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War & Espionage Essentials

January 4, 2010

by John Farr

John Farr’s declassified dossier of essential war & espionage films.

The Guns of Navarone (1961)


Crack Allied team commanded by Peck is recruited for a top-secret, near-suicide mission: penetrate a remote fortress on a Nazi-held island and blow up the two enormous long-range guns which prevent the rescue of two thousand British soldiers.


Epic-scale adventure based on Alistair MacLean’s book. The movie boasts terrific action sequences, but is also an engrossing ensemble drama thanks to a sterling screenplay from producer Carl Foreman and terrific turns from a top international cast, including Niven, Quinn, and Quayle.

The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)


Collared for importing oil from the Nazi regime, Swedish petrol dealer Erik Erickson (William Holden) is told by British intelligence officer Collins (Hugh Griffith) that his name will be cleared-but only if he engages in a bit of espionage for the Allies. Erickson reluctantly agrees, and is soon branded a traitor for his bogus pro-Nazi business dealings. Secretly, however, Erickson has entered Germany not to build a refinery, but to locate sensitive military information.


Based on the true story of a blackmailed oil dealer born on American soil, Seaton’s riveting wartime thriller features a knockout performance by Holden, whose burly frame and husky voice is a perfect fit for the role. The radiant Lilli Palmer holds her own as Marianne Mollendorf, the Prussian socialite who assists in providing crucial target information to the Allied forces, as well as offering amorous comfort to Erickson, whose own wife has left him. For a finely crafted, nerve-jarring tale of real-world subterfuge, don’t let “The Counterfeit Traitor” out of sight.

Where Eagles Dare (1968)


Crack Allied team during World War II is assigned to penetrate a remote Nazi alpine fortress to free a captured General. This intricate mission is headed by British Major Jonathan Smith (Richard Burton), supported by steely American Lieutenant Morris Schaffer (Clint Eastwood). Though the plan is inspired, there are factors unknown to the team which will alter the course of events, forcing some improvisation.


Master of adventure Alistair MacLean adapts his own novel to the screen with impressive results. The film is epic in scale and length, yet there are no lulls. Colorful and tense, “Eagles” will engage you straight through to its breathtaking conclusion. A huge box-office success, this helped solidify Eastwood’s position as a bankable star.

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  • View Comments
  • rayban

    Hey, you can’t forget Greta Garbo and Ramon Navarro in George Fitzmaurice’s 1932 film, “Mata Hari” or Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s 1932 film, “Shanghai Express” – what was her line – “It took many men to change my name to . . Shanghai Lily”.

  • Nikki

    Is “OSS” the film where the character cuts his meat then forgets, and switches the fork to his right hand, and that’s how they know he’s an American?

  • John Farr

    great suggestions…
    no idea about “OSS” but the scene sounds familiar.

  • Nikki

    I’ll ask around and see if anyone knows about the restaurant scene. Here’s my list – “Three Days of The Condor” with that wonderful opening scene when Redford finds everyone dead; “The Manchurian Candidate” with an evil Angela Lansbury, a mind-controlled Laurence Harvey and a wonderfully weak-kneed James Gregory; “Seven Days In May”; “The Lady Vannishes”; and Pinter’s great screenplay of “The Quiller Memorandum.”

  • rayban

    And I really must include Bryan Singer’s superb 2008 film, “Valkyrie”, in which he provided a memorable setting for Tom Cruise’s very effective performance as Col. Claus von Stauffenberg.