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, the film 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.