Operation : Daybreak (1975)
This WW2 tale of espionage and the underground resistance from director Lewis Gilbert plays it straight as opposed to the three 007 adventures he helmed including You Only Live Twice. This proves to be a somber tale of freedom fighters sent into Czechoslovakia to assassinate one of the Nazi parties premiere figures, Reinhard Heydrich. As the film states matter of factly over the opening credits. “This is a true story.” Note it doesn’t say “based on a true story” as is the custom of most films so I suppose I’ll have to take this as an accurate account of the events leading up to Heydrich’s death and the aftermath that followed.
Then again maybe I should hold off on believing everything in this Ronald Harwood script. I say this because after a quick bit of checking, the title of the film should be, Operation : Anthropoid. I have no idea why the change in titles.
Starring as Heydrich is the familiar Anton Diffring as the SS Officer. He has a morning routine where he is immaculately dressed and fawned upon by a trio of valets who serve with fear in their eyes. The year is 1941 and Timothy Bottoms, Martin Shaw and Anthony Andrews are enlisted to be parachuted back into their homeland. Their assignment? Hunt down and kill Diffring in Prague where he rules with ambition and a ruthlessness towards any who oppose him. The allies believe that should Hitler be killed, Heydrich/Diffring would be the man elevated to take his place.
The account of the operation caught on film is a workmanlike effort at detailing the historical facts leading up to the attempted assassination against Heydrich. Upon landing in their homeland the trio will find assistance with Joss Ackland’s underground which includes Nicola Pagett and a family’s home where the men can lay low biding their time until the hit can be made. It’s a series of scouting and watching Diffring as he parades around Prague with the arrogance one would expect after watching countless films depicting the German war machine and the SS officers involved.
I don’t think I’m giving anything away here by stating that the eventual assassination attempt didn’t go as smoothly as was planned but in the end due to injuries sustained during the assault, Reinhard Heydrich does eventually die in hospital setting off numerous and reprehensible reprisals from Hitler. These include wiping out the entire town of Lidice and hunting down all those involved with the assassination.
In the film the actual assassination takes place at the half way point of the film’s two hour running time. The latter half of the film deals with the bloody reprisals and the standoff between the resistance fighters and the countless German soldiers they will gun down in the film’s final moments. For those who are unfamiliar with the actual events, I’ll leave it for you to discover just how things go wrong for the resistance and the trio of lead actors playing their parts.
One thing the film did not do which caught me a bit by surprise was the absence of subtitles. Especially where Anton Diffring was concerned. I have no idea what he was saying at any given time as he never speaks English throughout though I will say I think it was easy to imagine and follow his thoughts as the film moved along. There’s a scene that I have to mention for no other reason than I found it just for the “little man.” When Anton is pronounced dead and those same valets have to dress the corpse they are far from gentle this time around as they jam poor Anton into his clothing and ultimately the casket.
I couldn’t but think that at 2 hours this might have been better served by stretching it another 30 odd minutes and release it to TV as a 3 hour event with those damned commercials. I did notice there was a scene or two in the trailer that didn’t make the final cut that could have padded that idea.Television was accustomed to putting together WW2 stories over two nights like Inside the Third Reich or even as a miniseries such as the acclaimed Holocaust. As it is it’s a very direct telling of the plot to kill one of Hitler’s leading officials.
Anton Diffring is just one of many actors to portray the villainous Heydrich on screen. Others include John Carradine in Hitler’s Madman (1943), Martin Held in Deadly Decision (1954), David Warner would play Heydrich on two separate occasions. First in Holocaust (1978) and then in Hitler’s S.S. Portrait in Evil (1985). Finally in a chilling performance one doesn’t easily forget, Kenneth Branagh, who scored an Emmy as Heydrich in Conspiracy (2001). The story was also covered in Fritz Lang’s 1943 thriller Hangman Also Die among others.
This take on the Heydrich affair is available through the Warner Archive collection for film and war buffs but the original 1975 one sheet seen here in the vault at Mike’s Take isn’t.
Lastly is it just me or does Martin Shaw look just like Jude Law?