Film Reviews

The Cockleshell Heroes (1955) – Blu-ray Review

War is hell. And war films based on true stories can be just as harrowing, in their own way. Just look at the example set by U-571, where the biggest atrocity wasn’t an act of war, but the way in which the Brits were written out of historical events which inspired the story. Truth really is the first casualty of war, or so it seems.

Eureka Classics has brought to Blu-ray a tale of wartime heroism and derring-do, The Cockleshell Heroes, which tells the real-life tale of Operation Frankton, a raid led by members of the Royal Marines who had rowed using collapsible canoes into Nazi-occupied France, with the aim of blowing up German ships docked in the ‘safe’ port to Bordeaux by using limpet mines. The ‘cockleshells’ of the title were the boats used by the Royal Marines who carried out the assault in enemy territory, and the film script was adapted from a 1951 account written for Reader’s Digest by George Kent.

Nowadays, we like (or, at least, have got used to) our war films being rather grim and gritty affairs. From Platoon and Full Metal Jacket to The Hurt Locker, there’s a modern expectation for entries in this particular genre not to shy away from the harsh realities of conflict and combat. It therefore comes as something of a shock to the system to see how just lighthearted The Cockleshell Heroes is, especially as it relates to real events and people, and it didn’t have the happiest of endings as far as the actual mission was concerned, due to the amount of sacrifice required.

It has a mostly jovial tone which, at first glance, might seem disrespectful to the Royal Marines who were lost during the raid. However, we have to remember at the time it was released back in 1955, it had only been ten until years since the end of World War II; rationing had only ended the previous summer, and many scars remained – both on the landscape, after the Blitz, and psychologically as a nation – following the impact of the war upon the country. As such, it was rather fresh in the collective memory, and not all of the wounds would have healed.

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As such, you can hardly blame makers of pictures set during the Second World War taking a lighter touch when addressing what happened during that period, as no-one would want to be confronted full-on with – or reminded starkly of – the reality of how awful it was. A bit of escapism was just what the nation needed to help boost its spirits, and give us heroes to cheer for, as well as villains to boo and hiss, and so films like The Cockleshell Heroes fit into the major healing process which was still going on, as part of a way of processing and dealing with the six years when war and death had come to our own doorstep.

The sheer levity of the picture still catches you off-guard, and it’s tempting to think of it as being what Inglourious Basterds would have felt like had it been made as an Ealing comedy, or if we’d had a ‘Carry OnSaving Private Ryan, as the comedy is rather broad at times; there’s one moment, for example, where one of the recruits lands face down in a cowpat during training. We also get to see a good old-fashioned pub brawl, along with one of the team getting permission from his superior officer to give his wife’s lover a damn good pasting, instead of taking him in when he tracks his subordinate down him after going AWOL to do the deed.

For the most part, the movie has a jaunty feel to it, reinforced by it using ‘A Life On The Ocean Wave’ throughout, including as accompaniment for the opening titles. As a British production, there’s certainly stiff upper lips aplenty in evidence, including a great performance by Trevor Howard as the second-in-command, who feels rather embittered after having been passed over for promotion repeatedly, only to find a new (as well as newly-promoted) broom has come in and leapfrogged him, due to his having devised the mission.

It actually comes as a surprise to see that this character – Major Stringer – is played by José Ferrer (who directed the film as well), as he stands out amongst what’s a predominantly British cast otherwise – it does make for interesting viewing, seeing him try to do a cut glass English accent, as it does tend to drift a little bit on occasion. His appearance does mean that we do get one of the all-time great eclectic cast lists – José Ferrer, Dora Bryan, Anthony Newley. and Christopher Lee. As roll calls go, that’s right up there, alongside Sextette, which featured Mae West, Timothy Dalton, Dom DeLuise, Tony Curtis, George Hamilton, Alice Cooper, and Walter Pidgeon.

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The first hour is all about the recruitment and training of the volunteers, as well as various hijinks and larks, before taking a more serious tone for the last 30 minutes, as the mission gets underway. The raid is tautly shot, and nicely builds the tension, as the recruits make their way to the port to plant the mines, as well as trying to get away safely afterwards. For anyone who happens to know the history behind the movie, they’ll be reassured the outcome hasn’t been sanitised or rewritten, and is fairly faithful to the course of events; the shift in tone for the mission drives home just how grave things are, and this gear change is definitely needed, in order to ensure the climax has the desired impact.

While to modern eyes, it might seem a tad lightweight or jingoistic, The Cockleshell Heroes perfectly encapsulates a period in our history where, as a country, we were still coming to terms with the full effect of the war and its aftermath. A classic of the genre, and immensely watchable for all, not just fans of war movies.

The Cockleshell Heroes is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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