In his 1967 production, The Night of the Generals, movie mogul, Sam Spiegel, reunited Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif after their star-making performances in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. This strange, genre-bending, all-star cast WWII drama, directed by Anatole Litvak, was a box office disappointment at the time of its release, but remains a very interesting watch for the splendid performances of its actors and its unique take on a war thriller.
“What is admirable on the large scale is monstrous on the small.”Major Grau(Omar Sharif)
He played an Arab in “Lawrence of Arabia”, a Russian in “Doctor Zhivago”, a Mongol in “Genghis Khan”, an Afghan in “The Horseman”, a Mexican in “Mackenna’s Gold”, a Cuban in “Che”, an American in “Funny Girl”, and in “The Night of the Generals,” he’s a German. I suppose you have already deduced that the “He”, whom I am referring to, is the Egyptian actor, Omar Sharif. In this day and age when the world in general (and Hollywood in particular) seems to be obsessed with inclusivity and diversity, I feel that Sharif and his achievements aren’t celebrated enough. Sharif broke racial and linguistic barriers in the ancient 1960s to emerge as an international star- who was provided with great opportunities as an actor to do every kind of role imaginable. Sharif was a big star in his native Egypt before he attained international stardom with the epic masterpieces, “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”. Of course, he had a patron-saint in the great British director, David Lean, who had so much clout at the time that he could cast an Egyptian as a Russian in a film that became one of the biggest blockbusters of all time. Being cast in the title role of “Doctor Zhivago” was the real breakthrough for Sharif, because his role in “Lawrence”, where was more or less an Arab playing an Arab. And since “Nothing succeeds like success”, especially in Hollywood, Sharif got to play every nationality on this planet in his films. That’s the magic of Hollywood: If you’re a hit, then Hollywood would cast an Egyptian Muslim as a New York Jew; If you’re a flop, then even an accomplished New York Jewish actor couldn’t get cast as a New Yorker Jew. But casting an Egyptian actor- who speaks pretty much with his native accent intact- as a German army Major in Nazi Germany maybe taking things a bit too far; since it was a time in which a rabidly racist and fascist socio-political system decided your worth purely based on your race and your looks; anyone other than a blonde-haired, blue-eyed guy occupying a position like the one Sharif’s “Major (later Lt. Colonel) Grau” occupies is very hard to believe. But as it so happens, there are elements in this film that are far weirder and preposterous than Sharif’s German soldier, and hence the latter manages to blend in with the overall weirdness of the film.
Sharif’s Major Grau is an officer of the Abwehr– the German military intelligence- stationed in Warsaw in the year 1942. He’s investigating the case of the brutal murder of a prostitute, who also happens to be a German agent. From an eyewitness, he comes to know that the murderer is a general, but the question is who?. The witness did not see the General’s face, he saw only the red stripes on his trousers. The possibilities are three: it could be General von Seidlitz-Gabler (Charley Gray); or his his chief of staff, General Klus Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasance); or General Tanz (Peter O’Toole). These three Generals do not have an alibi for the said night. Gabler, who lives in the shadow of his domineering wife, Eleonore(Carol Browne) is the prime suspect, as he has a habit of picking up prostitutes on the sly. But Grau’s attention veers towards Tanz, who seems to hide a sadistic monster underneath his cool, golden-boy veneer. Grau had watched with disgust when Tanz razed an entire section of Warsaw, after a sniper bullet killed his Tank driver. In an audacious move, Grau crashes a party given by Eleonore and confront all three Generals face to face with the accusation. As a result of this impudence, Grau is promoted to “Lieutenant Colonel” and transferred to Paris, thus bringing his investigation to an end.
