The saying is that one should not look a gift horse in the mouth, and five years into the Second World War it is certainly not the policy of the British Admiralty to do so when fifty destroyers are transferred from the United States Navy to the beleaguered Royal Navy, desperately in need of support vessels to offer protection to the cargo ships threatened by German U-Boats on the high seas.
Formerly the USS Whittier, the rechristened HMS Ballantrae is placed under the command of Lieutenant Commander Hugh Algernon Fraser and a complement of a hundred men, only a handful of whom have ever been to sea before, finding themselves aboard a less than ship-shape vessel of which it is only half-jokingly said “Every time she hits a wave she springs a new leak,” every man and every ship called to serve in the war effort.
Directed by Compton Bennet from a script by William Fairchild, Hugh Hastings and William Rose, Gift Horse was based in part on the assault on St Nazaire by the HMS Campbeltown in March 1942, a high-risk one-way mission to disable the Normandie dry dock at the mouth of the Loire in occupied France with the ship packed with explosives, Operation Chariot here renamed Operation Boadicea in the same way the film itself was renamed Glory at Sea for the American market.
Originally released in 1952 and now restored as part of StudioCanals’ Vintage Classics range, Gift Horse boasts a considerable ensemble cast led by The Cockleshell Heroes‘ Trevor Howard as Fraser and Quatermass and the Pit‘s James Donald as first officer Lieutenant Richard Jennings with supporting roles for Richard Attenborough, Bernard Lee, Sid James and even “Russell Enoch,” an actor who would later adopt the name William Russell before finding fame as one of the original travellers in the TARDIS.
With many characters to juggle and a loose narrative which only finds focus in the final act, Gift Horse may be an accurate representation of life on the sea but it is not dramatic, with little sense of danger or urgency; there are deaths which occur offscreen which the crew face with stoic reserve, only Joan Rice’s cypher officer showing emotion as she turns her face from her husband, dutifully withholding classified information that his ship will not be returning to port, while at a board of inquiry the three presiding officers puff on cigarettes as they pass judgement.
The stock footage largely drawn from manoeuvres rather than action, the special effects of the final assault are adequate for a modestly budgeted British picture of the period, and the new release is supported by an interview with military historian James Dorrian who provides context of “the greatest raid in World War II” and a Gaumont British News reel from the archives of the dedication of a monument on the fifth anniversary of Operation Chariot.