This well-made and above-average World War II suspense thriller shows the daring exploits of canoe-paddling volunteers who set out to destroy German battleships.
It’s 1942 and ten Royal Marines in five canoes travel 75 miles up the Garonne River – paddling by night and hiding during the day – to raid the docks at Bordeaux with limpet mines in what is generally regarded as a suicide mission.
The first half of the film is essentially a training camp comedy with the misfits violating military rules. In the second half, the good-natured playfulness is replaced by a serious and determined effort to get the job done, even though it leads to the death of most of the members of the unit.
There are first-class performances from José Ferrer (who also directed) as obstinate Major Geoffrey Stringer and from Trevor Howard as second-in-command Captain Hugh Thompson.
The capable supporting cast includes Percy Herbert, Anthony Newley, Peter Arne and Victor Maddern as stiff Sergeant Craig, plus a brief appearance from Christopher Lee as submarine skipper Lieutenant-Commander Greaves.
The film was based on a book by George Kent. Scenes at the Marine training camp were filmed at the Eastney Barracks in Southsea, Hampshire (now the Royal Marines Museum). Location shooting took place around the Tagus River in Portugal.
The real-life ‘Operation Frankton’ in December 1942 was far less successful than portrayed in the film.
A failure of planning and communication led to the loss of eight British Marines. Only two of the canoe commando Marines survived the mission. The rest were either captured, interrogated and executed, drowned or died of hypothermia.
Major Geoffrey Stringer
Captain Hugh Thompson
Marine Sgt. Craig
Marine Corporal Stevens
John Van Eyssen
Assistant Gestapo Officer