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The Night Of The Generals (1967, UK)

25/04/2011

Director: Anatole Litvak        Starring: Peter O’Toole, Donald Pleasance, Omar Sharif, Charles Gray,Tom Courtenay

When you look at the credits for this whodunnit/Second World War mash up you would be entirely forgiven for feeling a little bit bemused and disoriented by the casting decisions. While it is easy to reconcile the use of British actors to portray German Wermacht officers, especially the likes of Peter O’Toole, Donald Pleasance and Charles Gray who all put in tremendous turns as three Generals in the frame for the particularly brutal, sexually motivated killing of a Polish prostitute in occupied Warsaw, it is somewhat more difficult to accept a seemingly “whited-up” Omar Sharif as the Major liaising with the local police in an effort to bring the culprit to justice. An actor of lesser quality would struggle under this apparent casting blunder but Sharif somehow manages to carry it off despite the fact that a part of your brain is constantly screaming that there is no way, ever, that a non-white person would have been in the German army in the 1940s.

It brought to mind the recent debacle of Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall in Thor, a decision that for some people created an irreconcilable issue about plausability and “realism”. While this is debatably redundant when discussing fictional comic book heroes, or mythological figures for that matter, there is a powerful argument that when dealing with a fictional story set in a factual situation that it’s the sort of decision that can damage the credibility of the story beyond redemption. As it stands, The Night Of The Generals has not suffered, at least not significantly, in the decision in fact, after a while, you stop even noticing it. It would be nice to understand the motivation behind it though.

Plot wise, Sharif plays Major Grau, an intelligence officer in the German army who is working with the Warsaw police to solve the aforementioned crime. The only real clue to go on is that a German Army General was witnessed leaving the scene of the crime. Initial investigations reduce the possible list of suspects to three men: the highly regarded but peculiar and neurotic General Tanz (O’Toole), the politically minded, womanising Von Seidlitz-Gabler (Gray) and the distinctly non-ideological and apparently anti-war Kahlenberge (Pleasance). None have an alibi and all seem keen on putting a stop to Grau’s investigation.

Played out with a partial flashback structure (we see the main players being interviewed by the now aging police in the mid sixties, long after the war has ended) it really is more of a murder mystery than a war film, although the backdrop of war torn Europe (first Warsaw and then Paris) adds it’s own flavour to the proceedings. There is a strong anti-war sentiment, both in the anti-Nazi sentiments expressed by various characters and most obviously in the form of Corporal Hartmann (Courtenay), a young soldier, hailed as a war hero who finds himself embroiled in the plot whilst trying to avoid having to return to the front and face more death and destruction.

As far as mysteries go, it’s outcome is fairly predictable but it does seem more concerned with the why’s than the who’s so it’s easy to forgive the transparency of the story. It is the performances that make the film worth watching though, particularly O’Toole’s intense, disturbing turn as the savage and psychopathic war criminal Tanz (his early actions involve literalling burning the Polish resistance out of hiding in Warsaw) and Courtenay’s war weary Hartmann. There is enough entertainment in watching the cast at work to allow any shortcomings in plot to be overlooked and while it goes off on a bit of a tangent in the latter half of the film, the script is otherwise solid with convincing and often witty dialogue. It avoids over simplifying the German soldiers. With the exception of Tanz, it would be hard to describe the Generals as Nazis, in fact there is a pervading sense that the Wermacht are largely uncomfortable with Nazi ideology and the deification of Hitler. This allows for a subtlety of characterisation that is pleasing to watch.

All in all it’s an enjoyable film and a great opportunity to witness some of Britain’s heritage of fine thespians sharing some screen time.

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