Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Gift Horse (1952)

A paean to the Lend-Lease Act which enabled the USA to support the UK during WWII whilst remaining ostensibly neutral; Compton Bennett's The Gift Horse - which was on TV yesterday evening - tells the story of a decrepit US Battleship renamed HMS Ballantrae (a thinly disguised account of the real life HMS Campbeltown) and its Royal Navy crew from its time working as a convoy escort in the dangerous waters of the Battle of the Atlantic to its suicide mission upon St Nazaire docks, the now infamous and stirring 'Great Raid'  of 1942 (for those not in the know, I recommend the book The Greatest Raid of All Time and the BBC documentary of the same name fronted by Jeremy Clarkson in 2007)

Almost propaganda and episodic in tone, the film focuses mainly on the day to day events of the ship and its personnel rather than the raid itself, which is handled in the film's denouement and closing fifteen minutes. As such the film feels occasionally like a lesser In Which We Serve or The Cruel Sea but is more charming and ultimately more superior than the later Attack On The Iron Coast which focuses firmly on the St Nazaire raid - albeit a highly fictional account in which Lloyd Bridges, masquerading as a Canadian, leads our Commandos to victory, naturally *yawn*

The usual wartime ensemble is all present and correct here; Trevor Howard as the ship's once disgraced captain and Richard Attenborough as a cheeky Jack Tar and former Trade Union steward, alongside Bernard Lee and James Donald, whilst an amiable Sonny Tufts stars as the token Yankee lummox unable to sit back in safety as Europe went to war. Also in the solid cast are many familiar faces including Robin Bailey, Dora Bryan, Sid James, William Russell, Glyn Houston and Harry Towb.

The Gift Horse isn't really striking enough to go down in history as a classic of the genre but its heart is clearly in the right place and there's some strong poignant moments that make it memorable enough and easily watchable.

Those fabulous cast portraits by Eric Gray of Attenborough, Howard, Lee, Donald and Bailey were found on Ebay, where they are for sale from this seller here

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