The Night of the Generals (1967)

As a young teenager, I went through a phase when I watched a lot of war movies. And when I say ‘a lot’, I mean a lot: everything from Operation Daybreak and Operation Crossbow to The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Escape to Victory, Von Ryan’s Express—and this one.  I remember The Night of the Generals as being an offbeat war film, because it didn’t have the drama and high adventure of most of the other war films I saw during that period. Instead, it was an unusual film, in that it was shown from the point of view of the Germans—and it combined suspense with war.

The three generals

Rewatching it yesterday, I realized that I’d actually forgotten more about The Night of the Generals than I’d remembered. The fact, for instance, that there isn’t just war and suspense, but also intrigue, romance, angst, and a good deal of drama—and some history.

It begins on the night of December 21, 1942, in Warsaw. Shortly after the credits roll (to close-ups of the uniform—gold braid, epaulettes, peaked cap, black boots, etc—of a faceless German general), the action shifts to a seedy building, where a man climbing a dirty and deserted staircase suddenly hears a woman scream upstairs. He looks about, obviously scared, and on hearing footsteps coming down the stairs, quickly hides in a nearby toilet.

A Pole sees someone through a crack in a door

…and, through a crack in the door, is able to see the murderer come down the stairs. He cannot see the man’s face—only part of his body, a uniform.

This is what he relates to Major Grau (Omar Sharif), a German Intelligence officer who arrives on the scene of the crime and starts questioning the neighbours. The dead woman—a prostitute who was also a German agent—has been brutally slashed (there are at least a hundred stab wounds on her), and even Grau, hardened cop though he is, is visibly shaken.

Major Grau arrives to investigate

The witness tells Grau what he saw, but is hesitant about describing the uniform the murderer was clad in. Grau, however, is insistent, and the man finally yields. It was a German officer’s uniform, with a red stripe down the side of the trousers.
A red stripe. That is part of the uniform of a general. Grau’s assistant immediately begins to accuse the Polish witness of being a liar, but Grau shuts him up. A murderer is a murderer, even if he is a German general.

Grau hears the witness's testimony

There are three German generals in Warsaw at present.

One is General von Seidlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), a seasoned veteran who has a taste for women. His wife Eleanore (Coral Browne) is apparently aware of this fact. On the morning after the gruesome murder, we hear her telling her husband that she had seen a red mark on his uniform collar, and it certainly didn’t match the red of her lipstick. Was it blood?

General Gabler with Eleanore

The second general is Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasance), who (as we hear in a voiceover), is the least unpleasant of the lot. Kahlenberge does seem to be rather less the archetypal German officer, more approachable and less intimidating than some of his other colleagues.
This is what encourages his sergeant, Otto, to request a favour. Otto’s cousin, Lance-Corporal Hartmann (Tom Courtenay), has just been released from hospital, where he had been recovering from battle wounds. If General Kahlenberge could arrange for Hartmann to be attached to his office, it would be good for Hartmann.

Otto speaks to General Kahlenberge

Hartmann, when summoned, does prove to have impressive credentials: on the Eastern Front, where he was the sole survivor of a massive confrontation with the Russians, Hartmann killed 40 Russians all by himself. He doesn’t look too happy about it, though, and certainly doesn’t preen.

Hartmann reports to Kahlenberge

When General Kahlenberge (who does not need a corporal in his office anyway) probes a little further, he discovers that Hartmann is surprisingly well-educated. In fact, he had been studying to be a pianist at a music conservatory when the war broke out. So he is a pianist? Kahlenberge has a job for him. That evening, General von Seidlitz-Gabler and his wife are hosting a soirée, and can do with a pianist. So Hartmann’s name is suggested, and he goes to meet Eleanore Gabler to discuss the music with her.

