Blu-Ray Review: The Night of the Generals (1967)

Occasionally I am fortunate to be offered review material from various film, TV, book or comic PR companies, and will be taking a look at releases that interest me, whether based on writers, director or content.

This one is from Eureka Entertainment, 1967’s The Night of the Generals…

You might be surprised to learn that Lawrence of Arabia was not the only film in the 1960’s to co-star Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, but it would be no surprise if The Night of the Generals doesn’t ring any immediate bells.

A critical and financial dud on release, despite the ascendant stars of the aforementioned leading men, The Night of the Generals suffers in no small part for barely replicating the alchemy in David Lean’s masterpiece of having O’Toole & Sharif share screen time. The producer of both films, legendary Hollywood maestro Sam Spiegel, drafted both men in as part of a contractual deal following Lawrence of Arabia, paid them both a pittance (less indeed than lower billed Donald Pleasence), and largely kept them apart – O’Toole the creepy, dead eyed Nazi General and Sharif the dogged Nazi Major looking to catch a serial killer of women he has concluded was the work of a high-ranking General in the SS. Despite being inextricably linked by the narrative, O’Toole & Sharif share only a few brief scenes and it is one the many missteps taken in an overlong, oddly structured and ultimately misconceived novel adaptation.

Here’s the key point as to why: The Night of the Generals is both a political thriller and a cat and mouse horror all rolled into one, revolving around the search for a murderer the identity of whom is blindingly obvious from the very beginning of the film.

The Night of the Generals was released in 1967, a year in which the entire Hollywood studio system suffered a seismic shock in the form of a revolutionary series of pictures that saw the counter-cultural edge and grit that would characterise much of 1970’s cinema begin blasting away the existing, classic, faded Golden Age of movie making.

By the end of the year, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde would have made overnight stars of violent lovers Warren Beatty & Faye Dunaway, as Mike Nichols’ sexual and subversive The Graduate of Dustin Hoffman. We would have seen an ailing bulwark of Golden Age cinema, Spencer Tracy, challenged over his racial beliefs in Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, and traditional war pictures take a shotgun blast to the stomach in Robert Aldrich’s pulpy The Dirty Dozen. All of these films would rule the box office in a way The Night of the Generals couldn’t even hope to emulate, given it exists in a strange cinematic space – featuring two new, emerging stars (one of whom would go on to be famous hellraiser) while trapped attempting to be under aged director Anatole Litvak akin to the grand, sweeping, classical war pictures and period dramas that characterised the 1950’s and early-mid 1960’s. It immediately feels outdated.

Litvak was a Lithuanian-American filmmaker who many believed had had his day by the time The Night of the Generals came around, having throughout the 1930’s-1950’s guided legendary Hollywood starlets to Oscar-winning performances in films such as 1948’s The Snake Pit (Olivia de Havilland – still around today at 102 strong) or 1956’s Anastasia (Ingrid Bergman). He was unwell during films with significant bronchial problems and often clashed with Spiegel, who himself was in rancour with his main stars O’Toole and Sharif for the, so-called, ‘slavish’ terms under which they worked. It was not a happy production and that comes across in how Joseph Kessell & Paul Dehn’s screenplay fails to make the most of Hans Hellmut Kirst’s 1962 source novel.

Indeed as recounted by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni in Sam Spiegel: The Biography of a Hollywood Legend, script doctor Gore Vidal firmly believes O’Toole sought to sink the movie with his performance:

When I saw the film I realised that he had killed it, absolutely, with a shot through the heart. He comes on insane, there’s no development, and you know he’s the murderer from the first moment you see him. He is so mad in his first scene that he has no place to go except stay insane all the way through the picture, and this was all resentment at Sam.

