar evaluation, praising the "suspenseful war melodrama" that boasted ambitious production values but also commented that "what the Carlo Ponti production lacks primarily is a cohesive story line."[2] A later review by Alun Evans reinforces the more prevalent view that a "starry cast add to the attractive vista but a tighter script would have been appreciated."[3]

Awards and honours

Lilli Palmer won the Prize San Sebastián for Best Actress at the 1965 San Sebastián International Film Festival.[16]

Home media

Operation Crossbow has been released worldwide on videocassette versions with a PAL release for the United Kingdom and other markets.[17]

The DVD version of Operation Crossbow has been released in the United States on Region 1, and also in certain parts of Europe. Currently, the film has not yet been released on DVD on Region 2 in the United Kingdom.

Comic book adaption



  1. This figure consists of anticipated rentals accruing distributors in North America. See "Big Rental Pictures of 1965", Variety, 5 January 1966 p 6
  2. 1 2 "Film review:Operation Crossbow." Variety, 7 April 1965, p. 6.
  3. 1 2 Evans 2000, p. 145.
  4. Sophia Loren in New Film New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 15 Feb 1964: 14.
  5. JOHN WAYNE CAST IN ADMIRAL ROLE: To Star in Film on War in Pacific, 'In Harm's Way' New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 17 Feb 1964: 27.
  6. Atkins, David. "George Peppard's Great War Movie." Turner Classic Movies, 8 May 2008.
  7. Looking at Hollywood: Sinatra Hires Cameraman as Producer Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file) [Chicago, Ill] 20 June 1964: a6.
  8. 1 2 3 'King Rat' Sparks Invasion by British: Pal's 'Odd John' Sci-Fic; 'Crossbow' at Crossroads Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 17 Sep 1964: C13.
  9. Erickson, Hal. "Synopsis: Operation Crossbow." AllRovi. Retrieved: 21 September 2011.
  10. Fort 2004, p. 237.
  11. King and Kutta 2003, pp. 176, 184.
  12. Piszkiewicz 1987, p. 86.
  13. Kreis, John F. et al. Piercing the Fog: Intelligence and Army Air Forces Operations in World War II. Washington, D.C.: A.I.R. Force Historical Studies Office, 2002, First edition 1996. ISBN 978-99966-42-45-6.
  14. "Most Popular Film Star." The Times [London, England], 31 December 1965, p. 13 via The Times Digital Archive, 16 September 2013.
  15. Crowther, Bosley. "Review: Operation Crossbow (1965)." The New York Times, 2 April 1965.
  16. "Archives: 1965 San Sebastián International Film Festival." San Sebastián International Film Festival. Retrieved: 21 September 2011.
  17. "Operation Crossbow DVD Movie." cduniverse.com. Retrieved: 21 September 2011.
  18. Dell Movie Classic: Operation Crossbow' at the Grand Comics Database


  • Babington Smith, Constance. Air Spy: The Story of Photo Intelligence in World War II. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957.
  • Dolan Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Evans, Alun. Brassey's Guide to War Films. Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2000. ISBN 1-57488-263-5.
  • Fort, A. Prof: The Life and Times of Frederick Lindemann. London: Pimlico, 2004. ISBN 0-7126-4007-X.
  • Harwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies". The Making of the Great Aviation Films, General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • King, Benjamin and Timothy Kutta. Impact: The History Of Germany's V-weapons in n World War II (Classic Military History). New York: Da Capo Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0-306-81292-7.
  • Orriss, Bruce. When Hollywood Ruled the Skies: The Aviation Film Classics of World War II. Hawthorne, California: Aero Associates Inc., 1984. ISBN 0-9613088-0-X.
  • Piszkiewicz, Dennis. From Nazi Test Pilot to Hitler's Bunker: The Fantastic Flights of Hanna Reitsch. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1997. ISBN 978-0-275-95456-7.
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