Saturday Night Cinema: Ill Met By Moonlight


Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is the last collaboration of the British film-making partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made through their production company, The Archers. I have been running their films over past weeks so it’s fitting that I close with Ill Met by Moonlight (also known as Night Ambush). As one of my readers points out, it is all the more remarkable for being a true story and reasonably faithful to the events as they unfolded. Patrick Laigh Fermor, the real life hero of our story, was one of those fabulous adventurers we are unlikely to see again — sadly.

Starring Atlas favorite, Dirk Bogarde, a man who saw service in WWII — he was at the liberation of Bergen Belsen. Perhaps that’s why he can play these military types with convincing ease and aplomb.

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Eschewing the Shakespearean original title (it’s a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), the British Ill Met by Moonlight was released stateside as Night Ambush. This superb Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger concoction is set during World War II on the island of Crete. Dirk Bogarde and David Oxley play Major Paddy Leigh Fermer and Captain Billy Stanley Moss, two British officers whose job it is to kidnap Nazi general Karl Kreipe (Marius Goring) and spirit him off to Cairo. The motive of this mission is to weaken German morale on Crete and to provide hope to the enslaved locals. With the help of a group of resistance fighters, Fermer and Moss manage to trap the general; now they must transport their captive back to their own lines, avoiding German patrols every inch of the way. Originally 104 minutes, Ill Met by Moonlight was cut to 93 minutes by its American distributor. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

British War Story Has Premiere at Sutton
Published: April 25, 1958

“NIGHT AMBUSH,” which opened yesterday at the Sutton, is a second-rate British adventure drama of World War II made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, two men who emphatically should know better. Three reasons why are “Stairway to Heaven,” “Black Narcissus” and “The Red Shoes.” It might be more to the point to cite “Pursuit of the Graf Spee,” a recent work by the writer-director-producer team, and one that at least took war seriously.

The most curious and exasperating aspect of the new picture, set on the Nazi-occupied island of Crete, is its archness and whimsicality, almost from the opening scene. Adapted from W. Stanley Moss’ novel “Ill Met by Moonlight,” the plot describes how two British Intelligence scouts and some friendly natives kidnap a Nazi general and drag him across the mountains to a waiting boat.

With a pretty good cast headed by Dirk Bogarde as the chief scout and Marius Goring as the enemy officer, most of the picture appears to have been shot on location—with some craggy panoramas that would have been wonderful in color.

To put it squarely, this dawdlingly directed entry lacks genuine suspense, wartime urgency and genuine humor, while straining frightfully hard for chuckles all the way. Even the daring capture of the Nazi prize, who commands some 35,000 paratroopers (unseen), is detailed like a tongue-in-cheek charade. From time to time, the subsequent safari over the mountains is greeted by exuberant guerrillas to some blaring music.

The trek itself is rather tediously staged, punctuated with some extremely blithe badinage between Mr. Goring and his captors. The general’s one outburst against “Cretan barbarians” seems out of place in more ways than one. There is a climactic brush with a Nazi patrol, involving the only performer who really seems to care—a sharp-eyed little island lad named Demitri Andreas.

Mr. Bogarde, with his neck at stake, is generally chipper as all get-out. Mr. Goring looks plain bewildered, as do David Oxley, Cyril Cusack and the others. Typically, Mr. Bogarde and Mr. Oxley, as his aide, laughingly congratulate each other at the fade-out and wish they were at home, “leaning on the Ritz bah.” Messrs. Powell and Pressburger may have aimed for a thriller but they have casually mixed a flat wartime martini.

NIGHT AMBUSH, written, directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, as adapted from the W. Stanley Moss novel “Ill Met By Moonlight;” a J. Arthur Rank presentation. At the Sutton. Running time: 104 minutes.
Major Fermer . . . . . Dirk Bogarde
General Kreipe . . . . . Marius Goring
Captain Moss . . . . . David Oxley
Sandy . . . . . Cyril Cusack
Manoli . . . . . Laurence Payne
George . . . . . Wolfe Morris
Andoni . . . . . Michael Gough
Nikko . . . . . Demitri Andreas

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