Gift Horse (1952)
Director: Compton Bennett
Cast: Trevor Howard, Richard Attenborough, Sonny Tufts
Synopsis: The captain of an old destroyer in 1940 struggles with his crew as well as the Nazis.
We British made no end of movies like Gift Horse in the ten years or so after the war. A lot of them were rather dry and populated by a narrow variety of characters, all of whom conformed to genre stereotype. Gift Horse is no different, although it is possibly less accomplished than most other examples, and runs a poor second to The Cruel Sea, the film which pretty much set the benchmark for British post-war WWII naval films.
Trevor Howard plays Hugh Algernon Fraser, the stiff upper lipped officer here, and he’s every bit as good and proper as you’d expect. He plays a marginally damaged character who resigned from the navy some years before the war after colliding with a vessel that was captained by the man who is now his boss. Fraser believes his boss was to blame for the incident, but this potentially intriguing plot strand goes nowhere as the two men are terribly polite and proper to one another and the past is barely touched upon.
The story follows the escapades of Fraser and his crew aboard a tired old destroyer lent to Britain by the US in the days when it was still maintaining a neutral front, and it’s therefore unavoidably episodic in structure. As with most of these movies, attention is divided between the enlisted men and the officers – a hangover from the war years when it was important to show that all class differences should be put aside and that we were all in it together. In addition to Howard, the officers are represented by James Donald as a young officer in love, and Robin Bailey, who accidentally drives the ship into a wreckage. Below decks, we find characters such as Dripper, Yank and Stripey, who sound like stand-ins for the Seven Dwarves, but are actually working class types who like nothing more than a pint and a fist-fight. Quite believable in the case of inveterate boozer Sonny Tufts who plays Yank, but something of a stretch when it comes to Dickie Attenborough and Bernard ’M’ Lee as Dripper and Stripey respectively.
The various episodes are handled with almost cursory indifference at times. We learn that Dripper’s dear old mum has cancer and then that she is cured in a couple of scenes. Fraser’s ill-fated son’s death is handled in an equally abrupt fashion, as is the death of Yank’s wife and baby. Even the infrequent sea battles undertaken by the Gift Horse are given scant detail, confined largely to reaction shots of Fraser and his officers by budget constraints, presumably. On the plus side, the writing is typically polished, if somewhat uninspired, and a relatively young Trevor Howard proves to be a reliable lead.
(Reviewed 19th March 2012)