Eureka Classics continue their programme of restorations of British war movies following on from their earlier releases of 1960’s Sink the Bismarck! and 1967’s The Night of the Generals with a delve deeper into the archive, The Cockleshell Heroes, directed by and starring José Ferrer and originally released in November 1955.
Inspired by a genuine mission of the Second World War, Operation Frankton of December 1942, in common with another film of the era based on real events, I Was Monty’s Double from 1958, made only a decade after the end of the conflict The Cockleshell Heroes errs on the side of caution in its presentation of events, the tone one of heroism rather than the tragedy of the events.
Comforting to a post-war audience, the emphasis is on comedy rather than the mission to stage a commando raid on cargo ships docked in the supposed safety of the Nazi occupied French port of Bordeaux by means of a small strike force travelling upstream by canoe, the first two-thirds of the film devoted to slapstick shenanigans and musical interludes while training.
Leading the mission is Major Stringer (Ferrer), while assisting him is Captain Hugh Thompson (Brief Encounter‘s Trevor Howard), an older officer who has been stuck at his rank for eleven years, holding a desk position with little possibility for advancement and unimpressed by Stringer’s appointment and his methods which he regards as too lax.
The first training exercises to simulate the penetration into enemy territory a failure, Thompson makes his opinion clear: “I’m not accustomed to being associated with this kind of a mess. I want you to know that I’m thoroughly ashamed to be a member of your unit.” If the vital mission is to succeed, Stringer will have to adjust his approach.
Filmed in Technicolor and CinemaScope, the first independent British film to use the anamorphic widescreen process, Eureka’s presentation of The Cockleshell Heroes looks as fresh as when it was made sixty years ago, perhaps too good, with location filming in Portugal in spring a pleasant but unconvincing substitute for France in December, the marines taking refuge among blossoming dandelions and buttercups.
The Puerto Rican Ferrer an odd choice for the lead, this was presumably producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli’s awareness of the international market, but as Stringer he is aloof, too refined to convince, more suited to roles such as the Emperor Shaddam IV in Dune thirty years later, and as a director he leans too heavily on blind patriotism to carry the film.
Historian Sheldon Hall providing insight on the production and filming, apparently much of what Ferrer shot favoured his own character over the ensemble leading to reshoots to rebalance the film towards the rest of the cast which includes Anthony Newley, Peter Arne and Christopher Lee three years before his first appearance as Dracula, as well as John Van Eyssen who would play Harker in the same film..