The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Hell Boats

So originality is overrated, don't you think? First released in 1962, The Guns of Navarone has a team of commandos attempting to blow up two immense German guns stationed in an impregnable fortress. It's a classic, still remembered fondly almost 50 years later. I realize not all ideas are winners, but 1970's Hell Boats takes that basic premise and runs with it. Okay, it's a little different....there are boats.

Recovering from a serious wound, Lt. Commander Jeffords (James Franciscus) has received orders for a new posting. It's 1942 as he's sent to under-siege Malta where he's place under the command of ineffectual Commander Ashurst (Ronald Allen). An American volunteer fighting for the British, Jeffords is given a possibly suicidal mission. A port in Sicily houses a warehouse loaded with radio glider bombs that are wreaking havoc on Allied shipping convoys. Given a small, ill-equipped flotilla of motor torpedo boats, Jeffords starts to plan the mission with the help of Chief Petty Officer Yacov (Reuven Bar-Yotam). The mission seems suicidal, a warehouse heavily guarded by water and impossible to reach by land. What can they even hope to accomplish?

World War II movies based in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East are few and far between so you've got to enjoy them when you get a chance. Almost a forgotten theater of the war, there's a black market, shady feeling to the fighting, soldiers thousands of miles from the more major conflicts. Director Paul Wendkos handles his story in a workmanlike fashion. 'Boats' was filmed in Malta and is a visual stunner to watch, a city that looks much the same way it did thousands of years ago. In an unobtrusive way, I liked composer Frank Cordell's score, quieter than many war scores but appropriate and even surprisingly moving at times.

Visiting the cliched character department, 'Boats' goes back for seconds. A B-movie star through the 1960s and 1970s, Franciscus is solid if unspectacular as Jeffords, an American sailor/officer fighting for the British. He can be a tad on the wooden side at times, but Jeffords is a driven, very capable officer, helping make up for some flaws. Bar-Yotam (better known as 'Schlomo' from a classic Seinfeld episode) is underused as Yacov, the loyal and brutally efficient right hand man. Allen is good when given the chance as the commander trying to prove himself and his ability to his questioning men. Some of Jeffords' men include Barlow (Mark Hawkins), a young officer who questions Jeffords' orders, and Drewe Henley and Inigo Jackson.

Can you feel it coming? Here come the negatives! Let's start with the biggie. A story about soldiers in WWII on a near-suicidal mission sounds interesting enough to me, don't you think? Nope, apparently not enough here. Enter stage left...the love triangle! Jeffords meet Alison (Elizabeth Shepherd) and is instantly drawn to her only to discover she's the wife of his commander, Ashurst. Oh no! It's a broken, falling apart marriage, but it's still a marriage. So basically we're introduced to this potentially very cool mission, and then get a door slammed in your face. Oh, interested in commandos and behind the lines action? Nah, that's boring. Let's watch one woman choose between two men. "Yeah," can't wait for more of that.

This is a lower-budget B-movie so it has its other flaws, at least ones not based in love triangles (my favorite plot device of all time). German soldiers stand idly by while their comrades are gunned down -- Franciscus never reloading his machine gun as he fires 800 rounds -- only to be shot down themselves when flanked. As part of their plan to get into the heavily guarded harbor, the Brits "steal" a German E-boat in the most convoluted of fashions, seemingly forgetting they steal it for about 20 minutes after. The Trojan Horse technique to sneak into the harbor seems ridiculously stupid to me, but what do I know? Apparently German soldiers were semi-mentally handicapped when realizing they're being duped.

So here I sit reviewing a movie that really wasn't that good yet I found myself enjoying it. I can chalk most of that up to the action. A behind the lines mission into the harbor and the city with Jeffords, Yacov, an MI6 agent (Takis Emmanuel, one of Michael Caine's commandos in Play Dirty) and his beautiful assistant (Magda Konopka) is simple and straightforward, a small team risking death around every corner. The final assault and mission on the rock fortress in the dead of night is similarly exciting with some surprising reveals as to who survives and who doesn't.  It's an entertaining, unpretentious little WWII action flick. That's all. Nothing more, nothing less, and you can certainly do worse.

Hell Boats <---Credits/Opening sequence (1970): ** 1/2 /****

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