Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Operation: Daybreak (1975)

This review of Operation: Daybreak is my contribution to Tuesday’s Overlooked/Forgotten films and television over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check out the other fascinating reviews over there.

On June 22, Yvette Banek wrote a stirring piece on the award-winning film Brokeback Mountain at her blog In So Many Words… (click on the link to read it). In my brief appreciation of her article, I mentioned that the real story lay in the tragic end. This got me thinking about other films where two men are caught in a similarly poignant and hopeless situation towards the end, though, under vastly different circumstances.

Two films came instantly to my mind — the daring exploits of Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and The Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and the courageous acts of Sergeant Jan Kubis (Timothy Bottoms) and Sergeant Jozef Gabcík (Anthony Andrews) in Operation: Daybreak (1975).

Both films end in tragedies but not before entertaining the viewers sufficiently through the better part of their nearly two-hour length. The final scenes in the two films are stamped on our minds — Cassidy and the Kid running out of the house with their guns blazing and Kubis and Gabcík turning their guns on each other in a suicidal embrace.

Of the two films, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is decidedly more glamourous, as is the case with nearly everything about the Wild West, at least in books and films. Newman and Redford only add to the glamour quotient.

There is seldom an aura to war films which are entertaining in their own way, albeit in the shadow of the grim and frightening realities of war and conflict and their bloody aftermath.

The real SS General Heydrich
Operation: Daybreak is the kind of war film you’ll marvel at, because of the way it is made — a true story in the chilling backdrop of the Nazi regime and World War II. Hitler has occupied Czechoslovakia and a squad of recklessly brave resistance fighters is trained by British Special Operations Forces and airdropped into Prague to eliminate SS General Reinhard Heydrich (Anton Diffring), the very evil Reich Protector — known to the world as The Hangman and The Butcher of Prague. 

In the film, shot on location in Prague, Kubis (Bottoms) and Gabcík (Andrews) ambush Heydrich but fail to kill him the first time. The underground fighters, however, regroup and succeed in their second attempt though not without hiccoughs. If my memory serves me correctly (I saw this film only once, in early 1980), the duo miss their target and a grenade tossed by Kubis in a last-ditch effort falls short of Heydrich but the resultant explosion injures him grievously and he dies a few days later.

This is exactly what happened to Reinhard Heydrich in real life: he was killed in a secret Allied mission known as Operation Anthropoid.

For me, Operation: Daybreak is not about the plot to kill the Nazi maniac or the brutal reprisals that followed the deed but the courage of two young men who, holed up in the underground loft of a building, decide to kill each other rather than fall to a hail of bullets from hundreds of Jerries advancing upon their position. 

When the German soldiers start flooding the basement with water, in a final attempt to flush out the Czech fighters, Sergeants Kubis and Gabcík realise they are doomed. Standing in neck-deep water, they take out their revolvers, point them at each other’s head and fire, point blank. The final scene has stayed with me since the first and only time I saw it. I don’t remember Anthony Andrews much but I do remember the look on Timothy Bottoms’ face as he pulls the trigger in that emotionally charged scene.

Now thirty years is a very long time and it’s possible I've been sketchy with the facts, so I invite readers to correct me and set them right.

Operation: Daybreak, one of the great war movies to be made, is directed by Lewis Gilbert known for his James Bond flicks You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, and is based on the book Seven Men at Daybreak by English author Alan Burgess. Americans watched the film as The Price of Freedom

Reinhard Heydrich Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons


  1. Really interesting post Prashant - and this is probably one case where spoiling the ending won't actually spoil the movie. I think Gilbert does a good job here and probably deserves credit for at least one other major movie, ALFIE, which gace Michael Caine one of his defining roles just as his career took off int eh 60s. He worked with Andrews again in the enjoyably old-fashioned ghost story, HAUNTED.

    Timothy Bottoms is a bit more impressive in your choice than the one I picked for Todd's meme, though he buys the farm in that one too!

  2. Sounds really good. I've never even heard of it.

  3. It does sound good, Prashant. Thanks for remembering it.

  4. Excellent review. I avoid Nazi films, so that may be the reason I have no memory of hearing about this one before now. Your opening couple of sentences made me think of an Argentine film, BURNT MONEY, about two modern-day Butch and Sundance characters who die in a shootout with police at the end. Apropos of BBM, they are also gay men.

  5. Sergio, thanks for your kind words. I didn't realise I might be killing the suspense by revealing the ending of this film. But, you're right, OPERATION: DAYBREAK is the sort of film you'll enjoy watching even if you know the plot. It's a quiet and intense real-life drama. I think I might have seen ALFIE, especially since there was a time when I watched everything that had Michael Caine in it. Don't remember HAUNTED, though.

    I think ROLLERCOASTER is a fantastic choice for an Overlooked Film considering I'd forgotten all about it. Timothy Bottoms rubbed shoulders with some great actors in this film.

  6. Charles, it is a very good film, one of the best among the early WWII movies that I remember seeing. The suspense usually associated with a secret war mission runs throughout the film. The actors get into the skin of the characters but then they play out a true story.

  7. Patti, I'm sure you'll enjoy OPERATION: DAYBREAK if you haven't seen it before. It's one of those films that stays with you long after you've watched it, thanks in the main to the last scene.

  8. Ron, thanks for the appreciation. I enjoy watching war, including Nazi, and western films, and rarely miss an opportunity to sit through one, no matter how old or new. The early black-and-white war and western films are a treat to watch, untouched as they are by modern technology and special effects. I have never heard of BURNT MONEY but if it's anything like the Butch and Sundance film, as you say, then it should be worth watching. Thanks for the mention.

  9. I'm late in adding my two bits here, but folks, nobody here has mentioned the hauntingly beautiful score by David Henschel. In fact, the ending scene is made all the more memorable due to this sad, very touching score. What wouldn't I give to get hold of the soundtrack of this class film!