The year is 1942, and Britain's Royal Marines are a vital part of the war effort against the Nazis, so when a proposal to use a small number of them in a team to attack the German cargo ships inland in France is brought up, a leader is needed. Major Geoffrey Stringer (José Ferrer) is the man in question, and despite a rather unconventional approach to leadership that rankles the top brass, he sets about assembling the ten men who will use canoes to travel up the rivers to the port where their targets lie. But Stringer is working in conjunction with Captain Hugh Thompson (Trevor Howard), and thanks to their differing views on command, they don't get along at all…
Operation Frankton was the endeavour this portrayed, a costly one for the men involved but as a tale of derring-do, irresistible for the movie producers casting around for material to boost the ever-growing number of British war films that were sprouting up in cinemas across the land, as the genre became a national obsession thanks to the population wishing to be reminded of when Britain was Great during Their Finest Hour. In the nineteen-fifties, it was looking on increasingly shaky ground, and when this was made the Suez Crisis was just around the corner which fast made the country's role as a world leading superpower look decidedly past it. So thank goodness for efforts like this.
It was as if the influence of Britain on the world stage was being chipped away, so to compensate the movie industry went into overdrive to convince the public that everything was fine, really, honest it was. Therefore it was to no one's surprise that The Cockleshell Heroes was a huge success, precisely the tonic audiences needed as rationing continued to bite, reminding them this was what it was all for, and as an overview it could be regarded as a major part of why the men on a mission movie was so established as a fixture of the war entertainment. It was by no means the first, for instance Errol Flynn had been leading a charge in Objective, Burma! back in the forties.
But that film had been controversial in the United Kingdom for presenting its particular mission as a purely American exercise, much as Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan neglected to mention it was more than just the Americans who were on the beaches on D-Day decades later - but that was a men on a mission picture too, demonstrating how these things were unlikely to ever fall out of fashion completely. The Cockleshell Heroes followed such a familiar pattern that the only aspect you would not be entirely certain of was which of the ten Marines would survive by the time the end credits rolled. Everything else was almost comically hackneyed, even by the stage this was released in 1955, material that war comics and magazines were finding to be their bread and butter, and there was a pulpy tone here.
It started with a jokey mood as the "volunteers" were whipped into shape, and included such famous faces as Anthony Newley, about to embark on his highly individual career as song and dance man and songwriter, Victor Maddern, a familiar character actor, as was David Lodge, who considered this film his favourite, which explains why he would often bring it up as a running joke on his friend Spike Milligan's bizarre sketch comedy TV shows - "I woz in Cockleshell Heroes, y'know..." Oddly, Dora Bryan was third billed, playing Newley's aggravated girlfriend, but only appeared in the story for a couple of minutes. Once the military humour had everyone relaxed and aware of what they were in for, the mood gradually changed to more serious as the potentially deadly consequences of such a dangerous quest sunk in, but the previous comedy had left us feeling good about these men even when their lives were coming to an end. An early project from James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli, it was a very easy watch, nothing stunning, but Howard was rightly highlighted as the best performance, grounding what was a romp till the last minutes. Music by John Addison.
[Eureka have released this on Blu-ray in a restored version, and it looks and sounds pretty crisp. There are subtitles and a featurette as extras.]