ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Night of the Generals (1967) Blu Ray (Eureka!)
Murder in Nazi-occupied Poland
This murder mystery flits back and forth through time between World War II and the 1960s. It begins in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, Poland with a man witnessing someone fleeing the scene of a murder. The victim was a prostitute who also happened to be working undercover for the Germans. While the witness doesn’t get a glimpse of the culprit’s face, he spots that they are wearing military trousers with a red stripe running down them - denoting that they are a general in the German SS.
Major Grau (Omar Sharif) decides to investigate the matter and finds out that three generals stationed in Warsaw have no alibi covering the time of the murder. Their names are Tanz (Peter O’Toole), Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasance) and von Seidlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray). While Grau snoops around and attempts to deduce who exactly was responsible, he also uncovers a wider plot to assassinate der Führer himself.
The story also flashes forwards to 1960s Germany, when Inspector Morand of Interpol (played by Philippe Noiret) decides to reopen the case and begins questioning a few former Nazis who were connected with the whole affair.
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A flawed but interesting WWII tale
This big-budget, all-star international co-production was based on a novel by Hans Hellmut Kirst. Notably, it reunited four of the key talents involved in the biggest critical and commercial success of 1962, Lawrence of Arabia - namely actors Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, composer Maurice Jarre and producer Sam Spiegel. Unfortunately, it dramatically failed to repeat the same success as the previous film; it failed to make back its budget at the box office and hasn’t exactly got the most glowing of critical reputations. The fact that it largely takes place from the POV of Nazi officers probably didn’t help its cause back in the day. The then “X-rated” theme of gruesome murders of prostitutes (albeit merely talked about rather than actually shown) would also have put many people off.
Watched nowadays, it’s actually a more interesting and enjoyable film than you might expect, albeit with some significant issues. The trouble is that it wants to be both a gripping murder mystery and a huge, multi-stranded epic at the same time. The two are more or less diametrically opposed in purpose; a mystery thriller has to be tightly-constructed in order to maintain the suspense, whereas an epic is more sprawling by nature as it follows a series of characters and their relationships through a number of years or decades.
As such, The Night of the Generals feels so cluttered with diversions that it loses focus on the central intrigue. Partway through, we get a battle sequence involving Tanz’s troops smoking out Polish partisans with flamethrowers. We also bear witness to a blossoming romance involving Corporal Hartmann (Tom Courtenay) - a cowardly soldier who proves to be instrumental later in the story - and the daughter of one of the generals (played by Joanna Pettet). In addition, there are some strange sequences involving Tanz indulging in alcohol and becoming obsessed with a Van Gogh painting for some reason. While most of these scenes are quite well done on an individual basis, when brought together they leave you scratching your head and wondering where film is trying to go.
On the other side of the coin, the attempts to be epic by including different story strands falls short because most of them aren’t really resolved in a satisfactory manner. It feels like a number of scenes were edited out in order to keep the runtime down to an already lengthy 2 hours and 25 minutes. This is particularly the case towards the end, where one gets the impression that there should have been a scene included which more clearly outlines the ultimate fate of the aforementioned romance.
That all said, there’s more good about The Night of the Generals than there is bad. The fact that it paints some of those participating in a regime as fundamentally inexcusable as the Nazis in moral shades of grey is quite bold for the era and, in many ways, predates the superior Sam Peckinpah film Cross of Iron (1977). Extensive location shooting in France, Germany and even Poland (despite the fact that the Cold War was going on in this time) adds a lot of authenticity to the proceedings. The mystery itself also pulls off a rather neat misdirection tactic - albeit unmasked rather too soon in the film's long runtime.
Moreover, while the film is somewhat jumbled in nature through much of its runtime, it still maintains the attention thanks to its strong central performances. Peter O’Toole is a real eye-opener here as he cuts a truly cold and unforgiving on-screen figure. Omar Sharif is also compelling (despite his curious ethnic casting) as a German colonel who makes for such a dogged and diligent sleuth that he would give Columbo a run for his money. Tom Courtenay is great as a mousy young soldier who eventually proves himself capable of holding his head up. His character comes closest to a genuine audience identification figure as he gets trapped helplessly amid some particularly sinister machinations. Donald Pleasance and Charles Gray (both of whom would go on to play different incarnations of James Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld) chew the scenery as two of the scheming German generals. Christopher Plummer also pops up in a brief cameo as Field Marshal Rommel.
The Night of the Generals is a hard film to either dismiss entirely or offer unreserved praise to. It’s just the best kind of mess: a fascinating one in that it contains so many great elements which ultimately don’t quite gel into a whole. If you take it for what it is, it’s certainly worth a look.
Runtime: 145 mins
Dir: Anatole Litvak
Script: Joseph Kessel, Paul Dehn, based on a novel by Hans Hellmut Kirst
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Tom Courtenay, Donald Pleasance, Joanna Pettet, Philippe Noiret, Charles Gray, Coral Browne, Christopher Plummer
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
This 4K restoration looks and sounds great. The images are pin-sharp with rich colour grading.
Novelist and scriptwriter Scott Harrison provides a somewhat stop-start commentary with disappointingly little direct production trivia. Indeed, he probably reveals more tidbits about various other tangental films (such as Lawrence of Arabia) than he does about The Night of the Generals!
Still, if you don’t mind these shortcomings then it’s still a worthwhile listen as he discusses the wider careers of the various cast members and other talents involved in its making and goes into some detail about the real-life WWII historical background. He also takes time to express his own critical opinions about the film, admitting to really liking it but also acknowledging that it has a few flaws.
The extras are rounded out by two trailers and a collector’s booklet.
The Night of the Generals is no masterpiece but it is better than its reputation suggests. The print looks fantastic but the extras are a bit thin on the ground.