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Hell Boats (1970)

Having seen the other film James Franciscus had in theaters during the 1970 season I figured it was time to catch up with his only other big screen appearance that year, Hell Boats. The other title, Beneath the Planet of the Apes,  made me a life time fan of this underappreciated actor.

This is a compact thriller that lacks in budget but makes up for it with fiery explosions and some decent action sequences that sees Franciscus as an American in the British Military assigned to the Island of Malta in order to plan and stage an attack on a German run port in Sicily that is heavily guarded and home to a warehouse of submarine torpedoes. In a preliminary battle during the opening sequence we’ll see Franciscus have his destroyer shot out from under him by the German’s and when abandoning ship the waters are left littered with corpses after the German’s strafe the English channel with gunfire killing any survivors within reach. Though he does survive the attack, Franciscus is now determined to kill the enemy at all costs which won’t set well with the men under his new command.

As if it’s a prerequisite to sell tickets, a love triangle is ridiculously introduced to this WW2 thriller when Franciscus reaches Malta. It’s there that Elizabeth Shepherd will make herself available to our leading man while she experiences marital discord with her husband and the commander of the British forces on Malta, Ronald Allen. It’s more than obvious that Shepherd’s affections are at the root of Allen’s disagreements and temper flare ups with Franciscus who continues to plot just how to get into the Sicily port and blow the Germans to hell.

Needing inside information to plan his attack leads to the film’s best action sequence. Franciscus and his Man Friday, Reuven Bar-Yotam, utilize the local underground in Sicily to go undercover and get an up close look at the German operation. This will lead to some hand to hand combat and plenty of gunfire as many will give their lives to aid the British in getting the required photos and scanning the port to see just how far they’ll need to get inland to do some serious damage to the Nazi war machine.

It’s going to be a Trojan Horse operation when Franciscus determines that only a German Hell Boat can get them close enough to do the job signaling an attempt to capture one and turn it against it’s rightful owners. With that thought in mind, it’s time to get the models out into one of those large bathtubs rigged with plenty of firecrackers and explosives for some miniature fun as only the big screen can deliver. Honestly, I can’t help but wonder when Godzilla might rise up from the depths when I see these type of action sequences spliced in between our leading fighters spraying machine gun fire into the night at their supposed targets.

There’s a fairly long action sequence towards the end that has Franciscus shirtless with only shorts on running through underground tunnels with machine gun in hand. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the similarities between this and his turn as Brent in Planet of the Apes. In the Apes sequel he’ll be doing the exact same thing with Heston in that film’s explosive climax. Hell Boats may be a second string feature meant for the lower half of a double bill but note the on location shoot in Malta as it does add authenticity to the film with it’s scenic backdrop.

Horror film fans will likely best remember Miss Shepherd for her appearance opposite Vincent Price as Lady Ligeia in the 1964 Poe thriller The Tomb of Ligeia. I was surprised to see brief snippets if nudity here that had me thinking it might have even been “almost accidental” along a beach where she first meets Franciscus. It’s amazing what the slow motion button on a DVD remote can confirm that the naked eye believes it may have just seen.

Hell Boats was directed by the reliable Paul Wendkos. This director had a large body of work beginning with the excellent Dan Duryea Noir thriller, The Burglar, in 1957 to series television on episodes of The Untouchables, The Invaders and I, Spy. He would also helm seven episodes of a 1964/5 series titled Mr. Novak. The leading man? Yes sir, James Franciscus. Wendkos would continue to direct made for TV movies right though to the 1990’s before retiring at the end of the decade. He’d pass away in 2009 at the age of 84.

Hoping to find a copy of this decent time filler? It’s available through MGM and the Made On Demand market.

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