If there’s one thing I find irresistible it’s a British Navy war time thriller starring the likes of Trevor Howard and Richard Attenborough. Add in Bernard Lee and all we’re really missing is Jack Hawkins. Cliched this Compton Bennett directed effort may be, that didn’t stop me from once again enjoying the presence of Trevor Howard as he delivers a first rate performance as the Commander of a Destroyer. Once taking command, Howard, will refer to his ship as the Gift Horse of the title thanks to the U.S. Navy assigning it and 49 other aging ships to the British fleet in 1940 prior to their entering the war themselves on December 7th, 1941.
The film opens with the ship set to sail from Halifax, Nova Scotia, with Lee and Attenborough as seaman assigned to the ship that is to be commanded by our leading man, Howard, who has come out of military retirement. Second in command, James Donald, is playing a Canadian Officer assigned to Howard. The two won’t see eye to eye for a good majority of the film with Howard’s stern commander and Donald’s more humane approach towards the crew.
As it turns out the aging Destroyer they’re on is anything but shipshape. On the voyage home they’ll find themselves adrift and taking on more water then the pumps can return over the side. This combined with the lack of Navy etiquette has Howard with a permanent scowl on his face when dealing with Donald and the crew. Finally making it to England it’s time for the vessel to take it’s position riding shotgun for convoys crossing the English Channel. Then it’s on to mail call, shore leave, girls and booze. Let’s not forget the bar room brawls either as the boys defend they’re sagging ship. Yes as I mentioned it’s rather cliched at heart.
Aside from our British cast, we have one American actor on board. It’s Mr. Sonny Tufts looking as if he’s just walked off the set of 1944’s Here Come the Waves where he co-starred with Bing Crosby as a couple of navy men chasing girls and singing songs. Here he’s a little heavier I suppose but still behaving as if he’s in a 1944 light hearted musical at Paramount. Cliched? How about while on shore leave he meets a lonely waitress and in a matter of screen seconds the two are married and having rice thrown their way by members of the crew.
And hey, didn’t I just spot Carry On’s Sidney James as the barkeep in a local pub?
Despite the tired plot points it’s Trevor Howard who stands above it all. No he’s not the tyrant he’s made out to be and was at one time court martialed out of the Navy. He wants to make good on his second go around in the fight for England. He’s also got a son who enlists in the Navy and Howard’s shining moment is while celebrating Christmas with his crew that tragic news arrives. He’s lost his boy in a battle against the enemy.
With the Blitz taking it’s toll, Howard, and his ship are assigned to a top secret operation in what amounts to a suicide mission. Shady special effects plague his Destroyer while leading a charge into enemy territory and experiencing heavy casualties. Fiery explosions, gun battles and hand to hand combat are to follow once Howard and company hit their mark. What lies in wait for the survivors are I suppose prisoner of war camps and an uncertain future.
I’ve always said that movies can be used to teach and while much of their plots might be fiction, the core of the story may offer up some kernels of truth and spur one on to learn more. In this case I’ve no idea how factual Gift Horse actually is but during the film’s opening credits respects are paid to the U.S. Navy and The St. Nazaire Society. The latter drew my attention and for history buffs or war buffs they may know exactly what that refers to. I did not so now thanks to this so-so film I’ve learned that it represents the final battle in the movie. When English Forces attacked a heavily fortified Normandie dry dock at St. Nazaire in German occupied France on March 28th, 1942. If I ever make it to contestants row on Jeopardy, let’s hope that answer comes up so that I may respond with a question. “What was the St. Nazaire Raid?”
At which point I’ll be hoping to add, “And now Alex I’ll take Classic Movies for a thousand.”
Thanks to film’s like Odette, The Cockellshell Heroes, Von Ryan’s Express and some of his later roles, like The Sea Wolves, I’ve always found it easy to see Trevor Howard in uniform barking orders and fighting the Axis powers of WW2. As a matter of fact I can easily see the Howard in this film heading to a P.O.W. camp and then turning up as the scruffy, weathered Major Fincham in Von Ryan’s Express barking and bickering with Frank Sinatra.
The same can be said of Sir Richard Attenborough. Among the military films he appeared are Dunkirk, Sea of Sand, The Great Escape and The Sand Pebbles to name a few. He’d even go on to direct the big budgeted A Bridge Too Far in 1977 and direct Howard in the Oscar winning Gandhi released in 1982.
Howard and Attenborough are seen in military garb again co-starring in 1975’s Conduct Unbecoming.
Looking for a copy of Gift Horse? I lucked into mine finding it at a second hand store. On top of that it’s a DVD release from the U.K. but thankfully I do have a machine that plays it where most shoppers won’t. Such is the life of a film collector.