Good to see another airing for this excellent Lewis Gilbert-directed 1975 movie over the weekend… I must admit it is a very long time since I last saw this Warner Brothers’ docu-film based on the Alan Burgess novel ‘Seven Men at Daybreak’: the dramatisation of the assassination of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, Adolf Hitler’s Reich Protector of Bohemia & Moravia..
Featuring the late German actor, Anton Diffring, as the ill-fated Nazi officer and three very young-looking British & American actors Martin Shaw, Timothy Bottoms & Anthony Andrews playing 3 young Czech soldiers, (Karel Curda, Jan Kubis & Josef Gabcik), parachuted into their German-occupied country in 1942 under the operational code-name of ‘Operation Daybreak’ this is that real-life story lying behind the Czech & British combined operation to eliminate ‘The Blonde Beast’!
This gripping movie very much mirrored the actions of the Second World War’s Special Operations Executive-trained ‘Operation Anthropoid’ that, with the full backing of the Czechoslovakian Government-in-Exile in London, was ultimately successful in ambushing Reinhard Heydrich whilst driving in an SS-escorted convoy in the capital city of Prague on May 27th 1942. Though surviving the Czech operatives’ grenade attack on Heydrich’s open-topped limousine, ‘The Blonde Beast’ finally succumbed to his appalling wounds days later on June 4th dying, it is said, as a result of subsequent blood poisoning resulting from shrapnel and horse-hair from his car’s upholstered seats having been driven into his body by the force of the grenade explosion..
Though the military operation was deemed a success in terms of actually achieving its assassination aim, Shaw’s character in the movie, Karel Curda, subsequently betrays the other members of his team to German security forces and a terrible denouement to the film occurs, with a siege situation that involves huge loss of life on both sides. However this was to be almost dwarfed by the resulting viscous retribution handed out by the German occupying Forces in terms of the merciless execution of many hundreds of innocent Czechs, including the infamous razing to the ground of the villages of Lidice and Ležáky and the murder of all their inhabitants in a truly barbaric act that will be forever remembered as the tragic outcome of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s effective Head of all Occupied territories in the East.
The film itself, whilst having one of the bleakest of ends I can ever recall in a World War Two drama, is actually a very gripping war-time movie that offers two highly authentic German musical performances: the first being a very evocative rendition of the German Christmas Carol: Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night), performed by a young group of actors portraying Hitler Youth and Adolf Hitler School pupils in front of Diffring’s character, Heydrich. All the more impressive because most of the carol is happily sung in almost its entirety rather than just the odd frustrating snippet that the viewing audience is very often only treated to..!
Elsewhere in this very effective movie is an excellent scene depicting the arrival of Heydrich’s train in Berlin which is met on the platform by The Führer and the Musikkorps of the Leibstandarte-SS ‘Adolf Hitler’ and again the actor-musicians give a very impressive performance of the ‘Deutschlandlied’, albeit it more than likely dubbed on in post-production..
Like many people I suspect when watching such historic films & documentaries, one thing that usually gets my goat are the ‘anoraks & know-alls’ who immediately take-pen-to-paper to complain about some minor mistake or other that they, (but often nobody else), has noticed, though as a producer myself accept that it is always the gamut we have to run after we have put ‘heart & soul’ (and usually not an inconsiderable amount of our own money into a production or publication), but nevertheless we all still dread the subsequent letter or helpful ’phone call pointing our our error..!
However for once in my life I have to, (somewhat embarrassingly), break my own personal rules about not levelling any criticism at another producer’s work to say that, though I enjoyed this movie very much, sadly the sight of over-sized, gaudy (and plain wrong), Waffen-SS decals pasted on the wrong side of the prop German helmets, plus an additional close-up shot of a purported Waffen-SS infantryman actually wearing an ‘army-decalled’ prop helmet, rather disappointed me and took a little of the edge from my overall enjoyment of this fantastic film.
It’s an easy mistake to make, but I say ‘disappointed’ because it still amazes me that when you’ve bought a book’s rights, invested millions of dollars turning it into a superb motion picture by commisoning the screen-play, brilliantly cast believable actors, shipped the whole production to an overseas location to get the ambience just right and had a brilliant stab at getting the uniforms broadly correct… to then trip yourself up by not investing a few bob more to add a German military uniforms’ specialist to your massive payroll to ensure that a glaring costume error, (that would have many knowledgeable folk in the audience shouting at their screens), isn’t made, is such a real shame..! But it happens, (though we constantly pray it isn’t a goof made on ‘our watch’), and of course it’s very easy to be wise after the event… but even so!
Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013