Adapted from the true story of a bold Allied assassination attempt against a high-ranking Nazi officer, Operation Daybreak offers terrific verisimilitude but only so-so dramaturgy. The location photography, period details, and re-enactments of harrowing incidents are persuasive, creating a palpable sense of time and place, and the film’s matter-of-fact recitation of real-life heroism presents a sobering alternative to the usual war-movie derring-do and overwrought battlefield melodrama.
The leading characters are Jan Kubis (Timothy Bottoms) and Jozef Gabcik (Anthony Andrews), Czech-born soldiers currently stationed in Britain. Given their lineage and other special skills, they are recruited for a mission requiring them to parachute into Czechoslovakia, rendezvous with the local resistance underground, and take out Reinhard Heydrich (Anton Diffing). An urbane but cruel Nazi oblivious to the suffering of civilians under his authority, Heydrich is considered by Allied commanders a potential successor to Hitler and therefore a symbol of Third Reich power; the idea is to shake German confidence by demonstrating that even the highest officials are vulnerable.
From the first, the Czech commandoes’ mission is fraught with mishaps: They’re accidentally dropped 200 miles from their intended landing zone, and one of them breaks an ankle during the jump. Yet the locals aiding their efforts rise to the occasion, eager to depose a lethal tyrant; underground accomplices include the pastor of a Prague church and fiery resistance operative Anna (Nicola Pagett), who happens into a doomed romance with Kubis.
As written by Ronald Harwood, from Alan Burgess’ novel Seven Men at Daybreak, the film gets minute-to-minute details so right, generally speaking, that it’s a shame the film’s approach to character lacks similar precision. Though many isolated exchanges are effective, the picture never presents complete characterizations; the film’s people are flatly generic amalgams of whatever qualities seem expedient for the story at any given moment. (The only satisfying character arc is that involving Heydrich and his Czech attendants, who sharply transition from reluctant deference to open contempt after the assassination attempt.)
Operation Daybreak gains energy as it goes along, since rising tension makes character motivations plain through circumstance, and the twin climaxes of the assassination attempt and the Germans’ retaliatory assault on the conspirators’ hiding place are exciting and expertly filmed. The film’s performances are basically sound (though, of course, inhibited by thin writing), and Bottoms and Andrews generate affectingly bittersweet camaraderie during the final moments. Operation Daybreak doesn’t come close to fulfilling its potential, but watched for its strongest elements—and as a tribute to a significant historical incident—it’s quietly engrossing. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)
Operation Daybreak: GROOVY