Operation Crossbow (film)

Operation Crossbow, later re-released as The Great Spy Mission, is a 1965 British spy thriller and Second World War 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
Operation Crossbow.jpg
Directed byMichael Anderson
Produced byCarlo Ponti
Screenplay byEmeric Pressburger
Derry Quinn
Ray Rigby
Story byDuilio Coletti
Vittoriano Petrilli
StarringSophia Loren
George Peppard
Trevor Howard
John Mills
Richard Johnson
Tom Courtenay
Music byRon Goodwin
CinematographyErwin Hillier
Edited byErnest Walter
Color processMetrocolor
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer British Studios
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date
  • 1 April 1965 (1965-04-01) (United States)
  • 19 May 1965 (1965-05-19) (London-Premiere)
  • 30 August 1965 (1965-08-30) (United Kingdom)
Running time
116 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office$3.7 million (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 developing terror weapons, the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket. Technical problems with the V-1 lead them to create a manned version to investigate them, but the test pilots die flying it. Eventually, Aviator Hanna Reitsch (Barbara Rütting) successfully flies the prototype, discovering the problem (mechanical shifting of the rocket's weight and change of speed) and determining a solution.

Winston Churchill (Patrick Wymark) is concerned about a rumoured flying bomb and orders Duncan Sandys (Richard Johnson) his son-in-law and a minister, to investigate. Sandys is convinced by intelligence and photo-reconnaissance reports that they exist, but sceptical scientific advisor Professor Lindemann (Trevor Howard) dismisses the reports. (He is proved wrong when V-1s start falling on London a year later.) Bomber Command launches a raid on Peenemünde on 17/18 August 1943 to destroy the complex producing them.

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

After the agents are parachuted into occupied Europe, British Intelligence learns that one, Robert Henshaw (Tom Courtenay), has been given the identity of a Dutch sailor wanted 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 after refusing 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, visits her husband to obtain child custody. After gaining her silence with a promise to let her go, Nora is liquidated because she has become a security risk.

Curtis and Phil Bradley (Jeremy Kemp) infiltrate the factory. Bradley is assigned as a porter/cleaner while his papers are checked, but Curtis joins the heart of the project, assigned to fix the vibration delaying the V-2's development. V-1 flying bombs are shown destroying London housing, while others are destroyed by anti-aircraft fire. Then the more devastating V-2 assault begins. Launched from undetectable mobile platforms, the only way to fight them is to destroy the factory. The agents learn that the Royal Air Force is mounting a nighttime bombing raid, but the protective launch doors covering the ready-to-launch large A9/A10 "New York Rocket", must be opened to expose the plant and provide a visible target. Bradley takes on the task of discovering which switch in the powerhouse opens the doors.

Meanwhile, Bamford arrives and reviews the photos of the important staff, searching for a familiar face. He recognized no one, and orders that all employee records be checked. This includes receiving photos by Telex. The face of the man Curtis is impersonating appears and Bamford realizes he is a spy. He sounds the alarm just as the agents are heading for the powerhouse. Bradley is captured, but Curtis—who does not know which switch to pull— shoots his way inside and seals himself in, holding staff hostage. Overhead, bombers are searching for a sign.

Bamford demands Curtis surrenders, using Bradley as a bargaining chip but, as the air raid siren sounds, Bradley lunges for the microphone and tells Curtis which switch to pull; he is then shot by Bamford. The powerhouse workers attack Curtis, but he shoots them. One shoots Curtis as he pulls the lever opening the launch door. The Germans try to launch the missile but, as it lifts off, bombs hit, obliterating the facility.

Churchill congratulates Sandys, who observes that some of the agents will never be known. Churchill adds that, without the RAF’s courageous raid on Peenemünde, London would have been devastated. He makes Sandys Minister of Works and speaks 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][better source needed] 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 accuracyEdit

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]

Notably absent from the film is Wernher von Braun, designer and developer of the V-2 rocket.


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 honoursEdit

Lilli Palmer won the Prize San Sebastián for Best Actress at the 1965 San Sebastián International Film Festival.[17]

Home mediaEdit

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 adaptionEdit

  • 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. ^ a b "Film review:Operation Crossbow." Variety, 7 April 1965, p. 6.
  3. ^ a b 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. ^ a b c 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.

External linksEdit