On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me – ten cockleshell heroes a kayaking
“The Cockleshell Heroes” is the story of Operation Frankton from WWII. The operation was a famous British commando raid on the port of Bordeaux in 1942. The canoes the Royal Marines used were codenamed “cockles” to attempt to place mines on ships in the port. The film fits comfortably into the suicide mission subgenre. In fact, the mission is borderline insane and yet based on an actual mission. You have to admire those British balls. It was directed by Jose Ferrer, who also stars in it. He walked out on the film when the producer added some humor to the script. The movie was a box office success and is considered a classic.
Maj. Stringer (Ferrer) has a plan for an audacious raid on blockade runners at Bordeaux. He is a “team coach” and does not think the men need any of that silly hard-core training. Being a civilian in wolf's clothing, he has this quaint belief in democracy. His exec Capt. Thompson (Trevor Howard) is old school and their relationship is awkward. Thompson does not like temporary warriors who are glory-hounds. When the first practice mission is a flop, Stringer surprisingly agrees that Thompson was right and initiates a standard war movie training program that culminates with the obligatory bonding through brawling scene in a pub with some sailors.
They are transported to the French coast by submarine so why not throw in a depth charge scene? They are not in any real danger since the German depth charges explode on contact with the water. It does afford the opportunity for one of the men to get a concussion so the desk-bound Thompson can go on the mission. They launch in broad daylight. 10 men in 5 cockles. One of the canoes flounders and the crew are captured. And now there are eight. The Germans give them a questionnaire to fill out. Damned Nazis! The remaining eight hide during the day, but leave before dark. (The lighting budget must not have been enough.) Since it is so light, one of the canoes is spotted and a sentry shoots a rower and his partner blows up the fake patrol boat. The crew of the third boat are caught, but blow up their pursuers to allow the rest to proceed. Sacrifice – a suicide mission staple. The last two canoes complete the mission in broad daylight. Only Stringer and his mate make it to Spain. The four captives are executed by firing squad.
The film is fairly accurate. It gets the basics right and does a service to the participants. However, it does jazz up the tale quite a bit. Stringer is based on Maj. Hasler who led the mission and served as a technical advisor. His exec Capt. Stewart did not go on the mission and I will assume (until I do my History or Hollywood research) that there was no personality and philosophy clash. The mission was not as exciting or suspenseful as the film, of course. There was no submarine episode. No Germans were killed by the intrepid Marines, so the patrol boat and pursuer scenes were faux. The planting of the mines was not as fraught with peril and did not have the explosive payoff the movie implies. In reality, several ships were damaged, but none seriously and the raid was not a game changer. The executions of the captives is true, although not timed with the explosions.
“The Cockleshell Heroes” is another cult movie that only cult members get. In my opinion, it is nothing special. In that respect, it reminds me of “The Devil’s Brigade”. Frankly, it lacks suspense and character development. Stringer and Thompson are developed, but the rest of the squad is cursorily handled. You get the class clown, the cuckolded husband, and the gruff trainer. Each has his moments, but we don’t really care about them. The acting is below average although Howard dominates his screen time (which apparently was expanded by the producer who felt Ferrer was hogging the camera). There is no scene chewing, thankfully. More distressingly, there is little action and what there is is poorly staged. And don’t accuse me of being a hypocrite – if you are going to jazz up the historical fiction, make it entertaining! I feel a documentary would be more entertaining.
Speaking of entertainment, one reason Ferrer was incensed with the rewrite was because humor was forced into the film. That humor is blatantly low brow which may have gone over well with British audiences in 1955, but is definitely dated now. There is also a sing-along that is barf-worthy. The movie is ridden with clichés. You even get the redemption arc with Thompson getting to overcome his career-stunting false accusation of cowardice in WWI. The interservice pub brawl (which is a bit rare for a British movie) is another example. Another trope is the defiant captives (who scrawl “Rule Brittania!” and “Drop dead!” on their questionnaires). At least the command clash does have a welcome twist to it.
Christmas stocking stuffer? I know I’m going to get lumps of coal from all its fans, but this movie is not very good. Hey, I like “The Secret Invasion” so I get the guilty pleasure vibe. This movie just did not float my cockle.
Grade = C-
P.S. Check out the babe in the poster. In truth, this movie has no prominent female roles.