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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There's a startling moment in Howard Hawks' acclaimed "Rio Bravo."
After a shoot out in which several bad guys are killed, the surviving
villains manage to knock down John Wayne and tie him up. They haul him
to his feet and tell him that he'd better do what he's told. Then one
of the heavies makes an surprising statement. "If it was up to me you'd
have never got off the floor. Some of those you killed were friends of
mine." Hawks' heavies are rarely complicated (neither are his heroes)
but in this instance the audience feels a strange and almost unwelcome
flash of recognition. This heavy is a human being. He had friends.
I had some of the same discomfort while watching "Sailor of the King." Jeffrey Hunter, young, tan, and fit, is the sailor whose cruiser has just been sunk in the Pacific by the German cruiser Essen. He and a shipmate (Bernard Miles) are rescued by Captain Peter Van Eyck of the Eseen. Wounded and shaken, Hunter and Miles are taken to sick bay where a German doctor must amputate Miles' leg. The German sailors treat the two captive fairly. At times they're even friendly.
Hunter is soon up and about and discovers that the Essen has been damaged during the battle and has put into a remote and tiny cove in the Galapagos Islands to make some much needed repairs. Hunter knows, and Van Eyck guesses correctly, that another force of British ships is on their way to search for the Essen and sink her, so the repairs must be made as quickly as possible so she can get under way again and out of danger.
Hunter knocks out the sick bay guard, commandeers a rifle and ammunition and a canteen of water, and escapes to the bare rocky bluffs overlooking the cove where the Essen has anchored. Hunter is determined to delay the repairs long enough for the British force to arrive -- and that he does. He picks off German sailors one by one as they work on the hole in the ship's hull. The Captain, knowing what's happened, scours the cliffs first with 40 mm. cannon, then with his main battery, but Hunter is unhurt, though out of water and exhausted. That night the Germans put ashore a landing party and they manage to wound Hunter just above the ankle before the ship's whistle hoots, recalling the Germans. The Essen slowly backs out of the cove while Hunter lies exhausted on the bare rocks, but it's too late for the Essen and she is sunk.
To tell the truth, I kind of got to like the Germans sailors, and even Van Eyck's Captain. Of course, it's war. I know that. And it's every prisoner's duty to escape and fight the enemy and all that. But these bad guys have saved the lives of Hunter and Miles. (Miles goes down with the Essen but it isn't shown.) I'm not suggesting that Hunter's allegiance should have shifted to the Germans. It's just that shooting down individuals with a rifle is rather a personal business and Hunter seems to give it nary a thought. It all looks cold blooded.
That's the A story. The B story, which consists of a long introduction involving an illicit affair during WWI between Michael Rennie, who commands the British fleet at the Galapagos, and Wendy Hiller. Hiller refuses to marry Rennie in 1918 and, finding she's pregnant, moves to Montreal, which explains Jeffrey Hunter's American accent. Yes, it's true. Hunter is Rennie's son! Neither of them knows it, nor do they ever find out, and it has nothing to do with the A story, but there it is. A romantic turn for Wendy Hiller and an ironic meeting at the end between Hunter and his own father.
There's an alternate ending on the DVD in which Hunter doesn't simply lie exhausted on the Galapagos cliffs but is found dead by the British rescue party. Hiller shows up in London to receive her son's Victoria Cross, while Rennie is there for his investiture. They both recognize one another, of course, but Hiller tells Rennie nothing about Hunter being their illegitimate son.
The alternate ending has a neater structure, beginning and ending with Rennie and Hiller together so that it becomes a framing story, but that leaves the problem of Jeffrey Hunter's death hanging. How do you die from a bullet through the ankle? Even when the wound is combined with 12 hours of thirst? The existing ending is clumsy and askew. It makes the long introductory story of Rennie and Hiller almost irrelevant, but it does preserve the irony of two brave men about to be decorated by the King, not knowing that they share more than the honors with which they are about to be presented.
There's room for improvement but it's an exciting story and the scenes of battle at sea are realistic enough to be gripping. And, though I'm sure we're supposed to feel nothing but admiration for Hunter's heroism (and that's what it was), it's a rather sad story as well.
I have always admired the work of C.S. Forester. Some of his most enduring books are about English Captain Horatio Hornblower who served during the French Napoleonic and revolutionary War. In this movie called "Sailor of the King" my favorite actor Jeffrey Hunter plays Signalman Andrew Brown who is aboard H.M.Ship Ansley when it is sunk by a German Crusier. Another favorite actor Michael Rennie who is well remembered as Klatuu from 'The Day the Earth stood still' plays Capt. Richard Saville who longs to do battle with the German navy. In Forester's original work, he had Brown as Saville's son even though neither know of the other. In the movie it is only hinted that both men are related even when both are brought before the King to be decorated and knighted. The movie itself is well directed by Roy Boulting and if you look closely, you'll see Bernard Lee who later became James Bonds' boss at MI6. This is a fine movie and one which is listed as a early Classic in the annals of Military movies. Easily recommended for all. ****
I watched this film with no previous knowledge of its content or style and I was delighted to discover that it was a curiously interesting work. Very well acted by Jeffrey Hunter. A man who was often wasted in Hollywood. Surprised me the interplay Hunter has with Bernard Lee. It is quite mature and they play very well and with great sensitivity the part of father and son figures as the only survivors of a ship sinking. This was greatly helped by a very finely crafted dialogue. Instead, Michel Rennie and Wendy Hiller are quite stilted and their characters appear to be badly drawn and unidimensional. Today I saw this film with TWO endings. After the first ending a card appears on the screen telling the audience that this is an experiment. They'll show a second, different,ending and will distribute cards in he lobby of the cinema (I saw it on TV!) for a vote of which one was the favourite. Great!
when the young Canadian sailor was rescued and captured on the German warship, his p.o.w. status was the first time that i've seen in a war movie that a prisoner of war could be so easily walked around on board of the German warship and not be confined in the holding cabin under 24/7 watch. he seemed to be the only British sailor who's not wounded but still stayed with all the other wounded ones. he was escorted only by a German sailor to walk around having fresh air regularly in the day time. the way that a pow had been treated like a first class cruise ship was a shocking contrast to what we had seen in any WWII movie. then when the young sailor escaped, he chose to sneak off the ship without a shirt, and the shoes he wore were also quite convenient like a ballet dancer's, that's quite weird too. but the flaws i mentioned here are nothing if you've seen the whole movie, a great one!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I never heard of this film before I ran across it on Amazon.Com. I was
amazed by this as I'm a military historian and I already have an
extensive WWII film library. Upon first viewing I found the whole front
story stultifying. I love Michael Rennie as an actor but I found his
whole "stiff upper lip" "I love you I truly do" performance to be
unbelievably stiff. And the mother, were talking early 20th Century
morals here, I no more believe her spending a week bonking a stranger
than I do her then allowing him to walk away. And her then compounding
it by having his love child out of wedlock AND NEVER TELLING HIM???
When we're finally at sea though the movie comes into its own. Of course the ships are way to modern to be WWII vintage craft and the Nazi's are portrayed as "right good fellows" (they are our allies at the time now against those nasty Bolshiviks so be nice to em) and there's nary a swastika in sight. Good ripping yarn if I do say so myself but could'a been much more if the Victorian morals hadn't derailed the film.
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