Following closely in the wake of Gift Horse comes another classic of British war cinema from StudioCanal, The Silent Enemy of 1958, again inspired by a true story though one which occurred principally beneath the waves, focused on the 1941 posting of pioneering Royal Navy frogman Lieutenant-Commander Lionel “Buster” Crabb to Gibraltar where he served as an underwater mine disposal expert.
Starring Walk on the Wild Side’s Laurence Harvey as Crabb and Mysterious Island’s Michael Craig as Leading Seaman Knowles who first trains him in the scuba gear they will use to protect Allied ships from sabotage attempts, the enemy are more experienced and better equipped, using manned torpedoes called “chariots” with which they have already severely damaged the battleships HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Valiant at port in Alexandria.
Presumed to be operating from Algeciras in neutral Spain and led by the Italian diver Tomolino (Arnoldo Foà), Crabb and his team of new recruits, whipped into shape with the assistance of Carry On regular Sid James as Chief Petty Officer Thorpe, must ascertain how their opposite numbers are able to cross the Bay of Gibraltar unseen without causing a diplomatic incident on neutral territory.
Adapted from the book Commander Crabb by Marshall Pugh and directed by The Four Just Men‘s William Fairchild who also wrote the screenplay for Gift Horse, The Silent Enemy is superior to Fairchild’s previous naval wartime adventure in every appreciable way, with a stronger narrative better structured and filmed on suitable locations in Malta and Gibraltar making it less reliant on cobbled-together stock footage.
The restored print showcasing the clarity of the underwater photography, Harvey undertaking much of the diving work himself, the bleached-haired and tanned leading man and James are an unlikely double act but obviously enjoying themselves, and with underwater espionage and secret papers on downed planes on the seabed the film is also credited as an inspiration for the 1961 James Bond novel Thunderball and its subsequent 1965 film adaptation.
The new edition of The Silent Enemy featuring a stills gallery and a 1956 British Pathé newsreel on the disappearance of Commander Crabb in April 1956, novelist Tim Binding offers an informative insight into the story of the man behind the movie, largely recounting the deviations from historical fact in the film but most interesting in the post-war events leading up to Crabb’s presumed death, possibly on assignment for the British Secret Service but with all knowledge denied by the government, Binding’s own fictionalised version Man Overboard taking its lead from contemporary speculation of an attempted defection.
The Silent Enemy will be released on DVD and Blu-ray by StudioCanal on Monday 11th April