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This is the only film I know that dealt with Anglo-American destroyers
for naval base leases trade that Roosevelt and Churchill made before
America entered World War II. Monetary transactions were forbidden by
the Neutrality Act so FDR came up with the idea to give up 50 aged
American destroyers in turn for leases on naval bases the British had
in the Western Hemisphere. This was the precursor of Lend Lease.
Trevor Howard plays the captain of a crew taking over one of these ships and remember the ships are old. But as he said addressing his crew it was good to remember that old expression about never looking a gift horse in the mouth. He plays the part well in the best stiff upper lip tradition. Supporting Howard are James Donald, Richard Attenborough and over from America, Sonny Tufts.
Good easy to take war film about a little remembered historical event and the old gift horse does meet a gallant end.
Just to add to malcolmgsw's comments.
The film has some elements of truth to it. The original destroyer concerned was USS Buchanan, renamed in the Royal Navy HMS Campbelltown. This ship did indeed carry out the raid on St Nazaire, in March 1942. The purpose was to prevent the use of the dock by the German battleship Tirpitz in case she should ever breakout into the Atlantic. It was the only dock outside Germany which could accommodate the ship.
One scene stands out for me in the film. It takes place in ex boxer Sid James's pub where some of the crew of our ship are relaxing. A crew of another ship starts to wind them up and this leads to a fight. However, we don't see this fight. As it begins, a bell goes off like the bell at the start of a boxing match. At the same time, the camera focuses on a photo of Sid in his boxing days, one of many which adorn the walls of his pub. Then as the fight ensues, the camera fixes on other boxing pictures from the wall as each blow is struck. Very enjoyable!
This film was shown last week on Channel 4.The critic in the Radio Times rather annoyed me as he was rather disparaging about it,saying that it took a long time to get going.He seems to forget that this film is of its era and likes to take its time to tell its story.I have to say that in fact i think that many of the action sequences look rather cheaply staged and some of the special effects work is very amateurish by current standards.However this film does stand up very well mainly because of the marvelous performance from Trevor Howard.In particular the scene when he receives news that his son has been killed in action.I would say that this is only slightly inferior to the marvelous "The Cruel Sea" which sets the standard by which all such films of the period must be set.The only jarring note was the obligatory fading American star to boost the chances of a sale to the USA.Sonny Tufts had to be one of the worst actors of that or any other period.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The British made some fine war movies during the 40s and 50s,
culminating with "The Bridge on the River Kwai," which may be the best
ever made. This one, called "The Gift Horse" in the US, is about one of
those old, retired destroyers that were lent to Britain in 1940 as part
of Roosevelt's Lend Lease program, a way of providing aid without
alarming an isolationist public.
The story follows the refurbishing of a destroyer, the travails of its stern captain (Trevor Howard), the antics of a couple of its crew (Bernard Lee, baby-faced Richard Attenborough, Sonny Tufts), and the deliberate sacrifice of the ship during a commando raid on Nazi facilities in the French port of St. Nazaire.
It has all the makings of a great film, something along the lines of "The Cruel Sea," only this time ending with a daring attack that ends in victory.
Sadly, it is torpedoed thrice, wallows briefly in the swells, then sinks head first into the unforgiving sea.
Hit number one is just abaft the beam of the budget. They obviously needed more money to do a decent job. There IS some footage of an old four-piper snoozing along in the distance but for the most part the story is set bound. Everything seems to take place in the studio. Even the scenes aboard ship, while the captain is gritting his teeth and making momentous decisions, is shot not on a real bridge but on a cardboard replica of the flying bridge, where the set can be spare. Didn't they have access to a genuine vessel? Or a real dock? The model work during action scenes make the viewer wince. When the destroyer blows up, it appears to be a more than usually large firecracker exploding inside a box of breakfast cereal.
Strike number two is in the engine room that propels the plot. It's like a handbook of clichés, one following another with relentless determination. When the ship returns from patrol a crewman rushes home to see his wife and new-born baby. Both were killed during the bombing. The scene of his discovering this isn't shown. It's stated baldly in the dialog. Much of the movie is given over to the banter of the men, their comradely inter-ship fist fights in the pub, where bottles and glasses are smashed with abandon. Then there is the stale and uninteresting love affair between James Donald and Joan Rice, a pretty woman who can't act or who isn't given the chance. And just as Trevor Howard joins the crew in the wardroom for a glass of Christmas cheer, he's handed an envelope informing him that his son was killed in action. He shows his stiff upper lip until decorum allows him to wander off alone and forlorn into the shadows of the fake dock. The climactic raid on St. Nazaire was one of the most thoroughly planned and skillfully pulled off during the war, yet here it's described in a two-minute scene and executed confusingly during the final ten minutes. The script is so poor we never do find out exactly why the mission was so important. And it WAS important.