Hartmann meets Frau Gabler

The third general, who has arrived just the previous day in Warsaw, is—like Hartmann—a hero. The ‘Hero of Leningrad’, as he’s been dubbed, is General Tanz (Peter O’Toole). He’s a hard, ruthless man, who’s come to Warsaw with orders to get its Polish and Jewish population under German control (and not just nominally). He is to wipe out all resistance, and that is what he’s busy doing—with the help of flame-throwers and tanks—when Major Grau arrives, wanting to question Tanz about his whereabouts the previous night.

Grau sees what Tanz is capable of

The cold, automaton-like way in which Tanz is going about conducting his ‘cleansing’ of Warsaw chills Grau. [There is a brief but telling glimpse of Poles lined up against a wall, with their hands up, being briskly searched; there’s even a little boy among them, looking confused and scared].

When Tanz has people gunned down on the street, and gets his tanks to start shelling the buildings around, Grau is so disgusted, he leaves without waiting for Tanz to be free to answer any questions.
Grau hasn’t had any success with the other two generals, either; both Gabler and Kahlenberge have refused to meet him, saying they’re too busy.

That is the usual response Grau gets to his investigation: a Polish prostitute? Why does he even bother? Grau mentions the Furies, and the concept of the blood of a murder victim calling for vengeance—and that a Polish prostitute is entitled to justice, too. But nobody seems to be listening.

Grau finds his way blocked

That evening, therefore, in a fit of desperation, Grau gatecrashes General Gabler’s soirée, because all three generals will be present there. Nothing much comes of it, because neither Gabler, nor Kahlenberge, nor Tanz are at all inclined to give Grau the time of day.

... and gatecrashes a party

One person does, though, get lucky that evening. Lance-Corporal Hartmann, sitting and playing the piano, catches the eye of General Gabler’s daughter Ulrike (Joanna Pettet). Ulrike’s mother has been trying—unsuccessfully—to encourage Ulrike and General Tanz to make a match of it, but Tanz is politely distant and Ulrike is less politely so.
Now, at the soirée, there’s instant chemistry between Hartmann and Ulrike, and they end up spending the night together.

Hartmann and Ulrike

The next morning, Hartmann admits to Ulrike that he’s no hero—he was just the sole survivor among the Germans in that skirmish, and since that fact wouldn’t have looked good, they diverted attention by making him out to be a hero who’d killed 40 Russians single-handed. Ulrike is amused and warmed by this admission, and when they part, it’s with obvious intentions of taking this relationship beyond a mere one-night stand.

A romance blossoms

But, back to Grau. The morning after the soirée, Grau reports to his boss, to be given the news that he (Grau) has been promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel. With that, he’s also been transferred to Paris, with immediate effect. Grau’s questions—who sanctioned that order? Where did it originate?—are answered by his boss, who already knows. The order originated with Kahlenberge; it was signed by Gabler.

Grau gets a promotion - and a transfer

So Grau shifts to Paris.

And almost two years later, so does the entire scene. In summer 1944, the Allied armies have landed at Normandy and are headed for Paris. General Gabler and General Kahlenberge (who now has Hartmann on his staff) are also in Paris. The city is in turmoil; the French are upbeat, because they know liberation isn’t far…

…and some of the German officers—nearly half of the generals in Paris right now—are coming to the conclusion that they, the armed forces, and their country would be better off without Hitler. A plot, code-named Valkyrie, is being hatched to assassinate Hitler. Gabler, while aware of the plot, has maintained a low profile; Kahlenberge, on the other hand, is deeply involved in it. The plan is scheduled for July 20, when Hitler is expected to meet some of his top brass at a bunker in Rastenburg.

Operation Valkyrie is plotted

Gabler and Kahlenberge also know that on the same day, July 20, they are going to be joined by an old colleague: General Tanz is coming to Paris on that day.
A telegram from Tanz, however, threatens to turn everything topsy-turvy. He has decided to arrive three days earlier, on July 17th. Kahlenberge knows that Tanz is shrewd enough, and enough of a Hitler fanatic, to be able to sniff out the plot and take immediate action to arrest it.

