Directed by Compton Bennett and written by William Fairchild, Hugh Hastings and William Rose, in 1940, the Captain of an old Royal Navy destroyer struggles with his crew, as well as the Nazis. Starring: Trevor Howard, Richard Attenborough, Sonny Tufts, Dora Bryan, Bernard Lee and Sid James.
War films were simply a whole other creature in classic film, ranging from comedy to epics, and Gift Horse lands somewhere in the middle. Its first half dives straight into camaraderie, it has a cheeky charm mixed with a fierce pride. There’s a classic old British sense of humour and the familiar timing of the line delivery, a bit of banter mixed with tongue in cheek or euphemism style comedy. It holds a playfulness to its tone, which is not surprising at all going in but as the story progresses it moves into much more sincere and emotional territory. It’s a swift and not so graceful move, while it’s a pattern that makes complete sense to the story, the change of tone is far too big of a contrast. It throws off its ability to hold your attention and lessens the impact of its latter scenes.
However, they definitely picked the right cast to try and pull off a mix of light and heavy hearted drama. Particularly in Richard Attenborough, there’s a good chance that if you pick up any classic British film made in the 1950s, he’s going to be in it and for great reason because he’s immensely talented with an impressive range. Trevor Howard stays more on the dramatic side, he has a strong presence and brings a surprisingly generous and kind character, in a role that would typically be a cold, forceful man. The whole cast is a good mix of different personalities, while those two may stand out slightly above the rest, it does undoubtedly feel like an ensemble piece.
Given the sheer amount of war films that have been made, there is a touch of predictability to the story but it’s shot well to keep a good pace, and continue striving forward. There’s an edge of action, with it bringing through moments of tension and the battle sequences towards the end are dealt with well. The restoration work is well done, the clarity and texture to the image is impressive, it also helps that Compton Bennett didn’t rely too heavily on pre-existing war footage, as many others did.
Gift Horse holds up extremely well after 70 years, it’s full of charm and male-bonding, with a big helping of that classic cheeky side to British cinema. It’s got a stellar cast, Richard Attenborough was always an asset to any and every film he was in. It can’t quite pull of its transition from light-hearted drama to full on battle but it’s good intentions see it through. If you’re a fan of war films but are fatigued by the repetitive fashion of today’s films then this one will be a satisfying reprieve.