Friday, 23 September 2016

The Silent Enemy (1958)


The Silent Enemy remains a somewhat low-key but very interesting war film, interesting primarily because of the influence it would subsequently have on future films, most notably those in the Bond franchise.


The film attempts to depict the life and wartime exploits of the legendary British frogman Lieutenant Lionel Crabb, R.N.V.R, known to all as 'Buster' Crabb. It was based on the biography Commander Crabb by Marshall Pugh and released on the wave of publicity and fascination that arose from Crabb's disappearance and likely death whilst secretly investigating the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze and its propeller design on Naval Intelligence orders in 1956.





The film opens with an incident from 1941, the Italian manned torpedo raid on Alexandria, which saw their frogmen plant limpet mines on the hull of two British battleships, attacking and disabling them. This was to be first strike in a concerted Italian effort against British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean and, in Spain, the Italian underwater expert Tomolino observes the British base in nearby Gibralter, planning their next move against a British convoy. Concerned by this new Italian tactic, the British navy assign bomb disposal expert Lionel Crabb to head up their response. Crabb quickly develops a flair for diving during this posting and begins to form a team of divers who can intercept the attacks from the Italians and defuse their bombs, as well as investigating the suspicious death of General Sikorski of the Polish Army, whose B-24 Liberator aircraft crashed in the waters off Gibraltar in 1943. Infiltrating a Spanish dock, Crabb and his team identify the torpedo-laden ship the Italians are planning to attack from and launch an unauthorised and pre-emptive strike against them, destroying the ship and foiling their plans. In recognition for his efforts during the war, Crabb was awarded the George Medal.

The real Crabb, photographed in Gibralter

Laurence Harvey as Crabb

Crabb may not be the well known name he once was (after all it is some sixty years since his mysterious disappearance in a Cold War incident that will not be revealed by official records until 2056) but he was unmistakably a true British hero. William Fairchild's film ought to stand on a par with Lewis Gilbert's biopic of ace flier Douglas Bader, Reach For The Sky, released two years prior to this, as both films try to get under the skin of what was clearly a very courageous, but also complex and eccentric breed of hero. Laurence Harvey's dark locks are dyed blonde for the role and he also wears a full naval beard to deliver one of his more memorable performances, coming off occasionally like a cross between James Robertson Justice, James Bond and Roger Moore's diving hero character ffoulkes from 1979's North Sea Hijack.


Which brings us neatly on to the question of inspiration. The lead character in North Sea Hijack is undoubtedly based on Crabb, whilst Ian Fleming was compelled to write the Bond novel Thunderball in both the wake of Crabb's disappearance and the release of this filmed biopic. The splendid underwater cinematography on display here from Otto Heller - including the underwater hand-to-hand battle scenes between British and Italian divers (which didn't actually happen) - is certainly a key influence on the similar underwater segments of Terence Young's subsequent adaptation of Fleming's novel, and indeed of other Bond film to feature similar scenarios that has followed.


It's not an historically accurate film, but it is an enjoyable one although a little slow moving. It boasts a fine supporting cast, including Michael Craig as Crabb's lifelong diving buddy, Sydney Knowles (who, before his death at the age of 90, claimed Crabb was killed by MI5, rather than the KGB, because of a desire to defect to Russia) and Harvey's friend and fellow South African Sid James, playing it mostly straight as Chief Petty Officer Thorpe. However, I believe it was this film that ended their friendship as James became angered by how fame had gone to Harvey's head by this point and the allegedly disgraceful attitude he took towards the crew during filming.

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