It is May 31, 1944. In London, the plans for D-Day have been finalized. The Allied invasion of Europe—and, hopefully, the subsequent collapse of the Axis—cannot be far. Things are looking bright. Perhaps a bit too bright? Perhaps the Allied top brass have been a trifle too complacent. Perhaps they’ve not realized exactly how far the Germans will go to find out more about the plans for the invasion.
A week or so ago, a cousin of mine who thrives on films about World War II, sent me a list of all the WWII films and documentaries he owns. He asked me to add to the list. With some caveats. He (like me) doesn’t like gory and gruesome films; he prefers films about missions, espionage, and adventures à la Where Eagles Dare. And he prefers films from the 60s, when colour and better special effects made films more realistic than they’d been in the 40s and 50s.
36 Hours didn’t feature on my cousin’s list. It had been recommended to me by friend and fellow blogger Shilpi Bose. I found it after some searching, and it proved to be a gripping tale, a film worth adding to any self-respecting collection of war films.
We begin, as I mentioned, in May 1944. Major Jefferson ‘Jeff’ Pike (James Garner) is in London, where he’s been privy to the formulation of all the plans for the Normandy invasion. Pike is discussing the plan with a British officer, Colonel MacLean (Alan Napier), and they’ve both been wondering whether the German forces have been sufficiently fooled into thinking the invasion will be aimed at Calais. Dover-Calais, after all, is the shortest distance across the Channel. Calais has a good harbour, there’s scope for effective air cover, and it leads right into the heart of the Ruhr Valley.
As they’re chatting, Pike happens to touch the edge of the map, and gets a paper cut on his hand, which bleeds a little bit. He dismisses it, and soon after, goes with Colonel MacLean to meet General Allison (Russell Thorson)… and is given a surprising bit of news: he, Pike, has to take the night flight to Lisbon.
It has already emerged from their conversation that the Allies have an agent in the German embassy in Lisbon (Portugal, if you aren’t too well up on WWII politics, was neutral). The agent, says Pike, seems to have been discovered by the Germans, because he’s pretty obviously being fed incorrect information. Pike is certain he isn’t a German agent; but he’s also not, any more, a reliable spy for the Allies.
Pike is taken aback at this latest order for him to go to Lisbon. He’s been visiting Lisbon every week over the past several years, as a courier. But now, with the Normandy invasion so close, where’s the need? To allay suspicion, says Allison, and Pike has no option but to obey orders.
Cut to another woman, who sneaks up a staircase and into a room she seems to be unfamiliar with—and yet knows something about where what is. She quickly sets about doing some very odd things: pulling a few hairs from a hairbrush lying on the dressing table and putting them in an envelope; taking some letters from the table; extracting a little jewellery box from the drawer; picking up a double-photo frame from the dresser.
Cut, once more, to Pike, who has arrived in Lisbon. The news of his arrival is conveyed—in a surreptitious manner—by someone who seems like a wandering salesman. This man’s perambulations take him to the German embassy, outside which he stands shouting for a few seconds. When he’s taken himself off, a man sitting at a window in the embassy rises to his feet, closes the window…
…and is next seen that night, entering a restaurant. Pike, too, is at the restaurant, finishing a cup of coffee. The man passes Pike; there’s an almost imperceptible meeting of gazes, and the man descends a distant staircase to a room tucked away in the recesses of the building. Pike, having put aside his coffee, also gets up and heads for the room—and, just as he’s going down the steps to the room for what is obviously a secret meeting—suddenly begins to feel dizzy. Moments later, he’s fainted on the steps.
Within the next few minutes, we see a high-ranking German officer receive a telegram that Pike is being moved from Lisbon to Stuttgart. Then, the scene shifts to a US Military Hospital of the ‘Allied Occupation Forces’—in Germany!
Here, we meet the German doctor, Major Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor), as he enters a large hall, with nurses, ‘patients’, soldiers dressed in US Army uniforms, etc. To them he announces that Pike is now in residence, so all of them who are posing as Americans must remember to speak at all times in English. Never, he stresses, even when they are on their own, are they to speak in German.
Gerber’s own English is flawless, his accent unmistakably American. This, we later learn in a conversation with another German, is because Gerber was born in the US and lived there till he was 16. Also in the same conversation, we discover that this ‘military hospital’—complete with the American flag fluttering from a flagpole, and captured American vehicles passing through—is only 6 km from the Swiss border. But, as Gerber says, it’s very safe. And very convincing.
While Pike is still unconscious (having been administered an injection shortly after he was drugged in Lisbon), the Germans get to work on him. His hair is dyed to give him grey streaks. His vision is tampered with (by adding a few drops of a chemical to his eyes), so that the world will be a blur beyond about a foot.
