Ill Met by Moonlight 1957

(US title: Night Ambush)

 

Directors: Michael Powell Emeric Pressburger

 

Writers: Michael Powell Emeric Pressburger (from a book by W. Stanley Moss)

Rôle: Major General Kreipe

 

Release Date: 31 January 1957

 

Synopsis: Marius plays the commandant of German forces on the island of Crete in this Powell and Pressburger WWII film based on the true story of his kidnapping by SOE agents, led by Dirk Bogarde as Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain W. Stanley Moss.

Availability: DVD (ITV Studios/Henstooth Video) Release Date: 16 August 2011.

Ill Met By Moonlight 1957.png
Ill Met By Moonlight review by Richard Mallett & cast caricature by Sherrif in Punch 13 February 1957
Ill Met By Moonlight review in the Kensington Post 1 March 1957
Ill Met By Moonlight review in the Brechin Advertiser 5 May 1957
Ill Met By Moonlight review in the Western Mail 25 February 1957
Ill Met By Moonlight review in the West London Observer 1 March 1957
Ill Met By Moonlight review by Cambell Dixon in The Daily Telegraph 2 February 1957
Ill Met By Moonlight review in the Coventry Evening Telegraph 2 April 1957

Reviews: Good review on DVD Savant by Glenn Erickson: "In the middle of WW2, a trio of daring British volunteer officers for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) penetrated an important Greek island occupied by thousands of German paratroops, to carry off a highly unlikely feat of espionage right under the noses of the Wehrmacht. The highly regarded movie of this famous exploit is not The Guns of Navarone, but the final film by The Archers, England's most creative and original filmmaking team. Moving on from exotic dramas, delirious movies about artists and quirky musicals, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger had just enjoyed a big success with a big-budget sea-going war film, an account of the trapping of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee. The exciting Battle of the River Plate was filmed in color and VistaVision, and was one of the most celebrated British productions of its year.

The Archers then signed with United Artists to distribute a show about another patriotic war incident for the unofficial "How I Won the War" sub-genre. In 1944, British adventurer-spies Major Patrick "Paddy" Leigh Fermor and Captain William "Bill" Stanley Moss joined with Greek resistance on Crete to kidnap the German commander General Heinrich Kreipe, sneak him halfway across the rocky island, and ship him off to Egypt. The allies couldn't kick the Germans out of Greece, but as crazy secret spy raids go this was a better-than-average symbolic gesture. The embarrassment to the German high command must have been withering.

What makes Ill Met by Moonlight great is that it tells the story almost completely straight. Our adventurers bed no gorgeous Greek women between "recce" (reconnoiter) outings. They instead end up sleeping in shacks with smelly goats and Greek partisans that smell like goats. A third Brit agent named Sandy (Cyril Cusack) mans a radio post under deep cover, and hasn't bathed in six months. He tries to be polite by standing downwind when he can. True to the facts, there are no major shootouts with the Germans. The daring Leigh Fermor seizes Kreipe's command car by means of a simple stick-up. Wearing German uniforms, the kidnappers sneak through a couple of dozen German roadblocks and then force-march the General for days over the Cretan mountains. At one point they must drive through a town packed with German soldiers just getting out of a movie show. When the fugitives reach the shore their scheduled rendezvous with an English speedboat is blocked by German troops stationed on the beaches. How will they avoid being caught by a German patrol?

Ill Met by Moonlight has a prestigious cast headed by top English star Dirk Bogarde as Major Patrick Leigh Fermor, dubbed "Philedem" by his Greek allies. As his confederate Captain William Stanley Moss, David Oxley (The Hound of the Baskervilles) shares the slightly devil-may-care attitude revered by young adventure lovers, that Rudyard Kipling spirit that assumes that being caught and executed is a foregone conclusion. If the situation is that absurd, why not stay cool, keep a sense of humor and tough it out? Properly outfitted and well versed in the language, Leigh Fermor and Moss wander about Greek towns in full view of the enemy. Unmasked in a dentist's office by a pair of Germans, they don't have to be fancy martial artists: their Greek minders are eager cutthroats. 1

I mentioned The Guns of Navarone up front because it and Ill Met by Moonlight have almost nothing in common, despite similar content. The later colour epic pretty much pushed the "How I Won the War" sub-genre aside in favour of wholly escapist thrills. Anticipating the James Bond fantasies to come, the Gregory Peck-David Niven film balances its realistic, spectacular special effects with Germans that can't even keep spy prisoners under arrest. They also carry those very special Bad Guy guns that can't hit anything. The Germans of Navarone should just throw away their gunboats, airplanes and bombs, as they're only an inconvenience to the team of British spies.

That means that Ill Met by Moonlight will appeal to fans who want to know how it really was. We quickly realise that the Brits have a good chance because the Greeks support them, apparently to a man. Nobody betrays them, at least not on purpose. The reprisals after the raid must have been terrible; the show's Greeks insist that they just don't care. Any way to strike back at the occupiers is okay by them.

