In the midst of the Second World War, German submarines are sinking thousands of tons of British merchant shipping. Colonel Lewis Gordon Pugh (Gregory Peck) and Captain Gavin Stewart (Roger Moore) of British intelligence suspect information is being passed to Nazi U-Boats via a radio transmitter hidden aboard one of three German ships interned in Portuguese Goa. Since Portugal is neutral, a military strike is out of the question, but Colonel Pugh recruits his old friend, retired Colonel W.H. Grice (David Niven) and a group of ageing British expatriates to carry out “Operation Boarding Party”. They’re brave and willing, but are these old boys up to the task?
The Sea Wolves is another of those WW2 adventure yarns that sound utterly unlikely till you discover it was based on a true story. Whereupon incredulity turns into admiration. Following the success of his earlier geriatric mission impossible, The Wild Geese (1978), producer Euan Lloyd reunited much of the same cast and crew, including screenwriter Reginald Rose, production designer Syd Cain, composer Roy Budd, actors Roger Moore and Kenneth Griffith - only marginally less camp this time round - and director Andrew V. McLaglen.
McLaglen’s pedestrian direction turns this outlandish tale into something fairly ordinary, though not without entertainment value. As in The Wild Geese, this swiftly establishes its premise then dawdles through wryly humorous scenes where its doddery heroes struggle to get into shape and pads the action with unnecessary sub-plots, before McLaglen finally cranks the suspense up a notch for the ship-storming climax. It is uncertain whether the real Gavin Stewart had a tragic romance with widowed agent Mrs. Cromwell (Barbara Kellerman), but here it certainly feels like a superfluous subplot. Roger Moore plays to his 007 image as a suave womaniser but comes across rather smarmy.
However, those old pros Gregory Peck and David Niven breeze through the movie with their customary panache. Reunited from their classic The Guns of Navarone (1961), it’s great fun seeing them machinegun Nazis again. Poor Trevor Howard draws the short straw as the elderly businessman who begs Pugh for a chance to be a hero, then blows it with fatal results. But Patrick Macnee is put to better use and rather wonderful as meditation and yoga enthusiast Major “Yogi” Crossley. Most of the charm derives from seeing these eccentric old gents triumph against the odds, but unlike the protagonists the film shows its age and should have had some of their vigour.