This is hard to really dispute when watching The Night of the Generals. While Litvak and the screenplay work to craft a mystery around who the Nazi General serial killer is so Sharif’s Major Grau can play sleuth, if it were anyone other than O’Toole’s wide-eyed, blonde-haired, terrifying General Tanz the whole enterprise would have just felt ridiculous, twisting the story away from where it should go. The only other two suspects are the other two Generals mainly connected to the story – Charles Grey’s slimy, venal von-Seidlitz Gabler and Pleasance’s plotting, suspicious Kahlenberge, and neither fit the profile of a psychotic murderer like Tanz does. Indeed the most enjoyable aspect of Grey and Pleasance on screen together is if you’re a James Bond fan, as both would go on to play SPECTRE head-honcho Ernst Stavro Blofeld (indeed later that year both would feature in Bond film You Only Live Twice – Pleasance as Blofeld and Gray as unconvincing Australian contact Dikko Henderson). 

The Night of the Generals would have been far better off showing us the killer was Tanz from the beginning and allowing us to root for Grau in apprehending him. Had it taken this route, Litvak might have been able to twist the picture into something more nightmarishly baroque, even Hitchcockian, twisting Tanz into the kind of proto-Hannibal Lecter there are hints of him being. One note in his performance he may be but O’Toole makes for a powerfully haunting, scary Aryan psychopath; he plays Tanz with the sociopathic psychology of a God in human form, with a cold callousness and sadistic lack of empathy for human life. In one scene he stands aloft a tank in a Warsaw square, burning the city down to root out insurgents, like he is Nero fiddling while Rome burns. The film may suffer from making us wait to learn the inevitability of Tanz being the murderer but O’Toole is hard to shake from your mind once the film is over.

Rather than truly committing to the horror of a powerful Nazi figure slaughtering innocent women in civilised cities under a veneer of occupational urbanity—indeed Litvak shies away from showing us even an ounce of gore when you suspect the Arthur Penn’s of the world would have hammered it home—The Night of the Generals attempts to balance Grau’s detection with a long, laboured depiction of the Operation Valkyrie plot of July 1944, in which a cabal of high-ranking Nazi officers conspired to blow up Adolf Hitler, aware Germany was losing the war – a plot that ultimately failed. It turns the film, oddly, into a fragmented experience of two distinct, and distinctly unrelated, narratives that never come together. If you want a much better depiction of the Valkyrie plot, check out the Tom Cruise-Bryan Singer 2008 picture – even if it suffers from the same, jarring awkwardness as this film in having all of these patently German people using very British accents.

The Night of the Generals consequently never really knows what kind of film it wants to be. There is a chilling, Thomas Harris-style story of a Teutonic, Wagnerian murderer lurking here, and the sad fact is that O’Toole is chilling enough as Tanz (especially contrasted with Tom Courtenay’s young and decent Corporal Hartmann) to have cemented himself as a classic cinematic monster, with the right script. It just never emerges on the page, with Litvak even awkwardly inserting a future-set narrative which attempts to twist the wartime events as one, long flashback essentially, allowing for the denouement to catch up (almost) to the present day 1960’s. Had it simply been Sharif hunting O’Toole in wartime occupied cities, it could have been up to an hour shorter, more thrilling, with greater impact. Instead, whenever O’Toole is not on screen, it’s a dreary slog.

It has to be said that Eureka’s release here is also disappointing, entirely free of any kind of additional material barring trailers and an extensive audio commentary from author Scott Harrison, who also pens a limited edition collector’s booklet (which sadly I didn’t get to read and therefore can’t adjudge as to its quality) that comes with the release, but there is no existing stock material. Perhaps because The Night of the Generals flopped, bombed and very quickly disappeared from the annals of cinematic history, consigned to the lesser work of the many talented individuals who took part in front of and behind the camera. What could have, maybe should have, been a classic thriller at the end of the Golden Age studio system is one everyone involved seems to have been happy to forget. 

The Night of the Generals is worth remembering for one thing: O’Toole’s Nazi. It could be one of the great portrayals of psychotic inhumanity ever committed to celluloid. It’s just a shame few people these days have seen it.

The Night of the Generals is now available from Eureka Entertainment on Blu-Ray video.

2 thoughts on “Blu-Ray Review: The Night of the Generals (1967)”

  1. They don’t make World War 2 movies like this anymore. Stellar cast. Hero actor plays an amazing bad guy, the uniforms and props and suspense. This was a guilty pleasure of mine with Two Blofelds in the cast. Thanks for the memories!

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