Thursday, March 19, 2015

ANTIQUE or CLASSIC? Malta Story (1953)

                “Malta Story” is a British stiff upper lip film released in 1953 to laud the defense of Malta in WWII.  It was directed by Brian Hurst (“Their’s is the Glory”).   It was a hit in Great Britain.  The main character was loosely based on a legendary British recon pilot named Adrian Warburton.  The movie made extensive use of archival footage.

                The movie opens on the island of Malta in 1942.  The island is besieged by Axis forces in an attempt to either starve it into surrender or soften it up for a Crete style invasion.  A narrator calls it a “thorn in the side” of the Axis campaign to control the Mediterranean.  Flight Lieutenant Ross (Alec Guinness) arrives on the thorn on his way to some archeological work in Egypt and is “recruited” for reconnaissance work.  He arrives during one of the numerous bombing raids.  A map tutorial explains the strategic situation for us Yanks who have no idea of the significance of Malta in WWII.  Ross’ first mission establishes the personality trait of lone wolf / rule breaker.  He goes off the flight plan to photograph a railway and discovers a buildup of gliders for a potential invasion.  He gets chewed out by his typical war movie superior played by Jack Hawkins, of course.

                There is romance in the air as Ross meets the comely Maria during an air raid.  This gives the ladies something to pay attention to and allows coverage of civilian life on Malta.  It also opens the door to intrigue as Maria’s brother turns out to be a patriot or spy – depending on your perspective.  I think the British audience was expected to choose the second option. 
this is what a recon jock looks like
                The island relies on convoys for supplies.  Unfortunately, the Germans and Italians are not keen on letting them get through.  There is a good scene involving the S.S. Ohio pluckily withstanding a storm of steel.  Later, the tables are turned as the Brits go on the offensive against German convoys to succor the Afrika Korps.  The movie insists on using both defensive and offensive footage.  Meanwhile, Ross and Maria are planning their blissful future life in England after they both survive the war.  As though this is not ominous enough, Ross wants to have kids.  How do you say “dead meat” in Maltese?  Someone needs to track a crucial German convoy and radio coordinates in a suicidal way.  Will it be Maria or Ross that flies the mission?

                “Malta Story” seemed like a movie you would expect to find on one of the 50 WWII movies DVDs.  I was pleasantly surprised by how good it is.  It is definitely underrated.  This is mainly due to the cast and the footage.  Alec Guinness is his usual solid self and the rest of the cast is recognizably Brit war movie.  No one overacts.  The musical score is fitting and sets the moods well.  The romance is predictable, but not schmaltzy.  Throwing in the traitor brother was a nice touch and the mother’s reaction is interesting.  The movie eschews propaganda, although it certainly does not show any British warts.
"Ross, the screenwriter promises that if you recant
our conversation about marriage and kids, you can
survive this mission". 
                The real strength of the movie is the well done blending of the footage.  It is about as seamless as you could hope for.  You get to see a variety of classic WWII aircraft like Spitfires, Beaufighters, Beauforts, and Swordfish.  The Germans are represented by Me-109s and Ju-88s.  The movie is a must see for WWII aviation buffs.  The movie also makes good use of real aircraft for reenactments.  Three later model Spitfires were dusted off for this.

                “Malta Story”, although fictional, gets the basic facts across in an entertaining way.  Malta was under constant attack from 1940-1942.  The movie covers the latter stages of the assault.  The island became one of the most bombed places on Earth.  The movie gives a good taste of this.  Life was very rough on the islanders and the entire island was awarded the George Cross by King George VI.  By the close of the movie, the plot has transitioned to the period when the island was in the clear and going on the offensive against German convoys.  From December, 1942 through May, 1943 the islands forces sank an incredible 230 Axis ships.

                I love when war movie characters are based on real historical figures (provided they don’t deflower the person – I’m looking at you, “Braveheart”).  Often my subsequent research introduces me to some fascinating individuals.  I suppose many Brits are familiar with Adrian Warburton, but I had never heard of him.  This dude needs to have a mini-series made about him.  The Ross character only hints at his stellar career.  He actually was transferred to Malta because he offended his superiors in England with his criticism of the obsolete aircraft his unit was stuck with.  He flew a Martin Maryland recon/light bomber for the early part of his tour on Malta.  He was prone to unauthorized missions and defiance of authority.  One of his biggest coups was discovery of the Italian fleet at Taranto which led to its destruction.    He had a reputation as the best reconnaissance pilot in the RAF.  He spotted many of the Rommel convoys so the British could counterattack.  He went on to scout the Sicilian invasion beaches.  He survived well beyond the movie.  He was shot down over Germany in 1944 in a mission approved by Eliot Roosevelt (like he would have been able to stop him anyway).  Before his death he had flown almost 400 missions and downed up to nine Axis warplanes.  He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Bar, the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar, and the American DFC.  The dude was a beast.  Thank you, “Malta Story”.

                Antique or Classic? Definitely a classic.  It’s not a great movie, but it holds up well and tells an important story.  Malta and Warburton deserved it.  Americans war movie lovers should see it.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks for adding some great information. It sounds like you enjoyed this review more than some of my recent ones LOL.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I need to go back and check that list!

  3. Thanks for the review. This has been sitting on my Amazon watch list for awhile but I've never gotten around to watching it.


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