Operation Crossbow (film)

Operation Crossbow, later re-released as The Great Spy Mission, is a 1965 British spy thriller and Second World War Metrocolor film about Operation Crossbow (1943−1945) in Panavision. 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]

Operation Crossbow
Directed byMichael Anderson
Produced byCarlo Ponti
Screenplay byEmeric Pressburger
Derry Quinn
Ray Rigby
Story byDuilio Coletti and Vittoriano Petrilli
StarringSophia Loren
George Peppard
Trevor Howard
John Mills
Richard Johnson
Tom Courtenay
Music byRon Goodwin
CinematographyErwin Hillier
Edited byErnest Walter
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
March 1965 (UK)
Running time
115 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$3,700,000 (US/ Canada rentals)[1]

The film is a highly fictionalised account of the real-life Operation Crossbow, made with a large cast of popular film stars of the time. It does touch on the main aspects of the operation, which embraced all tactics used to thwart the German long-range weapons programme in the last years of World War II. The scenes alternate between Nazi Germany’s development of the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket, and the efforts of British Intelligence and its agents to defend against the threats. All characters speak in the appropriate language, with English subtitles for those speaking German or Dutch.[3]


In 1943, Nazi Germany is working on terror weapons, the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket. Technical problems with the V-1 lead the Germans to create a manned version to ascertain the problems with 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 determining 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 (Richard Johnson) his son-in-law and 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. (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 industrial complex 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, one Dutch, one British and 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 awkward complication occurs when Nora (Sophia Loren), the wife of the real 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 (and Allied sympathizer) 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 assigned to work as a porter/cleaner while his papers are checked, but Curtis is brought 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. V-1 flying bombs are shown hitting and destroying London housing blocks, with other V-1's destroyed in mid-air by anti-aircraft fire. Then the much more devastating V-2 assault begins. They are launched from mobile platforms that are undetectable until the moment of launch. The only way to fight them is to destroy the place where they are built. The two agents 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 takes on the task of finding out which switch will open the doors.

Meanwhile, Bamford has come to the facility and reviewed the photos of all the important staff, searching for a familiar face. He recognized no one, and ordered that all the records of men working there be checked to the smallest detail. This includes receiving photos by Telex, and the face of the man Curtis is playing has been coming through, slowly. At last it is recognizable, and Bamford realizes that Curtis is a spy. He sounds the alarm just as the two men are making their way to the powerhouse. Bradley is captured at the threshold, but Curtis—who does not know what switch to pull—is able to shoot his way inside and seal himself in, holding Germans hostage. Overhead, the Allied bombers are looking in vain for a sign. Bamford tries to get Curtis to give up by using Bradley as a bargaining chip, but as the Allied bombers close in and the air raid siren sounds, Bradley lunges for the microphone and in what will be his last words tells Curtis that switch R9 opens the main launch door; he is then shot by Bamford. The powerhouse workers attack Curtis, but he guns them down. One man with a pistol shoots Curtis as he pulls lever 9, opening the main launch door The bombers see the brilliant light. Fighting the pain, Curtis tells his remaining prisoners to sit. The Germans frantically try to launch the “New York” missile, but just as it lifts off, the bombs hit. The raid succeeds in obliterating the facility.

in London, Churchill congratulates Sandys, who observes that the names of some of the brave agents will never be known. Churchill adds that without the RAF’s courageous raid on Peenemünde, London would have devastated. He gives Sandys the assignment of Minister of Works and speaks eloquently of rebuilding.



William 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 Nazis' 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] Some scenes of the bombing of the factory at the end of the film were later used in Battlestar Galactica to show the inside of the spacecraft burning. The scenes are obvious because a railway oil tank wagon is clearly visible.

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 and 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.

The Norfolk town of Kings Lynn was also used as a filming location.


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. According to Turner Classic Movies' commentary,[10] actor Paul Henreid argued the German would not work well, and that they should use English with a heavy German accent. Director Michael Anderson insisted on staying with the idea. However, it did not come across well, apparently leading to many of Henreid's scenes being cut.

Historical accuracy

Some real people were portrayed quite accurately in the film:

  • Frederick Lindemann, 1st Viscount Cherwell, universally known as "Prof", served as the British government's leading scientific adviser in the Second World War, when Churchill became Prime Minister.[11]
  • Duncan Sandys was the son-in-law of Winston Churchill. He was wounded in action in Norway in 1941, giving him a permanent limp, as he is portrayed in the film. Sandys was Chairman of a War Cabinet Committee for defence against German flying bombs and rockets.[12] (As Minister of Defence in 1957 he produced the 1957 Defence White Paper, that proposed a radical shift in the Royal Air Force by ending the use of fighter aircraft in favour of missile technology.)
  • Hanna Reitsch was a German aviator and well-known test pilot.[13]
  • Constance Babington Smith was a British WAAF officer who interpreted aerial photographs of Peenemünde.[14]


Operation Crossbow opened in the United States on April 1, 1965. The UK premiere was on May 20, 1965 at MGM's Empire Theatre, Leicester Square, London, where it was presented in 70mm (it was shown only in 35mm in the U.S.) The film played a total of 19 weeks in three West End cinemas over the next six months, highly unusual at the time for a non-roadshow presentation that had already started its general release (on August 29). Operation Crossbow was one of the 13 most popular films in the UK in 1965.[15]

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."[16]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.[17]

Home media

Operation Crossbow has been released worldwide on videocassette versions with a PAL release for the United Kingdom and other markets.[18]

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

  • Dell Movie Classic: Operation Crossbow (October–December 1965)[19]



  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. "Film review:Operation Crossbow." Variety, 7 April 1965, p. 6.
  3. Evans 2000, p. 145.
  4. "Sophia Loren in New Film". The New York Times. 15 February 1964. p. 14.
  5. "John Wayne Cast in Admiral Role: To Star in Film on War in Pacific, 'In Harm's Way'". The New York Times. 17 February 1964. p. 27.
  6. Atkins, David. User review: "George Peppard's Great War Movie." Turner Classic Movies, 8 May 2008.
  7. Hopper, Hedda (20 June 1964). "Looking at Hollywood: Sinatra Hires Cameraman as Producer". Chicago Tribune. p. A6.
  8. Scheuer, Philip K. (17 September 1964). "'King Rat' Sparks Invasion by British: Pal's 'Odd John' Sci-Fic; 'Crossbow' at Crossroads". Los Angeles Times. p. C13.
  9. Erickson, Hal. "Synopsis: Operation Crossbow." AllRovi. Retrieved: 21 September 2011.
  10. Ben Mankiewicz, TCM, commentary after Operation Crossbow, 6:00–8:00pm, September 1, 2018
  11. Fort 2004, p. 237.
  12. King and Kutta 2003, pp. 176, 184.
  13. Piszkiewicz 1987, p. 86.
  14. 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.
  15. "Most Popular Film Star." The Times [London, England], 31 December 1965, p. 13 via The Times Digital Archive, 16 September 2013.
  16. Crowther, Bosley. "Review: Operation Crossbow (1965)." The New York Times, 2 April 1965.
  17. "Archives: 1965 San Sebastián International Film Festival." San Sebastián International Film Festival. Retrieved: 21 September 2011.
  18. "Operation Crossbow DVD Movie." cduniverse.com. Retrieved: 21 September 2011.
  19. 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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