Hannibal Brooks (1969)
POW Stephen Brooks (Oliver Reed) is assigned to work in a Munich zoo, where he becomes the keeper of Lucy the elephant. After a heavy bombing raid, it is decided by the Zoo’s director to transfer Lucy to a safer location in Innsbrook. The journey must be done on foot, so Brooks is accompanied by two German soldiers and a female cook. Brooks however has other plans. He intends to follow in the footsteps of the Carthaginian general Hannibal and lead Lucy over the Alps, to Switzerland. Along the way, Brooks frequently runs into an American saboteur named Packy (Michael J Pollard) with his team of misfits and often ends up involved in the war he’s trying to escape.
Hannibal Brooks is a film that straddles several genres. It‘s a post-modern war film with a lot of late sixties idiosyncrasies. One minute there are actions scenes and the next humour and pathos. Tonally it is somewhat inconsistent. I often wonder how this concept was sold to the financial backers. It may also come as a surprise that this film was directed by Michael Winner of Death Wish fame. Yet it does surprisingly work. Despite the narrative pulling in different directions, the film manages to stay the course through the sheer force of Oliver Reeds personality and his on screen chemistry with the elephant Lucy. Curiously the US distributors tried to sell this as a Michael J Pollard movie due to the recent success of Bonnie and Clyde.
Setting the story’s failings aside, the Bavarian landscape is beautiful. Director of photography Robert Paynter certainly captures the essence of the lush and verdant forests. There’s also a pleasant soundtrack by French composer Francis Lai. Again it has more of a sixties vibe to it, rather than a traditional military style but it works. It is also worth noting that a train crash is staged for real, something that you don’t see so often these days due to the proliferation of CGI. Overall the key to this movie is Reed himself, disproving the old adage about working with children and animals.
Director Michael Winner strays from several cinematic conventions with Hannibal Brooks. Firstly the German contingent of the cast predominantly speaks in their native tongue and the linguistic divide is used to dramatic and comedic effect in the screenplay. Secondly not all Germans are portrayed as Nazi sympathisers. In fact the film provides an interesting overview into German rural life showing how domestic affairs continue despite the ongoing war. Winner also briefly explores the notion of the average UK conscript who once captured, isn’t in a hurry to escape and re-joins the war. When Brooks’ volunteers to help out at the zoo, his CO is not that impressed , where Brooks sees it as a way to improve his current situation for the better.
Hannibal Brooks is as much of a curiosity now as it was at the time of its release in 1969. The World War II movie genre was no longer just a vehicle for historical exploration, as with The Battle of Britain released the same year. It was becoming broader and erring towards action and drama with big budget movies such as Where Eagles Dare. In some respects Hannibal Brooks shares similarities with Kelly’s Heroes in the way the popular culture of the decade that it was made, bleeds into the narrative. It is certainly one of Michael Winner's better movies. It also has appeal outside of its genre, simply because pairing Oliver Reed with an elephant is either an act of genius or utter madness. Either way it works resulting in a film that despite being a curate’s egg, is engaging and entertaining.