When he finally comes to, still groggy and woozy, Pike finds himself in a quiet little hospital room. He totters across to the window—looks out on to what are obviously the grounds of a very American establishment:
—and sags with relief. But when he goes to the bathroom to wash his face, he looks into the mirror and sees grey hair where there were none before. Back in the bedroom (and by now puzzled), when he picks up the newspaper lying on the bedside table, Pike is shocked to find that it’s a blur. But there is a pair of spectacles lying next to the newspaper, and when he puts them on, Pike can see perfectly—to read that the date is May 15, 1950.
When Gerber enters, along with Nurse Anna (Eva Marie Saint), Pike is on the brink of panic. Gerber introduces himself and asks Pike the last thing he remembers before he passed out, and Pike tells him about feeling dizzy in the Lisbon restaurant.
Of course, Gerber assures him. That was 6 years ago. In 1944. It’s been a long time, and in the interim, much has happened.
Gerber tells Pike that the war ended with an Allied victory in November 1944. Hitler, Goebbels and Goering were assassinated and Himmler was later executed. Germany is now occupied by Allied forces, of course. And Pike, ever since that episode in Lisbon, has been drifting in a state of amnesia.
At times, explains Gerber, Pike remembers what happened in his life up to that fateful evening in Lisbon; then, for a brief while, he’s lucid about what’s been happening since Lisbon—but forgets his life before that.
Gerber tells Pike that he (Gerber) is a specialist in amnesia, and has been working on cases like Pike’s for a long time—has been working on Pike’s case, and has become a good friend of his, too. Pike has to trust him. They are making progress, and Gerber is confident they’ll be able to restore his memory.
And it already seems to Pike as if what Gerber says is true. For example, while he’s sitting with Anna, Pike notices that she’s wearing—of all things—his mother’s engagement ring. How? Anna admits that the last time he had been lucid—some months back—she and Pike had fallen in love. They’ve been married for two months now. Since he now seems to be clear-headed again and well aware of his life pre-Lisbon, she can take out all the souvenirs of those days. Some letters from his father. A photo frame, with his parents’ pictures.
Over Gerber’s head hangs an ultimatum, too. He has staged this entire scheme to fool Pike into blurting out all the secrets of the planned Allied invasion. But Gerber’s superiors doubt the viability of his plan. He, therefore, has been given 36 hours. 36 hours from when Pike has been handed over into Gerber’s care. If, within those 36 hours Gerber has managed to get information about the invasion from Pike, well and good. If not, after 36 hours, an SS officer skilled in extracting such information will be put on the job.
He’s already arrived, in fact: Otto Schack (Werner Peters) is a hard man, derisive of Gerber’s methods, and certain that he, not Gerber, will end up worming the truth out of Pike. Will he, though?
The level of detail. Everything is accounted for, all the ends tie up. Down to how Gerber happens to have a fat dossier on Pike, and why Anna—who doesn’t seem to be very comfortable in her role as Pike’s nurse and ‘wife’—is going through with this scheme. All of it, somewhere or the other, has an explicit reason for it.
The plot, written (and directed by) George Seaton, based on a story by Roald Dahl. When I first read about this film, I was sceptical about the believability of the premise: how could anyone hope to pull off something so far-fetched? But it works, and how. The suspense—will Pike realize, or won’t he, and how—is maintained excellently, and there are some interesting twists that appear in the story as it progresses.
Another, relatively minor, detail that I liked was the relationship between Pike and Anna. In about 99% of the Hollywood films I’ve seen, there would have developed (and pretty swiftly too) a romance between these two characters, especially since she’s pretending to be his wife. The path 36 Hours chooses to take (keeping in mind Anna’s past—which I won’t elaborate on here, since it’s a minor spoiler) is refreshingly different.
What I didn’t like:
The last half hour of the film. It’s not bad; it’s just a little disappointing after the taut suspense of the rest of the film. The way the story was going, I’d have expected a much tighter climax, more of a cliffhanger than it turned out to be.
And (though let me qualify this: it’s not something I disliked about the film; it’s just an observation): I do wonder how 36 Hours would have been if we, like Pike, hadn’t known what was happening to him. What if the film had been shown from the perspective of Pike, who gets knocked out in Lisbon and wakes up in what seems to him Allied Occupied Europe, in 1950? That may have been an interesting road to follow, too.
On the whole, this is an extremely interesting film. Not just a war film, but a great marriage between war and suspense and psychology. Definitely worth a watch.
Edited to add:
Trivia: The plot of 36 Hours, as I’ve mentioned earlier, is based on a story by Roald Dahl. The story is called Beware of the Dog, and you can read it online here.