Watching Richard Burton’s physical decline had been a spectator sport since the mid-’60s, when the ravages of his alcoholism really started to become evident, so by the late ’70s it was mostly just depressing to watch the once-virile actor sleepwalk through lame movies looking like the ghost of his former self. In the World War II thriller Breakthrough, Burton looks especially desiccated, an effect only worsened by the enervated feel of the whole project. A quasi-sequel to the Sam Peckinpah war story Cross of Iron (1977), this picture eschews the moral ambiguity of Peckinpah’s picture for old-fashioned melodrama about a good German trying to help the Americans win the war.
In 1944, after the Nazis have suffered insurmountable losses in Russia, a German general (Curt Jurgens) joins a cabal of officers planning to kill Hitler and then negotiate peace, so he asks freethinking soldier Rolf Steiner (Burton) to convey information about the plan to Allied officers. Steiner connects with a sympathetic American colonel (Robert Mitchum), who then involves his superior officer (Rod Steiger). However fate intervenes, as does an odious Nazi (Helmut Griem) unwilling to acknowledge that the war is already lost.
Everyone in this movie looks bored and disconnected, so each actor gives an isolated performance that director Andrew V. McLaglen doesn’t even bother to unify with the other performances. Burton spits out lines quickly, like he can’t wait to walk off camera and drink; Mitchum delivers dialogue flatly, as if he’s simply repeating words that were fed to him before the camera rolled; and Steiger bludgeons his scenes with characteristic bulging-vein intensity. The only moments that have flair are the buddy-movie exchanges between the lead characters and their second-in-command guys (Burton has Klaus Lowitsch and Mitchum has Michael Parks).
To say that Breakthrough gets off to a slow start is an understatement: The first half-hour of the movie is borderline unwatchable because nothing happens. Steiner doesn’t even get hip to the big plan until the picture is well underway, and then, when things are supposed to get exciting, somnambulistic acting and rote combat scenes add up to tedium.
It’s amazing that just a year before shooting this turkey, Burton and McLaglen collaborated on the robust action picture The Wild Geese (1978), but apparently their efforts shouldn’t be judged entirely on the evidence of the existing version of Breakthrough. After being released in Europe in 1979, the picture went through several edits (and titles) before limping onto a few American screens in 1982. The currently available version runs a scant 95 minutes (the original was closer to two hours), and the only thing more ghastly than the print quality is the amateurish music score. Given the lifeless performances, however, it’s hard to imagine than any amount of post-production sweetening could have turned this misbegotten flick into something special.