Not only did Oscar winner, Jose Ferrer, score top billing in this WW2 tale based on a true story but he also sat in the director’s chair for the second time having just starred in and directed the 1955 film The Shrike opposite June Allyson. A British war time story this production wisely casts screen veteran Trevor Howard to costar alongside Ferrer in the role of a fellow Officer in charge of a behind the lines mission.
Produced by Irving Allen and Albert R. Broccoli under the Warwick banner, the story kicks in during March of 1942. The no nonsense career officer played by Howard is about to meet the laid back Ferrer. The two have been assigned to train a group of men to canoe upriver into a German shipping yard and plant explosives on hull’s beneath the water line. They’ll clash from the beginning when Howard realizes that Ferrer isn’t exactly a by the book commander and to compound things, it’s Ferrer who’s in charge.
“Do I detect a faint note of dissatisfaction?” Ferrer asks the sour faced Howard.
A group of would be troops arrive to volunteer for the mission who are at once introduced to the rough and loud mouthed drill sergeant played by Victor Maddern. Time to weed out the undesirables so that we are left with eight men to join Ferrer and Maddern to take part in the suicidal mission. Among those who make the grade are Anthony Newley, Percy Herbert, John Van Eyssen, Peter Arne and David Lodge.
A good majority of the film’s first half rides the line between comedy and the gruff Ferrer-Howard battle. Howard sits back letting Ferrer have his way at running things until a training mission ends badly at which point he lets Ferrer know he’s not cut out for leading the men unless he adheres to strict military by the book procedures. Ferrer rightly takes the advice and from here on in he’s not one to take any goofing off lightly.
Military plot devices are injected into the film just prior to the mission launch. Meaning a night out at the local pub and the subsequent barroom brawl which of course serves to bond the men tightly together. There’s also a moment to let Howard be sympathetic and human after all when one of the men is not back in his barracks by nightfall. Howard finds him in a local pub getting up the nerve to confront a wayward wife and her lover. Howard who has already had a run in with the wife and her beau stands proudly by while his charge takes his husbandly justice on the lover and sets things straight at home.
Now it’s on to the mission and boarding a sub commanded by none other than Christopher Lee just a few short years away from becoming a legend of horror and fantasy films. A small role for the aspiring actor who Hammer would cast as The Monster in 1957’s Curse of Frankenstein followed by Dracula in ’58 clearly putting him on the path to superstardom for cult fans worldwide to this very day.
Howard who isn’t actually going on the canoe trip inland makes the journey onboard the sub to the drop zone but enroute they are attacked by a German battleship. End result is that under Lee’s command they evade the depth charges but one of the eight men are killed when his head strikes a bulkhead prompting Howard to volunteer to man the canoes himself thus putting his own life in jeopardy for the good of the cause.
How does the mission play out? Who survives? You’ll have to tune in yourself to make that discovery. I had seen the film ages ago on television but picking up a blu ray edition via Eureka! allowed me to finally have a second go at the film which looks fabulous on disc.
Ferrer directed a total of seven films to go along with an acting career that spanned from 1948 through to 1991. Besides The Shrike and Cockleshell Heroes he also directed The Great Man (1956), I, Accuse (1958), The High Cost of Living (1958), Return to Peyton Place (1961) and State Fair (1962). He starred and directed the first five titles but hired on strictly as the director of the final two.
While Howard and Ferrer never shared the screen again by my count, Howard and Lee would reunite years later on a little seen project released in 1976 titled Night of the Askari … aka Albino. A non-horror title in Lee’s filmography. They could be seen one final time together in a 1986 miniseries called Shaka Zulu prior to Howard’s death in 1988.
A useless piece of trivia stands out to the Hammer fans in Cockleshell Heroes which was partially filmed at Shepperton Studios in England with exteriors done in Portugal. Three years later when Hammer filmed Dracula starring Lee in the title role, John Van Eyssen, who joined him in the sub to the drop point here in 1955 played Jonathan Harker in the 1958 classic who journeys to Castle Dracula and his doom in the film’s opening segment.
Heroes was the fifth film released by Allen and Broccoli under the Warwick Film Productions banner. They kicked off the company with 1951’s Paratrooper starring Alan Ladd followed by two more Ladd films, The Black Knight and Hell Below Zero. As the decade came to a close they turned towards Victor Mature to headline six features. Among them the underrated The Long Haul released in 1957. Broccoli would famously go on to produce the enormously successful James Bond series while Allen took the hint and tried his hand in the spy genre producing the Dean Martin/Matt Helm series which lasted for four titles.
Lastly if you noticed the names of Col. H.G. Hasher and Ex-Marine W.E. Sparks noted as technical advisors in the opening credits, this is because they were apparently real life survivors of the actual WW2 mission brought in to supervise during the actual filming.
With Trevor Howard taking one of the central roles this one’s easy to recommend and if you’re looking to complete that Christopher Lee dance card then you’ll have to volunteer for this canoe trip behind enemy lines.