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  Gift Horse Action In The Atlantic
Year: 1952
Director: Compton Bennett
Stars: Trevor Howard, Richard Attenborough, Sonny Tufts, James Donald, Bernard Lee, Dora Bryan, Hugh Williams, Robin Bailey, Meredith Edwards, John Forrest, Patric Doonan, Sid James, James Kenney, Charles Lloyd Pack, Harold Ayer, William Russell, Joan Rice
Genre: WarBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: In 1940, before the United States had entered the Second World War, they came to an arrangement with the British Navy that they would allow the use of fifty of their warships to fight the Nazis, a generous offer adopted by the Brits, but maybe not as generous as they thought when they saw the state of the ships they were being given. One of these was renamed the HMS Ballantrae, and its Lieutenant Commander was Fraser (Trevor Howard) a tough but fair type who wanted the vessel to be at its optimum no matter what it had been like before he and his crew had come aboard. But it would take some doing...

There really was a ship as depicted in this film, but was based on the HMS Campbelltown, with the characters fictionalised all the better for the seafaring drama that ensued, a common practice in war movies of the day, not only the Navy-based ones, either. And what a lot of war movies there were as the British film industry sought to remind audiences what they had been fighting for, and how this was a national glory and not a global tragedy that had claimed millions of lives. Everyone in 1952 would have known someone affected by the conflict, and this shared experience of reliving it in film form was an important experience.

Communally speaking, at least, though even the minor war pictures were pretty much guaranteed an audience. Gift Horse - the nickname given to the ship by its sailors, as in not looking it in the mouth - was by no means the highest profile of these efforts, indeed for many it is about as obscure as the operation that is restaged for the grand finale, which is largely only known about by the most dedicated of military historians. Yet this was a decade, the nineteen-fifties, where any battle exploit was fair game for cinematic recreation, and though this came fairly early in the run, it is clear they were digging deep to uncover the most interesting heroism they could.

It was all grist to a mill that proved ravenous in its search for content, and because its adventures were similar to other, better known war movies, and actually had a cast that could be seen elsewhere doing much the same and just as well, it's possible to argue a case for Gift Horse and that it might have been overlooked along the way. Certainly, it's a work of utmost professionalism, with as much of the real ship they used for the filming seen as possible for the maximum authenticity, and even the use of miniatures for the big operation at the French harbour at the end held a charm that did not necessarily take you out of the movie, as may have been the case with dodgy CGI seen in a twenty-first century item.

The cast included Richard Attenborough as his usual low ranking man of the people, here on the lower decks by making an impression and a nice double act with Bernard Lee, providing some of the comedy but also some of the heart. It was as tough a story as they were prepared to make it, so when Howard's teenage son is introduced as a character and lets it be known he is joining the Navy just like dear old dad, you may sense a feeling of impending doom. But then, none of the main players escape the horrors and losses of the war, including American import Sonny Tufts who had already become the butt of many a joke as a terrible actor (he has a whole chapter of The Golden Turkey Awards devoted to him) but here demonstrated he at least had some talent, and doesn't embarrass himself too badly. Yes, it was all very dutifully portrayed, as if this was a national matter that needed to be addressed, but fans of the military movies would find it most appealing. Music by Clifton Parker.

[The StudioCanal Blu-ray and DVD of the newly restored version of GIFT HORSE is released Monday, April 4 2022.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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