3 out of 4 stars

Of all the skirmishes in human history, World War II has yielded the most movies, the greatest movies and, by all indicators, it shows no signs of ever letting up.

This is good on multiple levels. This was the last war where the enemy and the allies were clearly defined. At the time, a scant few thought the fascist-led Germany was on the right track and for the most part, that opinion remains the same. “Anthropoid” is a movie that goes into detail about yet another WWII sub-plot most people have probably not heard of and one that deserves further attention.

Involving no American characters, “Anthropoid” is a bookend of sorts to “Valkyrie,” the Tom Cruise vehicle from a few years ago where German nationals attempted to take out Adolf Hitler. The target for assassination in “Anthropoid” is Reinhardt Heydrich, Hitler’s third in command and the architect of the infamous Final Solution plan for Jewish genocide.

Known at the time as Operation Anthropoid, this was a mission executed by British-trained Czech soldiers, rightfully upset that other European nations essentially turned their back, looked the other way and allowed Germany to annex their country without the firing of a single shot. It was one of the major political, tactical and military blunders of the entire war.

Opening cold without any back story, the film starts with multiple Czech ex-pats parachuting into the woods not far from Prague on a snowy night. Two of the men (Cillian Murphy as Josef and Jamie Dornan as Jan) arrive relatively safely and soon encounter the first of a series of possibly fatal confrontations.

With the secret backing of the British government and exiled Czech leaders, Josef and Jan spring the news of their plans on their confirmed partners — citizens who never left Prague — and it is rightfully met with mixed emotions. Yes, everyone wants the Nazis in general and Heydrich in particular to vamoose but the naysayers within the group have a deeper grasp of the situation and better view of the bigger picture.

What happens if they actually succeed? The almost certain reprisals will result in untold needless civilian casualties and will make an incredibly bad situation even worse. All you need to do is look at what has happened in 21st century Iraq and Libya when their oppressive dictatorial leaders (with U.S. backing by the way) were assassinated. We’re still dealing with messy aftermath of those events.

Director Sean Ellis and his three screenwriters get a great deal right but, as is too often the case with committee-penned scripts, the narrative is pushed and pulled in multiple directions. The tense opening and brutal closing acts sandwich a middle that frequently meanders and treads water.

Throughout, two Czech women (Anna Geislerova as Lenka and Charlotte Le Bon as Marie) act as beards for Josef and Jan, but as they spend more time together, business morphs into pleasure. How historically accurate this portion of the story maybe matters little as the filmmakers keep everything spare and believable while also employing an old school/classic Hollywood delicacy with the romantic stuff.

What isn’t so believable is the protracted exchange of gunfire taking place at the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodious, the Orthodox Church that served as a hideout after the attack on Heydrich and today is rightfully considered sacred national soil. Again, the filmmakers take what was likely too much artistic liberty with the laws of physics and probability but this does little to diminish the overall impact.

“Operation: Daybreak” from 1975 covered exactly the same events as those played out in “Anthropoid” but the differences in approach, style, pacing and photography are worlds apart. Both are good, neither is great and each steadfastly avoids softening any edges.

Less successful versions include “Hangmen Also Die!” (1943), “Hitler’s Madman” (1943) and “Atentát” (1964) and there is also the superb dramatic documentary “The Silent Victory” (1942). Finally, the oddly titled “HHhH” is due out later this year featuring the higher-profile cast of Jason Clarke, Rosamund Pike, Mia Wasikowska and Jack O’Connell.

(Bleecker Street)

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