Gabler and Kahlenberge

They decide, therefore, to make sure Tanz is occupied for those three extra days he will be in Paris before the critical July 20. An official car is requisitioned. Hartmann is assigned—since he knows Paris, and is well-educated enough to be a suitable guide—to show Tanz the sights of the city. Make sure he enjoys himself, Hartmann is told. The best food, the best wine (Hartmann is surprised: everybody thinks Tanz is a teetotaler and non-smoker, but it emerges that Tanz, on the sly, drinks like a fish and is a chain smoker when alone).

Hartmann receives orders...

Tanz’s regular orderly, who has been confined to barracks for two weeks because he smeared polish on Tanz’s bootlaces, gives Hartmann some hurried advice. Always wear gloves, so you don’t dirty the car. Always clear out the ashtrays when the general gets out of the car. Cater to every whim and fancy (the latter already indicated by a senior officer, who has even passed a hint that should Tanz show an interest, not in girls but in Hartmann himself, he is to obey).

... and some advice

Over that day and the next, Hartmann comes to know Tanz a little better—and realises that the general is disturbingly odd.  A man of sudden, inexplicable rages. A man who seems to go slightly mad when he sees a self-portrait of Van Gogh’s. A man who is much more frightening than he may have appeared to Grau, two years ago in Paris.

Tanz sees the sights in Paris

Against this backdrop—Paris, on the brink of freedom; Operation Valkyrie; Hartmann and his possibly doomed romance with General Gabler’s daughter Ulrike—Grau again sets about trying to resurrect the case of the Polish prostitute. All three generals are once again in the same city; will he be able, he wonders as he talks to a French policeman, Inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret), to finally find the murderer?

Grau meets a French cop

What I liked about this film:

The basic premise of the film (incidentally, based on ‘an incident by James Hadley Chase’), of putting a murder mystery slap bang in the middle of the war. Most war films tend to focus solely on the war, even if it’s seen from different angles: completely fantastic adventure, grim reality, pure propaganda, whatever. This one is a refreshing change from the usual, even though it does touch on the grim reality at times—especially when Tanz’s inhuman behavior towards the Poles in Warsaw is shown.

There is a hint too (though I could be imagining this) of what has shaped Tanz’s character. Was the ‘Hero of Leningrad’ a hero, a wildly successful general, because he was a ruthless and inhuman man to start off with? Or was the harshness of what he was involved in at Leningrad responsible for making him a ruthless man? Not that it’s explored further, but still.

The cast. Omar Sharif is one of my all-time favourite actors (and his role as the conscientious Grau, who pursues justice against all odds, is an admirable and very likeable man). I also like Donald Pleasance, and (to a somewhat lesser degree—more on that shortly—Peter O’Toole). And there’s Christopher Plummer, who appears in an all-too-brief cameo as Field Marshal Rommel.

Christopher Plummer as Rommel

What I didn’t like:

The interweaving of too many ‘genres’, so to say. What with the Hartmann-Ulrike romance, the Operation Valkyrie plot, and the general backdrop of the war itself, the mystery and Grau’s investigation of it gets somewhat diluted. In any case, the suspense regarding the culprit dissipates about halfway through the film, when it begins to get fairly obvious who did it.

The sudden shift in time and space. The Night of the Generals is actually set in 1965 or so—but we don’t know this until well into the film. For the first ten minutes or so, it’s set firmly in 1942 Warsaw, with not a hint that this is really all a flashback. When it suddenly (and without explanation) shifted to what was obviously the 60s, I was initially rather confused.

And yes, Peter O’Toole. I usually like O’Toole, but I did think his acting a little over the top in some scenes here. A tad more restraint was called for, especially in the latter half of the film.

Peter O'Toole as General Tanz in The Night of the Generals

Still, despite those shortcomings (and, really, that’s just in my opinion), this is a war film worth watching—especially if you’re also fond of suspense dramas.