(Spoilers Alert: the next few sections discuss major plot and character twists, so if you want you can skip to End of Spoilers)
But things heat up again when the three Generals also move to Paris in July 1944. They find Grau waiting for them there, but the Generals have bigger things on their mind. The Wehrmacht officers are plotting the assassination of Adolf Hitler and both Kahlenberge and Gabler are involved in it, albeit on different levels- the former is a chief participant while the latter is a fence-sitter. Tanz, on the other hand, remains a loyal servant of Hitler, and is unaware of the plot, in which even the great Field Marshall Erwin Rommel (Christopher Plummer) is involved. To keep Tanz away from official duty, he’s ordered by Gabler to take a holiday. Lance Corporal Hartmann(Tom Courtney) is assigned to be Tanz’s official chaperone (as well as an unofficial spy for Kahlenberge). It’s his duty to take Tanz around Paris, and report to Kahlenberge about his activities. This new and unexpected mission turns out to be a major impediment in Hartmann’s secret romance with Ulrike von Seydlitz-Gabler (Joanna Pettet), Gabler’s daughter. As he gets closer and closer to Tanz, Hartmann realizes that Tanz is pretty mad and given to spells of dizziness resulting in blackouts- Tanz is particularly affected by Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait. And as Grau had already suspected,, and Tanz’s behavior had pretty early confirmed, he’s the General giving “Jack the Ripper” a run for his money in the treatment of prostitutes.
Pretty soon, another prostitute turns up dead in exactly the same gruesome fashion as the one in Warsaw, but all the evidence points towards Corporal Hartmann, who has disappeared mysteriously. While everyone is looking for Hartmann, Grau once again suspects Tanz, and seeks the help of French Inspector, Morand (Phillipe Noiret)- who by the way is a member of French resistance and Grau knows it, but he keeps it to himself in exchange for information on the ‘Ripper’ General. It doesn’t take much time for Morand and Grau to dig out evidence against Tanz, but to Grau’s misfortune, the day he goes to arrest Tanz is July20. 1944- the day they tried to kill Hitler and failed. Tanz coolly executes Grau and brands him a traitor- a member of the kill-Hitler squad. The film then cuts to 20 years later in Hamburg, where Inspector Morand, now an Interpol officer, picks up the trail of the case. Since Grau never outed Morand as a French resistance member, he believes he owes it to Grau to solve the case. Another prostitute has met the same fate as the ones in Warsaw and Paris, and Morand believes the same killer is loose again. And as it so happens, General Tanz, who was convicted as a war criminal and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, has just been released. Tanz is in Hamburg for a reunion dinner for his former panzer division. There, Morand confronts Tanz and presents an unquestionable eyewitness for the murder he committed in Paris. Tanz cannot hold out any longer and he chooses to take the easiest way out of his predicament.
(End of Spoilers)
“The Night of the Generals” was the brainchild of independent movie Moghul, Sam Spiegel. Spiegel was the producer of some of the greatest films of 1950s and 60s. He produced John Huston’s “The African Queen”, which won Humphrey Bogart an Oscar. He then produced the multiple Oscar winning Marlon Brando classic, “On the Waterfront”. He subsequently teamed up with David Lean for his two mammoth, Oscar winning epics, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia”. After these two collaborations, Lean cut off his professional relationship with Spiegel rather acrimoniously- the former alleging that the latter cheated him out of credit and profits from the two films. Spiegel, after his breakup from Lean, was quite a lost soul, and he was upset as hell for missing out on Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago,” which Lean ended up making for Italian producer, Carlo Ponti (Sofia Loren’s husband). In this period, he started making some truly bizarre movies; just before this film, he had made the notorious Arthur Penn film, “The Chase” starring Marlon Brando. “The Night of the Generals” is truly an odd duck of a film- it’s part War film, part Murder mystery and part Historical drama. and in the final analysis, it’s neither of one of them. The film is set in the background of WWII, but as a war film, it does not have those elaborate battle scenes- only that one section where Tanz destroys much of Warsaw with Tanks and infantry. The main thread of the film is about the investigation into a series of murders committed on three different locations in three different time periods, but the mystery relating to the murderer is revealed very early; As a historical drama , it tackles two important historical incidents: the destruction of Warsaw and the plot to kill Hitler, but even they amount to nothing more than window dressing to add spice to the main investigation thread. But the film is one of those ‘sum’ being bigger than its ‘parts’ kind of film. The cumulative effect that the film has on the viewer is tremendous; you are both fascinated and perplexed by it. But you really feel that you have seen a very interesting film of some substance, and are eager to watch it again.
