SAILOR OF THE KING rates a salute as a dandy story of wartime heroism from the against-all-odds school, and as a sleek 1953 action vehicle to show off handsome and likable 25-year-old Jeffrey Hunter, getting a build-up at the time from 20th Century Fox. Hunter plays a Canadian, serving in the Royal Navy, in a trim 83-minute saga directed by Roy Boulting, with a script by Valentine Davies adapting a book written by C.S. Forester. *
The story begins in England during the First World War. A chance encounter on a train journey to London puts ‘Lt.Richard Saville’ (Michael Rennie), a young naval officer on leave, and shy ‘Lucinda Bentley’ (Wendy Hiller) together sharing a car. Mutual attraction and a missed connection result in their spending several days together and falling in love. Yet they part and go their separate ways, seemingly for good. The story moves up to the Second World War, with Saville now commanding a squadron of warships in the Pacific. On one of the ships is ‘Andrew Brown’ (Hunter), a signalman. When a German raider sinks his vessel, Brown and a badly wounded Petty Officer (Bernard Lee) are the only survivors, picked up as prisoners by the enemy ship. Damaged in the fight, the German ship escapes into a cove in the Galapagos to make repairs. Seizing initiative, Brown, an expert rifleman, manages to escape, with a rifle, and proceeds to snipe at the repair crews, hoping to delay them enough for the other British ships to catch up. It’s one man and a rifle against the assorted artillery of the cruiser.
The first segment, with Rennie and Hiller, is sedate: Rennie’s charming but miscast Hiller is pretty limp. The film was shown with two different endings, one happy, the other sad, one of them featuring Hiller. On DVD you can pick whichever you feel suits it best.
The Rennie-Hiller framework is bland, but the majority of the running time goes to the ship vs. ship/man vs. ship action, and it delivers the goods. Some decent models are used for a few scenes, but the tension and payoff is greatly helped by the $1,220,000 production being allowed three Royal Navy cruisers to employ. The nautical scenes were done in the Mediterranean, with the exciting duel between Hunter and the cruiser shot on the rocky island of Gozo, Malta. Crisp cinematography from Gilbert Taylor and excellent work from the sound effects department are a major plus.
Hunter’s very good, Lee solid as always and Peter van Eyck is on hand to make a formidable ‘Kapitan’ of the enemy ship. Another bonus is that the German sailors aren’t portrayed as barbarians or clowns.
* C. S. Foresters 1929 book “Brown on Resolution” was set in World War One, and a 1935 version was done in England: Born for Glory, with John Mills, 27, in his first starring role. It is notable as the first film done with the co-operation of the Royal Navy, lending several ships to the production.