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53 thoughts on “The Night of the Generals (1967)

  1. Sounds to be a very exciting story. Love suspense films, thus think I will like it.
    So this was released in 1959, but is set in the future, 1965. Interesting! Any reason behind that?
    Thank God, times have changed and the hint of Tanz’ homosexuality doesn’t make his character more awful!
    What I also find interesting is the depiction of a Nazi official interested in justice, while all the time meting out injustice to the people. Being quite aware of the atrocities and brutal killings and still being interested in solving a murder case of person, who is not only lower in status, but also of an inferior race (as a Nazi would think). Major Grau wouldn’t have rose to such high ranks, if he wasn’t such a committed Nazi.
    Very interesting!

    • >So this was released in 1959, but is set in the future, 1965.

      Have you been reading SSW’s comments over at Anu’s? ;-)

    • I was puzzled about that bit about 1959, but I can see that got sorted out. ;-)

      This is quite an interesting film. It could’ve been better, but even as it is, it’s worth a watch.

      Tanz’s homosexuality is only hinted at – and, anyway, by the late 60s (and remember, this film was British, not Hollywood), I think norms were being relaxed a bit.

      Major Grau wouldn’t have rose to such high ranks, if he wasn’t such a committed Nazi

      But then, was it essential that if you were in the armed forces, you had to be a Nazi? Grau is an intelligence officer, and I’m not at all sure that he is supposed to be a Nazi. In fact, quite far from it – throughout the film, his dedication to finding justice is exemplary, and you can see that he truly feels for those who are being victimised by men like Tanz. The disgust on his face when he sees the way Tanz goes about ‘cleansing’ the ghettoes of Warsaw is telling.

      By the way, another of my favourite war films that also had (partly) a German point of view was The Enemy Below – and the U-boat captain in that was very staunchly anti-Nazi.

      • “But then, was it essential that if you were in the armed forces, you had to be a Nazi?”

        Oh yes!
        You had to be a member of the NSDAP!
        And from what I have read, any hint of moving away from the ideology saw you losing your job and career. At the best you might end up as a small clerk somewhere. Surely there might have been officers, who were disgusted by the things were handled, but if they showed their sympathy as blatantly as Major Grau does, I think he wouldn’t have remained a Major for a long time.
        But this is a film story, anything is possible!

        • Oh, okay. I hadn’t realised that – probably because Hollywood (and British cinema, for that matter) seems to be so full of Nazis who are anti-Hitler. I’m sure there must have been those who were coerced (by circumstances, or whatever) into joining up, but whose hearts weren’t really in it, so to say.

          But then, Oskar Schindler was also a Nazi! :-)

          • Oskar Schindler though was not in the army or in the bureaucratic system. He was a successful businessman and thus he could bribe and cheat and wiggle his way out.
            I am not saying that there were no people at all with conscience in the Nazi party, but only the really convinced and brutal ones could climb the ranks.

  2. I have never heard of this film, Madhu, but your very interesting review makes me want to look it up at once. I like both Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole, and the plot is very, very interesting – though, from what I read in your review, Operation Valkyrie seems to have diluted the suspense that was already present. I suppose, though, they needed to have some plot point to get Tanz over to Paris as well?
    *Wandering off to look for the film on YouTube*

    • Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s on Youtube, Anu – at least not right now. Keep an eye out, though. I have a list of movies which I periodically look for on Youtube! :-)

      This one’s a good film, and Omar Sharif’s character is truly wonderful. Peter O’Toole is good too, but as I mentioned, he seemed to me to be a bit hammy in some places. I do wish they’d restricted the plot threads a bit, though: what with my preference for suspense, I’d have liked this to have been an out-and-out crime investigation film, with the war as a backdrop. The intrusive romance and Operation Valkyrie takes the focus off that (as do the switches, every now and then, to 1965).

      Still, definitely worth a watch.