The film is mounted on a huge scale, actually much bigger than what you expect from a film with this sort of lurid and (even) exploitative subject matter. The film exhibits a touch of class in every department. There’s an extreme obsession to being “prestigious” and “classy” at every point in the film. It’s very much felt in the way the brutal murders are handled- we never see the dead bodies, and in a scene where the coroner tries to explain the injuries inflicted on the prostitute, Grau quickly cuts him off by saying “no need to be so vivid” I guess Spiegel was still suffering from a ‘David Lean’ hangover- in Lean’s films everything is tasteful, classy and epic. Here too, the sets are huge, the locations are expensive, and the cast assembled is one of the greatest ever. The film boasts who’s who of the biggest international acting talent available at the time. Donald Pleasance, who would play “Blofeld” in “You Only Live Twice” in the same year, is sufficiently cagey, and mysterious as Kahlenberge. Charley Gray, who would also star in “You Only Live Twice” and who would go on to play “Blofeld” in “Diamonds are Forever”, is superb as the confused and weak Gabler. Tom Courtney, who was just coming off his Oscar nominated performance in “Doctor Zhivago”, gets some of the most thrilling and tense moments in the film as Corporal Hartmann. Every scene he’s in with O’Toole’s mad General is rife with tension, as Hartmann has no idea how Tanz is going to react next; he’s very careful not to cross his lines, but with a madman like that you’re never sure where the lines are. On top of that, Hartmann is having a forbidden romance with General Gabler’s daughter, Ulrike- played by Joanna Pettet as a bold, feisty woman belonging more to the 60’s than the 40’s. Christopher Plummer makes a cameo appearance as Rommel- for which Spiegel gifted him a Rolls-Royce.
But Spiegel’s trump card here is getting Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif back together after their widely acclaimed desert adventure Both actors were at the height of their stardom at the time, and could have commanded huge salaries. But since, Spiegel had launched both of them, he had them under contract and hence, managed to get them to star in the film for a pittance- reportedly, their combined salary was less than Donald Pleasance’s. Peter O’Toole is the standout here, giving a mesmerizing performance as Tanz- the character is a mix of T.E. Lawrence and Jack the Ripper. Like Lawrence, Tanz is a violent conqueror, renowned on the eastern front as “The Butcher”. But unlike Lawrence, who’s madness as a warrior is restricted to a more understandable level, Tanz’s madness is beyond reason. He’s someone who’s pathologically addicted to killing, and needs to kill someone all the time, irrespective of whether it’s war or peace. O’Toole plays him as a combination of a bloodsucking vampire and a Killer Robot- which i believe is a perfect metaphor for a Nazi. O’Toole’s movements are mechanical, while his face, covered by those golden locks, looks white as a devil, as if all blood has been drained out of it. Coming Back to Sharif, i am not sure what to make of his performance. He’s very charismatic of course, but the obsession of the character- who has a “Zealous” nature and “no sense of proportion” regarding the investigation he has undertaken- sometimes comes across as downright idiotic; simply because one feels a lack of conviction in the main investigation theme of the film: it’s hard to believe that an intelligence Major could undertake a murder investigation against a distinguished Nazi General, that too right in the middle of a world war. Even if he was successful in nabbing the culprit, the Nazi high command would quash the investigation, and would never let someone like Tanz be convicted.
