It’s the middle of World War II and the Germans have come up with a new strategy to learn the super secret details of the Allied Invasion of Europe: kidnap a high-ranking Allied officer then trick him into spilling the beans. But how do you convince a tough soldier that there’s no point keeping such a big secret?
In this ingenious 1965 film ably directed by George Seaton and based on the book “Beware of the Dog” by Roald Dahl, James Garner plays Major Jefferson Pike, a US Army officer who knows all the details of the Invasion, when it’s scheduled to occur and – most importantly – where the Allies are going to be landing on the French coastline.
German Major Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor) is an American-born Nazi psychologist whose primary work is helping people with amnesia recover their memories. It’s his brilliant idea to kidnap Major Pike and convince him that he’s suffering from amnesia, that the war’s over, the Allied won, and they’re safely ensconced in an Allied field hospital in occupied Germany.
Pike wakes up in the field hospital with his hair grayer, a newspaper by his bed dated November 1950, and lovely, solicitous nurse Anna Hedler (Eva Marie Saint) filling him in on what’s happened in the interim years. It all seems quite reasonable, with dozens of others in the hospital speaking English and even greeting Pike as an old friend, though he doesn’t remember any of them.
The Nazi high command send SS officer Schack (Werner Peters) to oversee Gerber, giving him the titular 36 hours to break Pike and find out when and where the invasion will occur. 36 hours to convince a skeptical officer that something almost unbelievable has transpired: he’s lost six years of his life and has no memory of what happened during the interim period.
I won’t spoil the suspense but this film is one of those gems from the mid-60s that has the great combination of solid acting from the leads along with a surprisingly taut script. Some of the dialog is trite, but there are also some crisp lines like this wry comment from Sergeant Ernst (John Banner) after asked by Pike whether he’s a real sergeant: “Regular army – no. I am too old, too fat! Home guard. We are patrolling the border so then the young, strong, and handsome men can go to Russia and freeze to death. Wonderful system, huh?”
Now, to be fair, there are elements of 36 Hours that feel dated and, like an episode of Mission: Impossible, the denouement is a bit hard to accept, but those glitches are worth enduring just for the story alone. In fact, it’s surprising that we haven’t seen a remake.