Films have always revisited eras of the past to question whether hindsight would or would not affect the outcome, and no actor was greater at this specific genre than James Garner. I say that with the knowledge that Garner starred in two very different reexaminations of past wars, both released in 1964: The Americanization of Emily and 36 Hours (each has a breathtaking Blu-ray available from Warner Archive). 36 Hours is a kookier case in that it’s a ’60s era look back at WWII told from a story perspective that the war is already over. So characters are both living within the confines of WWII but attempting to predict what a future without it would look like. Though the conceit doesn’t go on for as long as it should, it’s a riveting thriller nonetheless.
James Garner plays Major Jefferson Pike who has just been versed in the plans for D-Day. Heading off to Lisbon to brief a source he’s drugged by the Nazis and kidnapped, taken to a massive hospital dressed up to look like it belongs to the United States. This is the plan of Major Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor), who plans to tell Pike when he wakes up that six years has passed, the war is over and Pike is suffering from amnesia. The goal: to gaslight Pike into divulging the D-Day details.
It makes sense that 36 Hours is based on a story by Roald Dahl, he of popular children’s fare like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as there’s a bizarre sense of comedy that runs through the whole film. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, at times, is both light and comical as well as aggressively percussive while the script is both wacky and frightening. All the audience knows about Garner’s Pike is he’s a major and holds the secrets to win the war. The audience doesn’t need his entire life story as that will soon be cultivated by the Nazis once he’s captured. Upon arriving at the “hospital,” the script turns this into its own version of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) in that the Nazis hope a massive amount of brainwashing will convince Pike that they’re Americans.
George Seaton, acting as director and screenwriter, turns 36 Hours more into an allegory of the fallout from HUAC and Communism than a look at WWII. This idea of infiltration and the whole “they look just like us” principle would continue throughout the decade leading up to the outbreak of Vietnam. Once Pike is in the hospital the amount of planning that goes into making him believe six years has passed and everyone is American is brilliantly executed. The charge is led by Taylor’s Major Gerber, who creates a thoroughly compelling villain. I can’t recall seeing Taylor play anything less than a good guy before this and here he inhabits the skin of a true believer, who is committed to showing that his experiment will work.
Eva Marie Saint plays the film’s lone female, Anna, a nurse forced to pretend her and Pike are married. I feared Saint would be little more than a honey pot or stuck in a love triangle between the two male leads but that’s not the case. Saint isn’t placed in the battle of wills between Taylor and Garner, but she is given the serious emotional impact of the movie. Anna is an Auschwitz survivor plucked from the camp because she’s a nurse who spoke English. Working for Gerber’s experiment might be enough to secure her freedom but it’s already irrelevant. Pike demands to know why she doesn’t cry when the plot’s been found out. She replies through gritted teeth that she’s used up all her tears, indicative of her losing far more in the camps already. What does freedom mean to a woman who’s already lost anything? She’s existing and that’s all.
Once Pike discovers the ruse the movie falls quickly into an escape feature which doesn’t have the complexity of what led up to it. Garner and Taylor’s verbal sparring keeps everything buoyant though, and the film never overstays its welcome. If you’re in the mode for a new way of looking at WWII, 36 Hours might be for you. It’s certainly worth watching for the trio of Garner, Taylor, and Saint.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.