Frequent Archers actor Marius Goring plays the General, a clever man who does his best to hold up the escape by injuring himself. He also leaves a trail of medals and buttons in hopes of guiding the thousands of paratroops sent out to recover him. The crucial dramatic conflict in the film comes when the eager young partisan Niko (Demetri Andreas) joins the group. Niko is desperate to earn a pair of proper boots, which are reserved only for adult fighters. General Kreipe gives Niko a rare gold piece to trade for German footwear. As his entire army is aware of his lucky gold piece, Kreipe knows the boy will be immediately arrested and forced to betray the partisans.

Also in the show are Laurence Payne (The Crawling Eye), Michael Gough (Batman), Paul Stassino (ThunderballThe Stranglers of Bombay) and John Cairney (A Night to Remember) as Greek patriots, Christopher Lee as a German soldier and Christopher Rhodes (Gorgo) as another German General. An officer briefly spotted on the bridge of the motor launch is none other than David McCallum (The Great Escape), looking like he's still in high school. Does it ever seem like British filmmaking was a really closed system, with the same 50 actors appearing in everything?

The final big plus for Ill Met by Moonlight is the energetic music score by Mikis Theodorakis. This appears to be the great Theodorakis' first assignment for a non-Greek picture, and his contribution is major. One of the songs is "Philedem", which sounds like something traditional until we realise that it's being sung in honour of Major Leigh Fermor. In any case, fans of the music for PhaedraZorba the Greek and "Z" will be highly interested."

Footnote 1: Actually, in his memoirs Patrick Leigh Fermor was haunted by the killings that took place on the raid. His hope was for a bloodless kidnapping, to lessen civilian reprisals, but he couldn't control his own knife-happy Greek fighters. This aspect appears to have been minimized in the film version -- perhaps because a secondary aim of Ill Met by Moonlight was to better Anglo-Greek relations. 

Excerpt from an excellent review of the film by Peter Richards: "Among Major Paddy's partisans is a young war orphan, Niko, who has, while shinning up and down the mountains, much occasion to complain of his need of a pair of boots. Niko knows that the cost of a new pair will always be far beyond him; Kreipe, who has been friendly enough toward him in a rather patronizing way, seizes on this need by showing the boy his own impressive footwear and offering a gold coin with which to buy an identical pair. A German gold coin, he stresses, not one of the sovereigns Leigh Fermor keeps a supply of; it is, in fact, a coin the General is known to keep as a good-luck charm. Niko is impressed by the General's largesse. But, of course, the Nazi requires a quid pro quo. All Niko has to do, when he goes down the mountain, is tell the searching German patrols where the General is, using the coin as a bona fides. But Kreipe has misjudged the boy (indeed, he can be said to have misjudged the whole of the human race): it never occurs to him that the boy will not do what he says. What Niko actually does is simply point the patrols in the wrong direction, leading them into an ambush; the magic gold coin is lucky for the Greeks, not the Germans. This makes the escape from Crete of the Britishers and their ill-met prisoner the easiest part of their long journey.

Once aboard a British ship, and naked of the symbols of military power, the General seems a new person - not such a bright man, not such a strong man, but also not such a bad man, either. He is visibly moved by the return of his possessions, especially the gold coin: despite his genuine pleasure in Niko's company, Kreipe had assumed that the boy, like every non-German, is someone who can be bought and sold, and that "friendship" had been merely his gift, and not a privilege from which he might derive spiritual benefit rather than tactical advantage. The very simplicity of Niko's ruse in deflecting rescue was the final humiliation, the last stage in General Kreipe's lengthy symbolic disrobing - which is precisely why his possessions can now be given back to him. If he started this modern midsummer night's dream as imperious as Oberon, he ends it as foolish as the donkey-headed Nick Bottom. But then, Bottom the simple weaver is always better-liked by everyone than the unearthly and tyrannical monarch of Shakespeare's enchanted forest.

And from his elaborate humiliation, the stiff-necked German learns a good deal about himself and about humanity. His curt acknowledgment at film's end that he has been kidnapped not by amateurs but by professionals is also his acknowledgment of his own fallibility and that of the creed he has so proudly espoused. And so he regains a measure of dignity, along with those tokens of an identity he no longer needs. Niko himself gets his new pair of boots after all (they belong to Leigh Fermor, who is barefoot in his final exchange with his prisoner), but, by a sad irony, is about to change identity as well: he will wait out the rest of the war far away from Crete in the distant England of which he has heard much but knows nothing. But at least he has a friend - a real friend, now - in General Kreipe, who has learned that the respect of an uneducated boy is worth more than a medal from the Fuhrer. "Gentles, do not reprehend/If you pardon, we shall mend."