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.
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.
…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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.