Warsaw 1942, and in this tenement block late at night one of the residents hears a scream from a upstairs room. He hides in the lavatory but manages to catch a glimpse of someone going past, who appears to be a German officer, a General in fact, so when he learns that a prostitute has been murdered in the building he is terrified by what he has witnessed. Enter Major Grau (Omar Sharif), who is brought in to investigate because the victim was no ordinary whore, but an undercover Nazi agent, so beginning an obsession with seeking justice for the woman which will last years...
One of those not quite historical thrillers which took elements of real life and mixed them up with a fictional plot, The Night of the Generals was an odd film all round, on the surface a straightforward Second World War suspenser, but once you started watching it you'd find a work which was apparently reluctant to easily slide into any obvious categorisation. Certainly the cast proved a good enough reason to see it for appreciators of interesting assemblies of actors, with Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif reunited after their Lawrence of Arabia blockbuster, though this time on opposite sides of the moral divide, as O'Toole's General Tanz was not a nice fellow to be around.
He is one of the suspects of course, as are his fellow Nazi Generals in Warsaw Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasence) and von Seidlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), though the actual murderer is easy to spot seeing as how he's the only one who acts like a complete psychopath, which leave us wondering if we're watching a whodunnit or a whydunnit or what? This was a lengthy excursion into what was allowed even among the Nazis, well over two hours, with the conclusion that they would tolerate all sorts of depravity as long as the war machine was running smoothly, though late on the same plot as the Bryan Singer movie Valkyrie is put into play as some of the characters try to assassinate Adolf Hitler (who we never see here).
So you can understand this has a lot on its plate, and one which was more mishmash than slick operation, with a selection of interesting performances and scenes, but not much coherence as a whole entity. There was also a romance as von Seidlitz-Gabler's daughter Ulrike (Joanna Pettet) falls in love with supposed war hero Corporal Hartmann (Tom Courtenay), a man who has had greatness, if you can call it that, thrust upon him as he was escaping a German defeat at the Russian Front when he was picked up by his side and erroneously believed to be the slaughterer of "forty" of the enemy. He ends up as chauffeur and dogsbody to Tanz, which puts him in a very compromising position when events begin to gather pace nearer the end of the movie.
What you had here was not some late after the fact propaganda piece, as it was evident everyone thought they had something to say about distinctions between the Nazis and the ordinary Germans forced into war even if their instincts told them it was a mistake, if not tackling the vile tenets of their leaders' philosophies. Yet by making the biggest Nazi butcher in the story one who was patently off his rocker, it tended to give a false impression, as if the worst of the regime's atrocities could almost be excused because they were plainly insane, rather than working from a plan drawn out with its own base logic and self-justification. Nevertheless, it offered more food for thought on that level than it did succeed as a thriller, simply taking too long to get to the point no matter how well-performed it was: O'Toole you could take or leave in a very mannered style, but Sharif, if not convincing as a German, sounded a welcome note of humanity and Courtenay was sympathetic. This remained a curate's egg of a movie, though. Music by Maurice Jarre.