The Fog of War and Filmmaking
When the Academy Award®-winning producer and Oscar®-nominated stars of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) were reunited four years later for another big-budget period epic, cinematic lightning did not strike twice. The Night of the Generals (1967), which began its national theatrical release 50 years ago today, is a tantalizing murder mystery set inside the German military elite during the World War II occupations of Warsaw and Paris, and which would be resolved 20 years later in Munich; each of the these cities served as filming locations. The brutal murder in Warsaw of a prostitute, who was also a German agent, becomes the focus of military intelligence officer Omar Sharif, and despite bureaucratic setbacks to his investigation, still pursues the hunt for the killer when he is reassigned to Paris, where a similar murder occurs and coincides with the his billeting of three prime suspects – generals played by Peter O’Toole, Donald Pleasence and Charles Gray – all in Warsaw then, and all in the City of Light now. The lurid details unfold against a background of true events (including the 1942 destruction of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto and the 1944 Operation Valkyrie attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler) and scintillating fiction that provides voyeuristic titillation and narrative jolts (for a crime thriller equivalent, think of the 20-years later L.A. Confidential). But audiences and critics a half-century ago didn’t sign on and the picture’s hybrid mix of war movie, crime thriller and inquiry into sexual deviation and psychopathic behavior didn’t gel effectively. Having suffered a similar rejection of his previous year’s all-star production of The Chase (1966, a Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray rediscovery), producer Sam Spiegel also exercised to a fault the same compulsive tendency for artistic control on The Night of the Generals as he did on The Chase. Robert Sellers writes in his 2016 Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography: “It go so bad that Spiegel was even telling his director Anatole Litvak where to place the camera. According to O’Toole, the script [credited to Joseph Kessel and Paul Dehn] was rewritten and changed on an almost daily basis and he later laid the blame for the inadequacies of the finished film solely at Spiegel’s door, believing that had the original material been left untouched the picture would have been far superior.” In his autobiography The Eternal Male, co-star Sharif also found the experience unnerving, with dark deeds still on the minds of the local citizenry surrounding the production, recounting: “We were shooting in the streets of Warsaw. It was bitter cold. Between shots I walked into a little cafe, wearing my costume. I'd just wanted a cup of coffee and hadn't even thought about the uniform. I looked around and what did I see? Panic-stricken faces, people with tears welling up in their eyes. ‘I’m no German!’ I yelled quickly. ‘I’m making an American movie. I'm an American.’ I even usurped a nationality to help reassure them. Nobody said a word. The barman refused to serve me. I suddenly understood the incongruity of that German uniform in a peaceful neighborhood cafe. I sensed the sadness that it inspired. I went out in dismay....Twenty-two years had elapsed without mitigating the pain and horror. On that day I learned that time can't make people forget.” But the passage of time and subsequent television exposure have led to reappraisal of the film, which has built up a notable following for its meticulous period recreations and the bizarre vibe it generates for viewers who get a kick having their genres mashed. Among the admirers are Ferdy on Films bloggers Marilyn Ferdinand and Roderick Heath, whose thorough and evocative essay can be found here: http://www.ferdyonfilms.com/2014/the-night-of-the-generals-1967/21132/. Among the regretters, there can also be sympathy mixed in with the resentment. Sellers recapped: “There was a twinge of sadness, however, when O’Toole heard of his [Spiegel’s] death in 1985, especially upon learning of the circumstances. On the set of Lawrence, Robert Bolt had asked how he thought Spiegel would meet his end. Almost without pause O’Toole answered, ‘Spiegel will die in two inches of bath water.’ And such was the case, on New Year’s Eve, Spiegel died from a sudden heart attack, alone in his hotel suite, falling into his bath.” The many moods and chills of The Night of the Generals, with an eerily hypnotic Isolated Track of the unnerving score by Maurice Jarre, are available to explore on TT’s splendid hi-def Blu-ray.