    • I did, too, Karthik. Though I will be honest and admit I had better memories of it than it proved to be when I rewatched it now. I only wish it were more focussed on Grau and his investigation, with fewer subplots!

        • I’ve seen The Maltese Falcon (I’ve also reviewed it on this blog – didn’t like it much, but that is possibly partly because I’m not a fan of Bogart). I hadn’t heard about Three Days of the Condor, but have just been checking it up on IMDB, and it sounds very interesting. Must add that to my list.

  3. Saw the movie in 1971 in a University Dining Hall ( a fundraiser) and missed the gist of it.

    Saw it again a year ago on pay TV. What brilliant performances from O’Toole and Omar Sharif.

    In this movie, Rommel while in a car is attacked by a plane and dies, whereas in another movie on his life, he commits suicide.

    • Rommel is shown as being wounded during the attack by the plane, and Kahlenberge later reports to Gabler that Rommel is in coma, and there’s little hope of his survival – but from what I remember of the later dialogues, there’s no announcement of his death. In real life, he is supposed to have been forced into swallowing cyanide.

      • Rommel actually had largely recovered from his injuries, but was implicated in the Valkyrie Plot. Since he was a national figure, very popular with the German people, Hitler wanted to save his regime the embarrassment of a public trial. So two generals visited Rommel at his home and gave him a choice — either arrest and a public trail (with almost certain hanging), along with the persecution of his family and his staff — or commit suicide. Rommel chose the latter, and the three drive out into the countryside. One of the generals gave Rommel a cyanide pill, and they left the car to loiter about at a respectful distance. When they noticed Rommel slumped over, they knew he was dead. Rommel was honored with a national day of mourning and a state funeral.

  4. I have seen all the war movies you have mentioned but not this one, suspense set during the war is definitely my cup of tea. I had seen a very interesting war film long time back but I cannot remember the name, the film’s protagonist loses his memory and the German’s pretend the war is over and try to get important info from him, do you have any idea which film I am talking about? Anyway let me see whether I am able to lay my hands on this film.

    • Wow, that sounds very interesting. I don’t recall seeing any film with that plot, but if you remember what it was, will you please drop me a line and let me know, Shilpi? It sounds like a fascinating film!

      • It is a very, very interesting film. Unfortunately I saw it on television long,long ago. I remember the story but I have forgotten the film’s name and also who starred in it. It is quite interesting the hero is taken prisoner and is seriously injured. When he regains consciousness, he finds himself few years in the future. A senior German officer pretends to be an Englishman or an American I do not remember and tells him the war is over and that he had lost his memory(or something like that) and casually tries to get information from him on their plans. The hero had hurt his finger before being taken prisoner. It so happens that he touches something hot and he feels the pain in his hurt finger, it is then that he realizes that only a few days have passed and that these people are bluffing and he is obviously a prisoner. The rest of the film deals with his escape. A wonderfully thrilling film- Shilpi

  5. You were absolutely right about O’Toole. And what a brilliant first half for such a let down of the second half, I actually fast-forwarded ~20 minutes in Paris. Omar Sharif made this movie.

    • “Omar Sharif made this movie.

      Didn’t he? I am, in any case, very fond of Mr Sharif. And he was so good in this, I decided I had to pull out and rewatch some of the other Omar Sharif starrers I have lying in my pile of DVDs.

      That Paris bit was just too long-drawn out, in my opinion. I should probably have fast-forwarded it too.

