Gift Horse
"The domestic detailing, while interesting, does affect the pace and structure of the film, as for a while the story arc seems rather unclear, before things rev up in the final third." | Photo: Studiocanal

If Operation Mincemeat has got you in the mood for a Second World War story with more than a dash of the domestic, then this newly restored Studiocanal release based on a real-life sea raid is well worth a look. Compton Bennett already had a solid track record when he directed this, having been Oscar-nominated for King Solomon's Mines and he is helped enormously by skilful cinematography from Harry Waxman, who would go on to shoot The Wicker Man later in his career and whose employment of lighting and framing here adds enormously to the atmosphere generated when the men are on the boat that gives its film its title.

She is a pensioned-off US destroyer that has been brought out of mothballs to help out the British Navy for convoy work but who, through the course of the film, will come to perform a much more dangerous task. In charge is Lieutenant Commander Fraser (Trevor Howard, by then an established name), an officer who carries the baggage of a court martial eight years before. The film is based on the genuine St Nazaire raid Operation Chariot but it is far from a straightforward tale of derring-do at sea, being just as concerned with the social fabric aboard the ship.

There's a lightness of touch to the conversations, which frequently find contrast between chats between the officers, including Canadian First Officer Jennings (James Donald) and his Pilot (Robin Bailey), and the ordinary seamen below decks, including feisty "Dripper" Daniels (Richard Attenborough, bringing a full deployment of emotions), "Yank" Flannigan (Sonny Tufts) and "Stripey" Woods (Bernard Lee in his pre-James Bond's M days).

In between seabound exploits, which unfold with decent tension, we see the men coping with the other skirmishes of war - getting married, the prospect of having a baby while unable to get shore leave and the fear over a grown child who has also signed up to serve. The domestic detailing, while interesting, does affect the pace and structure of the film, as for a while the story arc seems rather unclear, before things rev up in the final third. There's also a tendency for big personal events of life and death to be dealt with and forgotten about, rather than building up an emotional head of steam.

As always with this sort of thing, it's the cast who lend everything weight, although Donald proves to be the exception, much more stilted than usual and struggling to deliver the more playful elements of the script. Attenborough, as always, goes far further than the script with the play of facial emotions he brings to his cocky Cockney, while Howard also lets an undercurrent of sadness tremble beneath his captain's stiff upper lip. There's also graceful supporting work elsewhere, not least from love interests June (Joan Rice) and Glad (Dora Bryan), with the two actresses bringing their small roles fully alive with personality, with Sid James also popping up as the barman at the dockside pub.

Reviewed on: 24 Apr 2022
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Gift Horse packshot
A British crew man a US destroyer that has been brought out of retirement to help the war effort - and head on a dangerous mission.

Director: Compton Bennett

Writer: Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts, William Fairchild

Starring: Trevor Howard, Richard Attenborough, Sonny Tufts, James Donald, Bernard Lee, Robin Bailey, Dora Bryan, Joan Rice, Sidney James

Year: 1952

Runtime: 100 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK


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