Review: The Sea Wolves

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Time was when people talked (pretty foolishly) about Andrew V. McLaglen as heir to the mantle of John Ford, and the name of Howard Hawks has been known to surface as a reference point, too. The Sea Wolves, however, demonstrates an affinity with the world of British hackdom, with J. Lee Thompson and Terence Young at their ropiest. Remove from the film a dash of sex and one naughty cussword (“shit”, exclaimed twice) and you have a movie that could have been made 30 years ago. A successor to action-packed yawn-provokers such as Young’s The Red Beret (American title: Paratrooper) or Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone, it finds room for more cliches than any war film since Where Eagles Dare; but unlike that film, it lacks any sense of redeeming self-mockery. Its gall stimulates first a sort of glazed disbelief, then a kind of punch-drunk regression to the cinemagoing attitudes of one’s childhood, so that the sheer ineptitude of the film on all kinds of levels becomes almost soothing. Certainly it hands us a large number of unintended laughs, though one has to wait until the end credits for the richest, when card after card iterates desperately that what we’ve just seen was a true story, when no child over ten will believe that a single frame of it. Just to rub it in, three of the actors get their photos juxtaposed with those of the  dissimilar real-life people they portray.

The plot has a German ship resting in neutral Goa in 1943, snugly concealing a transmitter which must be destroyed if a lot of Allied shipping is to be saved from the U-boats. Because of the tricky diplomatic situation, amateurs are called in by Intelligence colonel Gregory Peck: a bunch of gone-to-seed business types and ex-soldiers, all headed towards old-age-pensioner status but just itching for a scrap. Naturally, these old buffers have enough vim to scupper the foe without causing any rupture of Goan neutrality. Well, it might have made a stirring tale, but McLaglen and screenwriter Reginald Rose – once thought of, quaintly enough, as a social realist – ruin every chance. Who would have thought that, in 1980, we’d see a film where the hero advances an idea, his superior dismisses it as poppycock, and a subordinate promptly exclaims, in all seriousness, that the barmy notion just might work?

The idea of old men fighting a young man’s war is unusual, so this film summarily undercuts it by casting everyone (except the girl) as older than we might expect. The photo of the Peck character’s real-life prototype shows us someone who’s not only wholly unlike the star and of a different nationality, but also about three decades younger. The juvenile lead is 52-year-old Roger Moore. On top of that, the film relentlessly insults several of its elderly actors, the camera staring unblinkingly at sagging chins and drooping eyelids and wattled countenances whilst the likes of David Niven and Trevor Howard blearily and sadly lampoon their screen personae of long ago in boring supporting parts. There is no end to heartless jokes about tiredness, obesity, physical weakness, seasickness, running out of breath, and so on. Nor does McLaglen’s much-noted skill as a director of action display itself. The finale offers us several of the heroes we’ve quite reasonably assumed to be dead (having seen them receive a few rounds from machine guns at point-blank range) merely tugging at lightly bloodstained sleeves and making stiff-upper-lipped wisecracks. Earlier, two assassins burst in on Roger Moore and, instead of getting on with the job of killing him, pause to allow him to lob a lamp at one and dive for cover, something he manages without difficulty since the killer remaining on his feet obligingly squeezes off three shots at the long-since-vacated settee instead of at the bulky Britisher.

Practically the only “new” idea is that Peck, instead of being passed off as Canadian or as an American on an exchange-of-officers assignment, plays an Englishman, which he does by affecting a languid drawl for every word with an a in it. However, the film does give a chance of sorts to the gorgeous Barbara Kellerman, who looks less appealing than she did in TV’s The Glittering Prizes, but is still plenty sexy; she brings enough gusto to the dreadful part of the beautiful German spy who may or may not be in love with Moore (even as she prepares to knife him) that one hopes for better things from her in the future.

© 1981 Pierre Greenfield

THE SEA WOLVES
Direction: Andrew V. McLaglen. Screenplay: Reginald Rose, after the book Boarding Party by James Leasor. Cinematography: Tony Imi. Production design: Syd Cain. Editing: John Glen. Music: Roy Budd, Richard Addinsell. Production: Euan Lloyd.
The players: Gregory Peck, Roger Moore, David Niven, Trevor Howard, Barbara Kellerman, Patrick Macnee, Kenneth Griffith, Wolf Kahler, Robert Hoffman, John Standing, Michael Medwin, Donald Houston, Patrick Allen, Marc Zuber, Moray Watson, Faith Brook, George Mikell.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.