Under Ten Flags (1960)    2 Stars

“The killer-ship of a thousand disguises!”

Under Ten Flags (1960)
Under Ten Flags (1960)

Director: Duilio Coletti

Cast: Van Heflin, Charles Laughton, Mylène Demongeot

Synopsis: This World War II story is told from the German point of view spotlighting the commander of a Nazi raider, disguised as a merchant ship and a British admiral.




It’s rare to see a war film that shows the perspective of the Nazis in an impartial light, and it’s to the credit of Under Ten Flags that it succeeds in doing so without qualifying its portrayal by showing the decent Germans as an aberration. It’s true that one German Naval officer angrily questions the noble principles of Captain Bernhard Rogge (Van Heflin – Black Widow) but the rest of his devoted crew follow his orders unquestioningly, even when he insists that Jewish prisoners aboard their ship are treated with the same dignity as Gentiles. And when the British finally catch up with them – as we all know they must – even that recalcitrant officer seeks Rogge out to apologise. It’s quite remarkable that a film would take such a radical stance at a time when Nazis were still depicted purely as unthinking instruments of evil, and to the producers’ credit that they committed to a project which might well have been anathema to those who fought or lost family in the conflict.

Under Ten Flags takes place in the early years of WWII. The raider commanded by Rogge sails the seas disguised as a merchant ship bearing the flag of a neutral or allied country in order to get close enough to enemy craft to scupper them. Rogge makes a point, though, of taking as few lives as possible and of treating the survivors humanely until they can be put ashore. While Rogge causes havoc on the seas, in Britain the Naval Command, led by the irascible Admiral Russell (Charles Laughton – The Canterville Ghost) undertakes a prolonged campaign to pinpoint the raider’s location.

It’s odd that Under Ten Flags isn’t better known; it features strong leads – although both a little past their best, it’s true – and is based on an incredible true story. Of course, the movie world feels no compunction to let the facts get in the way of a good yarn, so the writers actually merged together a couple of true incidents as well as a completely fictionalised – but highly suspenseful – sequence in which an agent who has had plastic surgery to make him the double of a Nazi officer has to squeeze between the criss-crossed laser beams guarding a safe in the Nazi Headquarters (think Entrapment without Catherine Zeta Jones’ rear) in which the vital key to a code is located.

Despite – or perhaps because of – these diversions into fiction, Under Ten Flags is never less than watchable. Charles Laughton, looking like a curmudgeonly bulldog, throws hunting metaphors around like confetti, while Van Heflin observes lots of stock footage of stricken ships after issuing the command to fire. The survivor of one of the attacks is none other than 60s sex kitten Mylene Demongeot, who looks completely out of place in tiny shorts that would have probably got her arrested back in 1940. No doubt the producers felt that in order to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, the movie needed sexing up a bit, and they even contrived to have her play one scene in her bra. A good movie, though; one that puts a human face to the enemy that more routine movies of the era always failed to do.

(Reviewed 14th March 2015)

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