Operation Amsterdam (1959)

Director: Michael McCarthy
Starring: Peter Finch, Tony Britton, Eva Bartok, Alexander Knox, Malcolm Keen, John Le Mesurier
Music: Philip Green
Based on the novel ‘Adventure In Diamonds’ by David E. Walker

Operation Amsterdam is a solid British film from the Rank Organisation. I found this movie on a budget 3 DVD pack (with A Town Like AliceThe Silver Fleet (1956) and (1943)) at my local supermarket. All three disks came it at under $10.00 (Aus), so I didn’t expect a great deal from the package. But as so often happens with movies that time has forgot, Operation Amsterdam is a pretty good movie.

I often debate, what is a war film, and what is a spy film, because frequently the genres cross over. But generally the nature of the mission helps separate the films into their appropriate categories. For example there is no mistaking that Saving Private Ryan and The Great Escape and are solely war films. Whereas films such as Where Eagles Dare and The Counterfeit Traitor, belong to the spy genre. So too does Operation Amsterdam.

The film opens in May 1940, and German troops are invading Holland. In England a mission is organized to get all the industrial diamonds out of Amsterdam before the city falls. The Nazis want the diamonds for metal-cutting to make planes, tanks, etc. It’s up to a team of three men to retrieve the diamonds before they fall into German hands. The three men are Major Dillon (Tony Britton), who is a cool headed military intelligence officer; Jan Smit (Peter Finch), a Dutch diamond merchant, whose father holds a lot of sway in Amsterdam; and Walter Keyser (Alexander Knox), who is also a diamond merchant. As it is a race against time (they have fourteen hours), the men are hurriedly dispatched on a naval destroyer to Holland.

The mission isn’t quite what you’d expect, and I think this is the interesting thing about the movie. The Holland we see is a surreal place. The docks are flooded with people trying to leave the country. It is pandemonium. It is a human crush to get a position on the few remaining boats. Contrasted to this are the streets of Amsterdam, which are all but deserted. It’s almost like a haunted ghost town. Throw into the mix some sporadic gunfire, and aerial raids, and you have an unusual backdrop for this mission.

Complicating matters further is that nobody can really be trusted. In this film, we barely see a German soldier. Sure there presence is felt with the gunfire in the distance and the planes flying overhead. The menace comes from fifth columnists in the Dutch army. Every Dutch soldier that our trio meet could either be a loyal to the English or loyal to the Germans. This is highlighted in a roadblock scene. Rather than stopping to find out if the soldiers guarding it are loyal, they simply, put the put foot down, in the car they are travelling in, and run the roadblock.

This distrust of the locals applies to Anna (Eva Bartok), who is a Dutchwoman who helps the men on their mission. Not only does she provide them with a car, she has some pull with the local authorities. But once again, the question is raised, ‘can she be trusted’?

Operation Amsterdam is a solid wartime spy film. There are car chases, explosions, gun battles in the streets, and a race against the clock to fulfill the mission. But the film isn’t an action film. It is a film about choices. The diamond merchants have to decide whether to give up their stocks of diamonds for the greater good. If the Nazis find out, the merchants will be punished. Some of the merchants are Jewish, and the diamonds may be the only bargaining power that they have. Giving them up, may be signing their own death warrants. At the same time, holding on to them, and passing them onto the Nazis, only empowers the regime that is (will be) oppressing them (and there’s a subtle euphemism, if I’ve ever written one). As I said, it is about choices. If you like old-fashioned wartime dramas, this film is well-worth seeking out.

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