The summer of 1942, the war raging in Europe and Africa, Allied shipping is threatened by Luftwaffe forces based in the occupied Greek island of Rhodes; an all-out attack impractical, instead it is decided to send a small team of soldiers coordinating with Greek guides to penetrate behind enemy lines, make their way in two groups across the island to their objective where they will lay explosives, then rendezvous back at their point of arrival to be collected by submarine.
Led by Lieutenant David Graham, the operation is to run over two weeks in unfriendly territory without backup or the ability to resupply, the Mediterranean summer making it difficult to find water in the wild, and even if the objective is achieved it will announce their presence to enemy forces who will spend the following days hunting them, a bold and dangerous mission of no little daring with only a slender chance of success.
Inspired by Operation Anglo undertaken by the officers of the Special Boat Service including Lieutenant David Sutherland, later awarded the Military Cross for his part on the raid, his report served as the basis for Robert Westerby’s screenplay for They Who Dare, ironically taking its title from the motto of Special Air Service, “Who Dares Wins,” directed by Mutiny on the Bounty’s Lewis Milestone and released in early 1954.
Starring The Gentle Gunman’s Dirk Bogarde as Graham, Doctor Who’s William Russell Enoch as Lieutenant Poole and To the Devil a Daughter’s Denholm Elliot as Sergeant Corcoran, shot along the shores and through the mountains and villages of Cyprus and Malta They Who Dare occasionally looks magnificent but is hampered by technical limitations, obvious “day for night” footage cut with full dark, stock footage of rocky shores and crashing waves inserted as a background plate continuing unchanged as the foreground footage changes angle and at one point a peculiar rock painted on the frame, travelling across the frame as the camera pans.
This would not be so distracting were the film more engaging, but focused on the journey to the target airfields rather than the raid it is a long slog akin to a donkey going uphill on a mountain track, the bickering off the ill-disciplined men giving no sense of peril or the stakes of the mission; an understandably sanitised view of a war ended less than ten years before, the only moments of inspiration or insight are the foreshadowing of a glass of red wine spilled across the map and the rejoinder to the observation that all the Greek peasants have is “scenery and poverty” that where one of the British soldiers grew up there was only poverty.
Restored on Blu-ray as part of StudioCanal’s Vintage Classics collection, They Who Dare is accompanied by an interview with military historian Saul David who regards the film as “remarkably faithful” as he covers the history of the SBS and the SAS, later merged into a single force, the career of David Sutherland and the events of Operation Anglo as it actually happened from late August through to the middle of September of 1942.