But the mortal wounds are delivered by Sonny Tufts as "Yank," the American newly assigned as the captain's cook, presumed to provide some comic relief because he has a few wisecracks. But his every appearance creates another vast hole on the screen. Sonny Tufts, a relative of the founder of Tufts University in Massachusetts, was born into an extremely wealthy Boston family whose ancestors came from England in the 1600s. Not caring for the family business, banking, he spent some time in Hollywood and made a few films while the professional actors were off fighting the war. By the time of this release he was a washed-up alcoholic. Nothing wrong with that, in itself. Some of my best friends are aging juice heads. But he can't act. And he looked depressingly like a man who had been marinated in booze for years and whose voice had been cured by millions of expensive Turkish cigarettes. What an embarrassment.
I call for a salute. Here's to the brave men and women whose money, talent, and avoidance of Sonny Tufts would have made a very good film possible. Wherever they are.
Compton Bennett's surefooted direction and a sterling performance from Trevor Howard keeps this leaky old vessel afloat. You have to wonder though at the misguided optimism of the producers in thinking that casting the execrable Sonny Tufts would be a draw across the Pond. Curiously the part that was obviously written for an American, the raffish Canadian first officer, goes to that archetypal English gent, James Donald. And very uncomfortable he looks too. The most interesting character is Richard Attenborough's Dripper Daniels. It is Attenborough in familiar mouthy ranker mode, but with the added twist that his character is a trade union organiser in civilian life. Some fun is had with this, but the portrayal is perhaps more sympathetic than it would have been if the film had been made a few years later. The message of all-pulling together is a reminder of just how soon after the war this film was made. The film certainly takes its time to build up to the raid on St.Nazaire, which is dealt with rather perfunctorily. This must count as a missed opportunity as the raid was one of the most remarkable operations of the war. Instead we have a rather conventional tale of a raggle taggle ship's crew bonding into a disciplined fighting force. In fairness the vintage of the film means that some of the clichés may not then have been clichés, but it is fairly turgid at times, not least the anodyne romance between Donald and wren Joan Rice. An unrecognisably youthful Robin Bailey and a winsome Dora Bryan shine out among the supporting players.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Plot: A disgraced captain fights to turn his inexperienced sailors,
rebellious officers and outdated ship into a fighting force
This underrated little gem is about a little known historical episode in the Second World War where British island bases were swapped for antiquated American ships. The plot is fairly standard; a tough-but-fair officer has to turn an inexperienced crew into a crack fighting force before they are thrown into a final challenge that will test them to the limit. In between the plot adopts an episodic format, shifting between (largely failed) missions at sea and moments for the crew to bond (and fight with other crews) on land. There are lots of familiar but nonetheless effective moments; the chap whose girl runs off with another man, the former trade unionist turned ship's lawyer, the deaths of family in German bombing raids. Like many 1950s films there is a reliance on sets rather than location shooting, and on archive to fill in the gaps. It's obvious but acceptable, and more than made up for by a fast-paced, witty screenplay full of neat historical detail and deeply human moments. The climax, involving the Raid on St Nazaire, is a slightly under-utilised - five more minutes of screen-time to stretch out the tension would have made for a much better ending - but nonetheless heroic end. There is one terrific scene where the camera cuts away from a bar-room brawl and instead illustrates the fight by cutting to photographs of boxers on the wall (the pub landlord's former career) every time a blow is landed. What makes the film so good is the terrific banter between the crew, and the magnificent understatement of the actors. There is no shouting, only a deep and dignified horror at the effects of war; the quiet grief of the characters is infinitely more powerful for not being Hollywood histrionics. Highly recommended.
He's quite interesting to watch is old Trevor Howard. His quintessential upper class English manner is endearing and engaging. He does have the grit between his teeth, and a depth of range in his voice. He won me over in this film.
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