John C. Champion and his studio, Oakmont Production, aren't exactly synonymous with classic World War II movies. But over a period of just three years, the studio produced six war movies that are far from classics but still are pretty entertaining -- and pretty bad in some cases -- in their low budget charm. I didn't even realize they were connected having seen and reviewed four of the six, but there's a change, and here we go with the fifth, 1968's Attack on the Iron Coast.
It's 1942, and Canadian commando Major Jamie Wilson (Lloyd Bridges) is still struggling with a past mission that haunts him. Leading a dangerous commando raid, his unit suffered extreme casualties, the mission a complete failure, but now he's being offered a second chance and he intends to make this one work. It is called Operation Mad Dog, it's ultimate goal to knock out a key German dock at Le Clare, a harbor used for servicing havoc-wreaking German battleships. The plan seems doomed to failure -- a destroyer loaded with explosives and commandos will actually ram the dock -- and it isn't helped by a Naval commander, Capt. Franklin (Andrew Keir), who holds a grudge against Wilson for his past failure. Can Wilson put that failure behind him, leading a successful mission despite countless things working against him?
From director Paul Wendkos, 'Iron' is actually the first of the six movies Champion's studio produced that included Submarine X-1 (pretty bad), Hell Boats (pretty decent), Mosquito Squadron (pretty average), The Last Escape (another pretty decent), and The Thousand Plane Raid (the lone flick I haven't seen/reviewed). Made on the cheap, they were low budget war flicks intended for a double feature, usually featuring an American lead in a primarily British cast. They aren't classic, and their budget limitations are pretty evident throughout. No all star casts, no groundbreaking storytelling techniques. When they're bad, they're pretty bad. But when handled correctly, they do what a good B-movie should do...entertain. So while 'Iron' can be a tad generic, and there's issues with the budget and cast, it succeeds because quite simply, I was entertained, especially in the finale.
Playing on a familiar genre convention, 'Iron' manages to make the most of it; two rivals battling each other and deciding if they can put their differences aside to pull off an impossible mission. So where this flick lacks star power in Bridges and Keir, it makes up for it with two worthwhile, very solid performances from the duo. Never a huge star, Bridges is highly effective as Wilson, an experienced, very capable commando officer who struggles with past demons. He's looking out for his men, pushing them as hard as he can so they'll be ready while also pushing his superiors to green light the mission and give him the supplies they need. Keir too is equally effective, a similarly experienced Naval officer who blames Wilson for his son's death in the previously doomed mission. Their rivalry feels real, not forced, and I liked their heated dynamic throughout.
Now, yes, there are flaws. The budget is pretty limiting at times. We're not talking about hundreds of extras and lavish sets. Things are kept on the small-scale here. With one exception -- a cool scene with Wilson's ships sailing up the Thames -- all the "scenes at seas" are some badly done miniature scenes. Just painfully obvious stuff. The first 30 minutes are a tad slow, but they do pick up the pace once the mission gets underway. As for the story, the portrayal leans toward the stereotypical at times, especially of the unknowing Germans waiting in Le Clare, portrayed by familiar faces Walter Gotell and George Mikell. Not their fault, but still. Upon hearing a British minesweeper is in the area, they laugh it off and continue on with the dirty movie they're watching. Seriously, they're watching porn as a group. Second, in their next scene together, they complain about how they have to eat all the rich French food available. Stereotypically cliched doesn't begin to describe these scenes.
While the budget keeps the action in the background, when it does make its appearance, it is worthwhile. The actual logistics of the mission seems suicidal to say the least, logically flawed a bit. That said, the actual mission is a great action set piece, the Canadian commandos making their way through the darkened streets and alleys of Le Clare, the Germans trying to mount a defense of some sort. The mission doesn't go quite as planned, forcing Wilson to improvise on the fly. It is an ending that doesn't need an army of extras to be effective. The focus on the chaos of the battle, the nighttime setting, it all works well toward a surprising ending. Good not great, but it isn't trying to be great. It's just a good war movie.
Attack on the Iron Coast (1968): ***/****