This wartime film has some strange oddities that make stand out from many others, but many other elements that give it appeal today. But what are they?
Was is the fact that it was co-produced by Cubby Broccoli, the man who would go on to produce the James Bond films? Was it that it featured several early on screen appearances for actors like Christopher Lee, or one of the first adult roles for Anthony Newley? Or was it because this film ended up being a running gag for David Lodge when he ended up starring in Spike Milligan’s sketch show Q?
Not sure? Well in this new Blu-Ray release we can see for ourselves if this film is still as entertaining as it was at the time. When released in 1955 it was one of the biggest box office draws in Britain. War films were clearly popular at the time, as demonstrated by the fact that one of the few movies to have pulled in larger audiences that year was The Dam Busters.
A newly promoted Royal Marine major, Stringer (Jose Ferrer, who also directs the film) proposes a raid using collapsible canoes. The plan is to send five 2-man teams into Bordeaux in order to plant mines on German ships. The second-in-command, Captain Thompson (Trevor Howard) disapproves of the idea, and comes into conflict with Stringer partly because the Major is senior in terms of rank, but the Captain is senior in terms of his length of service in the forces.
Decent candidates for the job are hard to find, but eventually eight marines are found to have the right stuff for the mission – having successfully passed a test which involves dressing up as Germans, being parachuted in the north of England and successfully returning to their barracks without being captured. This sequence is the first of the more comic moments in The Cockleshell Heroes.
Job well done you might be thinking, but a shambolic test run of what becomes known as “Operation Cockleshell” (based on the real-life Operation Frankton) demonstrates that both Stringer and his troops are far from perfect, so harder training is needed. Eventually, the time comes for them to make the dangerous trip to France.
Under the direction of Ferrer, the film was in danger in becoming purely focused on the lead actor. Eventually, separate sequences had to be made in secret without the star so that the other actors could get some screen time.
Paying the price for this might be a lack of historical accuracy. Obvious changes to things like the names of characters is understandable given that many lives were lost during the operation, but it is worth noting that the real-life commanding officer, Herbert Hasler, who is credited in the film, did not attend the premier. The Duke of Edinburgh however, was in attendance, and he was able to point out certain missing elements, which were then added to the movie later.
Over the course of the film one of the notable aspects is the use of comedy. While The Cockleshell Heroes isn’t a comedy film, there are several funny scenes that appear throughout. This includes one scene where the marines are training in a swimming pool, learning how to plant a limpet mine on the enemy ships, which is then armed, and they have to run off to get rid of the mine before it blows themselves up, meaning they have to run around the barracks in only their swimming trunks. But let’s not forget that the main story concerns the horrors of war.
Working in the middle of occupied France, the heroes face problems as soon as they reach the shore. Like in the original operation, most of the men didn’t make it back safe and sound. It is once we witness the operation unfold that we finally get to experience what makes the film stand out. This is a story that is both joyous and tragic.
Sadness and happiness are both strong elements of The Cockleshell Heroes. However, the comic tone of the film might be why it is less respected than The Dam Busters, which is more stirring and seems to have greater reverence for the people involved. The Cockleshell Heroes is also made in colour which perhaps heightens the mood more than the black-and-white Dam Busters.
Dwelling on some other aspects of this particular release, the Blu-Ray does show the film off in high quality. Aside from subtitles however, the only extra in the release is a half-hour long interview with film historian Sheldon Hall, which is still pleasantly informative.
I’m going to admit that the main reason I decided to cover this movie is because of its bizarre comedy connection: namely that David Lodge constantly referred to his role in the movie when he was in Spike Milligan’s Q series, but it was fun to see a movie that I had heard a lot about but had never actually seen before. OK, it’s not the greatest war film, but it is still entertaining in its own way.
Leaving aside certain elements such as historical inaccuracy and the ego of the lead actor, The Cockleshell Heroes is still a pleasant enough watch.
The Cockleshell Heroes is released by Eureka Entertainment on 15th July.