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Night of the Generals, The (DVD Review)

2 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures
$14.94 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Tom Courtenay, Joanna Pettit.

Part hefty epic, part camp and part showcase for an over-the-top lead performance that’s in keeping with the rest, Sam Spiegel’s typically un-frugal production was less popular with reviewers and audiences of the time than it is with at least some of today’s fanciers of World War II extravaganzas. You can’t exactly say that it’s the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore because it does in other countries. But not with major stars or by a Hollywood producer whose name, in this case, adorned three best-picture Oscar winners.

Clocking it at 144 minutes and portending a movie of more distinction than January releases were even at the time, Generals has been at least something of an (un-) Holy Grail on DVD, in that it arguably contains the only essential Peter O’Toole performance not hitherto sprung from VHS Hell. For Father’s Day — apparently, dads dig war — Sony has given it an unheralded DVD premiere along with 1965’s The Heroes of Telemark, itself a lengthy wartime epic (with Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris) that’s best remembered as the last completed movie from action-pic deity Anthony Mann.

Generals’ director was a late-in-the-game Anatole Litvak (The Snake Pit, Anastasia), and it has been said that producer Spiegel badgered him a lot on the set, to the chagrin of O’Toole. I don’t know about this, but I wouldn’t be struck dead to hear that Quentin Tarantino and Oscar-winning Christoph Waltz gave O’Toole’s psycho-kraut here a good look or 14 before embarking on Inglourious Basterds. The former T.E. Lawrence (in a best-picture Oscar winner for Spiegel that you may have heard of) gives a performance straight from the Nazi-sadist playbook — though being O’Toole, he attacks the role here with his special brand of relish.

General O’Toole’s problem is loose women, in that he likes to murder them. Investigating the 1942 death of a prostitute in occupied Warsaw is a major in German Intelligence (Omar Sharif), who’s obsessed by a case in which it’s established that the kinky perpetrator had to be one of three highest-ranking honchos (the other generals had alibis). The brass’s feathers get ruffled, but Sharif keeps pursuing matters that later (much, much later) fall into the hands of an Interpol agent played by Philippe Noiret — a wonderful French character actor who was starting to show up in major Hollywood productions (Hitchcock’s Topaz would soon follow).

Cast as a framed patsy who has the double misfortune to fall for another general’s daughter is O’Toole’s driver (Tom Courtenay) — who, given what happens to him over the course of decades, could be forgiven if he asked to go back to the front. Somehow in all this, a key plot point involves the unsuccessful murder attempt on Hitler in 1944 — a fascinating episode that, at the time, had not been the subject of as many movies as it has subsequently been.

Though Generals really isn’t a very successful movie, it is one that can keep you going for an evening if it catches you in the right mood. There’s no question that it was a major production: Sharif made it between Doctor Zhivago and Funny Girl, when he was the hottest he ever was (Mackenna’s Gold, Che! and MGM’s refusal to even release Sidney Lumet’s The Appointment in America cooled the temperature significantly). And O’Toole would get Oscar nominations the next two years: for The Lion in Winter and Goodbye Mr. Chips.

Completists should also note that Christopher Plummer has a small role as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the same general that James Mason played so memorably in The Desert Fox. This gives Plummer further bragging rights in a career that has allowed him to play Hamlet, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Cyrano de Bergerac, Capt. Georg Van Trapp, Oedipus, the Duke of Wellington, Archduke Ferdinand, Rudyard Kipling, Herod Antipas, Sherlock Holmes, FDR, Mike Wallace and … well, I’m way too exhausted to go on, but there is more. This definitely places him in the George Hamilton-Gary Oldman class in terms of career “wide swath.”

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