The plot's engine or conceit concerns a naval officer (Lieutenant Commander Jeffords) planning to destroy a German glider bomb depot in Augusta, Sicily, with his flotilla of motor torpedo boats (MTBs). Whilst preparing for this attack in a Malta under tourniquet, he becomes part of a love triangle.
You could point out that it seems like a film where there were opposing creative forces at work, so that the parting shot of the movie, the final line of the script, falls like seed on marble. You could point out that in this movie, fairly inert objects seem to have an alchemical propensity for explosive combustibility when hit by bullets and that highly trained military individuals don't understand lines of fire, that Wehrmacht soldiers pointing machine guns at the back of spies magically fizz out of existence during a crunch, that Jeffords has a mage-like ability to become invisible in front of the enemy. You could point all this out but miss the beauty and oozing anguish of the film.
I just like the honesty of the film, the portrayal of lonely people living with death wishes, confronting raw sexual compatibility when unavailable, making sentimental love choices, envying, being hypocrites, behaving petulantly. It's all baked under the Mediterranean sun, shot beautifully, and scored wonderfully. The film is as much about what is unsaid or not shown and merely alluded to than what is heard and shown.
There's something crazy about watching these three creatures with irises like arctic meltwater, treading over Malta's quiet places, under the sandstone shadows, in and about its crenellations. The film seems much more in keeping with the tradition of Marguerite Duras and India Song than with typical World War II genre movies; Malta almost feeling like Camus's Oran.
What's also quite clear though is that the action that happens, whilst sometimes making a few elementary mistakes, often achieves with model work alone, a "Boy's Own" intensity, that makes following aerial bombs down in Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor seem academic.
It's well worth pointing out that director Paul Wendkos was in the Navy in World War II, and this film clearly meant a lot more to him than his usual fairly undistinguished output. Composer Frank Cordell served in military intelligence in the Mediterranean theatre during WWII and it would be fascinating to find out if he also had some influence as he was very much an engaged artistic collaborator.
Rarely is a film as human as Hell Boats.
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