(End of Spoilers)
Maybe this is not meant to be taken literally, and the whole theme of one man’s obsessive quest for truth in the middle of all the insanity going around him is intended to be a big metaphor- as Grau’s own words, quoted at the beginning of this piece indicates: “What is admirable on the large scale is monstrous on the small.” So, it’s one thing to destroy a city in war, but another to slice up a prostitute in peace. But to transfer this abstract concept into a concrete visual theme is a difficult thing to achieve, and one way of doing it is to make Grau a madman himself- in other words the morally right version of Tanz. A madman investigating another madman in a truly insane time is a very interesting subject for a film. There are certainly some indications towards this in Grau’s characterization and Sharif’s performance, But the characterization is not perfect, maybe because an army of writers went through the script, and Sharif plays it too cool and it comes across as more self-absorbed and vain rather than quirky or crazy. This is one of the reasons why the big confrontations between O’Toole and Sharif does not set fire tot he screen, and O’Toole always seems to have an upper hand in all of them. O’Toole’s physical stature allows him to tower over everybody, and both his character and his performance is much more interesting than Sharif’s at any point in the film. The film definitely needed a powerful Director, with a strong vision for the material, and some better writing to make it truly memorable. There’s also the fact that Omar Sharif disappears for long stretches altogether and the narrative momentum is lost. The Hartmann-Ulrike love affair looks, if not entirely redundant, but too stretched out. It doesn’t add much to the film, and seems to be there only to attract a younger audience. The whole subplot could have done with some trimming. Another distraction is the way the film jumps forward at intervals to the 1960s, where we find Philip Noiret’s Policeman interviewing some of the secondary characters in an attempt to solve the mystery. But by this point the killer’s identity has become all too clear. The 1960s section could have been used merely as a prologue and epilogue.
Gore Vidal, who was one of the writers on the film, had asked Spiegel to hire a young hotshot director for the project. Certainly, a John Frankenheimer would have been perfect for this film. Having directed psycho-political dramas like “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Seven Days in May” and the WWII thriller, “The Train”, he would have effortlessly mixed the big themes of war, politics and crime to come with a compelling film. But Spiegel, who was a control-freak, decided to go with less powerful, Anatole Litvak, who owned the rights to the source novel. Eventually, very little of the novel written by Hans Hellmut Kirst was used for the film, and they even borrowed some themes from a James Hadley Chase novel. It’s surprising that for a masculine drama like this one, a director like Litvak, who’s more famous for his ‘Women pictures’ was chosen. Litvak worked in Europe before he became a studio-contract director in Hollywood in the 1930s. His most famous films were the “the Snake Pit”- for which Olivia De Havilland an Oscar; and “Anastasia”- Ingrid Bergama’s comeback film for which she also won an Oscar. Litvak’s direction is not bad- he gets wonderful performances out of the actors, which i guess is his strength, but i don’t think he had much say in the main creative decisions on he film, and it’s producer, Spiegel’s fingerprints that we see all over the film. Spiegel got the great composer Maurice Jarre- and another of David Lean’s regular collaborator- to score the music for the film, which is very good and helps in setting the mood of the film. Like how Bernard Hermann’s music elevated the paranoia of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, Jarre’s score here manages to sustain a mood of tension and dread, especially in the film’s middle section set in Paris, which mainly consists of Hartmann driving Tanz around the city- just like James Stewart cruising around San Francisco following Kim Novak.
The film also has spectacular production design by Alexandre Trauner- the film is truly gorgeous to look at, and the picture is beautifully photographed on locations in Poland and at studios De Boulogne, Paris by cameraman Henry Decae. Another memorable element is the superb title sequence that showcases the film’s themes of war, sex and murder in a striking and succinct way, with superb underscoring by Maurice Jarre. Ultimately, This big-budget, dark-epic, made for more than $5 million, was a critical and box office failure. The film released to middling to bad reviews and tepid box office, returning less than half its investment. The fact that it was not an easy film to classify and market may have been one of the reasons for its failure. After the glorious adventure that was “Lawrence of Arabia”, this moody, lurid melodrama set during WWII was not what audiences around the globe expected from O’Toole and Sharif’s reteaming. The film turned out to be director, Litvak’s penultimate movie, and Sam Spiegel would make just 3 more films in the next two decades- none of them really special, and one of them, “Nicholas and Alexandra”, about the doomed last Czar and Czarina of Russia, was another not-very successful attempt to copy David Lean’s epic films, especially “Zhivago”. But “The Night of the Generals” remains an ambitious and interesting piece of filmmaking, and even if its not successful in fully living up to its big (and often muddled) ambitions, its a grand throwback to a period when movie moguls took risks on such lavish, genre-bending production with an A-List cast and spectacular production values.