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Blu-ray Review

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The Cockleshell Heroes (1955)


Starring: José Ferrer, Trevor Howard and Christopher Lee
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £15.99


Certificate: U
Release Date: 15 July 2019

The 1950s saw a collection of wartime mission films produced on both sides of the pond, highlighting a branch of service and/or theater of operation, sometimes based on true incidents and real personalities. The Cockleshell Heroes is probably one of the most profound examples of the genre.

In 1942 the war was going badly for everyone on the Allied front. German submarines were sharking with Teutonic impunity in sight of the Statue of Liberty off the New York coast and the Reich was knocking at Britain’s front door, supplied by ships docked just across the Channel in French harbours. For political reasons air bombardment was not possible. Relying more on ingenuity and guts, which is all Britain really had, (see Anthony Cave Brown’s masterwork volume of WWII history, Bodyguard of Lies to drive this point home forever) a plan was approved by Lord Mountbatten to send a fleet of two-man Royal Marine crews in canoes (yes, canoes, more actually kayaks) past swarming Nazi security on the French coast, up the La Gironde River to place limpet mines on the hulls of ships in the Bordeaux harbour.

At the premier, The Duke of Edinburgh reminded the filmmakers that this was not only about blasting standard supply ships but specifically those carrying state of art German RADAR equipment. A reshoot was hastily scheduled to include this and bragging rights added to the movie’s publicity lore about financial pains taken to do justice to this impossible mission born out of desperate times.

One of the many clock ticks of Britain’s ‘finest hour’, this mission is still commemorated proudly and deservedly so.

It was a suicide mission. Each duo of ‘canoe commandos’, paddling a kayak packed with limpet mines and one ‘Little Nell’ bomb to use when things went all to hell. José Ferrer as mission leader Geoffrey Stringer tells his men Little Nell is not a suicide last resort, they’ll have fifteen seconds to get clear before it goes off.

God save the King. God doesn’t save many of these Royal Marines, in fact only two.

José Ferrer was an unusual choice to star in this film. An international star to give the film international legs, yes, but still a choice that struck many Brits as odd to play the leader of a crew of Royal Marines. If it had been another Hollywood star, say Alan Ladd or William Holden, to be rationalized as a Canadian, that would be understandable. At the zenith of his career on both stage and screen, (Cyrano de Bergerac, 1950; Moulin Rouge, 1952) Ferrer was also entrusted with directing. Friction arose immediately between Ferrer and Trevor Howard as Ferrer concocted scenes wherein he was the centre of attention. The informative lecture by film scholar Sheldon Hall (thank you, Eureka for this exclusive inclusion) tells how a covert second unit was assembled to secretly film other sequences unbeknownst to Ferrer and which, I think, very much enrich the film. I’m sure Trevor Howard and other members of the wonderful British cast of stock players thought so too.

From the first shot there is a curiously subliminal Jamais vu which reminds us of a future franchise yet unborn, composition of frame and multi-layered art direction and blocking foreground to background, that makes us think of… well, James Bond. Not at all accidental, this, considering one of the cinematographers is Ted Moore (with John Wilcox) and the hands on producer none other than Albert Broccoli. Broccoli would in time break with his then partner Irving Allen because he wanted to nail down the Ian Fleming rights. The rest, as they say, is showbusiness history. Moore would shoot seven Bonds for Broccoli and Cockleshell Heroes seems to be the testing ground where that bond was established.

There are shots that precog Bond in choreography and scene constituents. We see a large classically elegant room which engulfs two figures dwarfed at the end of a football field table. Bond and confreres like M would gather in spaces like this wherein Ferrer and Howard get smashingly drunk. The connotation of high court traditional vastness is of power and wealth, wordlessly delivered by crane and dolly. Moore is at home in the Cinemascope universe, even indoors, which in 1955 was often not true for DPs, making some of those movies almost painful to watch.

In general, suicide mission war movies are sombre. This one is downright jaunty, jolly and laugh out loud funny in its first half, the assembling and training of the cockleshell crew (most notably Anthony Newley). We are unavoidably reminded of the later venerable structure of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) which no doubt drew inspiration from Heroes and its much volleyed script written by master craftsmen, Bryan Forbes and Richard Maibaum. Not bad for a film from the fifties that makes us think of a half century of Bond and one of the most successful Lee Marvin war films of all eternity. It’s the Broccoli signature.

The pace never slackens, always cutting to something new. In the first half, to laugh about, in the last half, to dread. John Ford always said the secret of involving drama was to dance between the muse masque that laughs to the one who cries, then back again. The pendulum swing defies disbelief, immersing the viewer in active involvement.

Eureka’s 1080p remaster is sumptuous, even to the point of revealing too well the miniature enemy ships blowing up, in the miniature Bordeaux harbour. There is one breath-taking scene though, that is not miniature. The idiosyncratic canoe commandos are finally sent out on the real mission. Behind them is a giant Royal Navy Man O’ War sailing ship in historical display at the docks. The Heroes cross to the other side of the dock where modern day British Navy ships are buzzing with activity. The then-and-now vision passes in a heartbeat but is unforgettable. Like so many other moments in The Cockleshell Heroes.


John Huff

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