  6. Wish i could remake this in hindi
    2020 Indian Army in PoK = warsaw and lahore ==Paris
    Drop the valkyrie angle
    Aamir khan == omar sharif
    irrfan khan == peter toole
    Ayushman as Driver/Fraud war hero

    what do you say Any suggestions

  7. Good review (and excellent photos, BTW!). Unlike many posters, I’ve known and appreciated this movie since first seeing it in the theaters, in 1966. It’s a movie that resists easy categorization, and that’s definitely a “plus”. Not really a “war movie” per se, It’s really a murder mystery and a psychological drama set in the German Army of WWII. At first the “modern” scenes (set in 1965) are a bit jarring, but it adds an interesting way of storytelling (and it does mimic the novel upon which the story is based, by Hans Hellmut Kirst). Having the parallel “modern” storyline is ultimately crucial to the plot, which cannot be “wound up” during WWII, following the murder of Col. Grau. Peter O’Toole does a very good job as the deranged Gen. Tanz, and while he may appear to be a bit “over the top” at times, this is the way Tanz was in the book, and the way director Anatole Litvak wanted him. Tanz becomes the embodiment of the evil and insanity that was Nazi Germany (and Tanz ultimately parallels his “hero” Adolph Hitler). Of course, it becomes obvious very soon to the audience that Tanz is the murderer, yet the story continues to interest as a psychological study of the two principles — Tanz and the justice-seeking Grau. Though I didn’t particularly like Tom Courtney as Corporal Hartmann, his scenes with Peter O’Toole make for an interesting “cat and mouse” game, in which Hartmann becomes the unwitting pawn, and ultimate victim, of the cunning Tanz. Even the way the “Valkyrie” plot to kill Hitler is worked in is fascinating and well-done, with cameos by Christopher Plummer as Field Marshal Rommel, and stalwart British actor Harry Andrews as General Stulpnagel, the Governor-General of France.

    Omar Sharif does an excellent job as Col. Grau, though I wish he had shared more screen-time with his “Lawrence of Arabia” co-star O’Toole! Grau’s is also an fascinating character study, perhaps even more so than the mad Tanz. At first appearing to be merely an ethical German officer interested in serving justice while investigating a murder. But ultimately Grau’s character poses questions about his own motivations for pursuing the murderer so relentlessly. He appears rather too “lily pure” and “holier than thou” for an intelligence officer in a totalitarian dictatorship like Nazi Germany, and we begin to wonder just what ARE his real motivations? Obviously a man of principle, is Grau somehow atoning for his service to, and support of, a murderous regime like Hitler’s? Does Grau have some psychological “skeleton” in his own closet — perhaps something unsavory he had to do as a German officer, which he cannot reconcile himself to — and which leads him to pursue the prostitute-murderer to the point of obsession? And Grau does show obsession, using his posting in Paris to reopen the Warsaw murder case — an obsession which not only causes his total disinterest in the momentous plot to kill Hitler, but tragically blinds him to the obvious dangers of a lunatic General like Tanz. And it is that obsession which ultimately leads to his downfall, when at the point of triumph in exposing Tanz as the murderer, Tanz cold-bloodedly murders him, then walks to the window to hear to the cheers of his troops. This was perhaps the most dramatic and jarring scene of the whole movie. Interestingly, neither the book or movie does much “fleshing out” of Grau’s background, so he remains something of an enigma… and I have to wonder if author Kirst and director Litvak didn’t want to keep it that way.

    This film has much to recommend it, including fine location photography (such as the real French fortifications actually taken over by the German occupiers), and a lush musical score by Maurice Jarre. I would highly recommend the “Night of the Generals”.

    • Marshal Bazaine, thank you so much for an extremely insightful and well-thought out comment. It made for an absorbing read – it almost made me wish you’d chanced on my blog back when this review was first posted, so that more people would’ve seen this. I love the way you’ve dissected the characters you mention, their motivations and their personalities. Thank you!

  8. Yes, the plot of a woman’s murder by the General in this film was copied from a sub-plot in James Hadley Chase’s marvellous book “The Wary Transgressor”. I believe Chase successfully sued the writer of this movie for plagiarism. “The night of the generals” may have been a good movie, but it was a disaster at the box-office, while Chase’s book sold extremely well. I have his whole collection. I think the Hindi movie “36 ghante” was adapted from Chase’s “One bright summer morning”.

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