Saturday, 25 April 2015

Sons of the Sea

Director: Maurice Elvey
Writers: D William Woolf, George Barraud, Reginald Long
Producer: KC Alexander
Cast: Leslie Banks, Mackenzie Ward, Kay Walsh
Country: UK
Year of release: 1939
Reviewed from: UK TV broadcast

Some reference sources describe this as a tale of naval espionage and while that's not completely untrue it is really just a whodunnit murder mystery set in a naval training establishment. It also has one of the least satisfying endings I have ever seen with a resolution for which 'half-hearted' would seem to be hyperbolic praise. Nevertheless I was very excited to catch this film when the BBC broadcast it in 2005 and I strongly recommend it to you, should the chance to see it ever come your way. We will get to the whys and wherefores later.

The story is set in and around the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, filmed on location with large numbers of Naval cadets as extras. When the base's captain, Captain Arthurs, fails to show for the regular inspection parade, he is discovered murdered. The only clues are a few drops of blood on a windowsill and some footprints in a flowerbed. As it happens, Arthurs was about to retire and his successor, Captain Hyde (Leslie Banks: The Tunnel, The Man Who Knew Too Much, perhaps best known to genre fans as Count Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game), arrives that same day from Singapore to prepare for transferal of duty.

No-one can imagine why someone would want to off a nice old duffer like Arthurs, but it seems that a newspaper had wrongly reported Hyde as already being in command so the murderer might have thought his victim was Hyde - who has some information on 'secret minefields' laid by the enemy. Produced in 1939 before the outbreak of war, the script studiously avoids mentioning Germany but there is an assumption that the murderer must be 'a foreigner' and there are, interestingly, several references to what will happen "during the war", demonstrating that hostilities were now considered a fait accompli.

Arriving at the base just as the gates are locked, Hyde's taxi nearly knocks down a rather louche young chap named Newton Howells (Mackenzie Ward: the 1948 Monkey's Paw and an uncredited role in The Two Face of Dr Jekyll) whose presence is explained by flashing papers which identify him, we eventually learn, as an agent of the British Secret Service.

Spying on all those from an astronomical observatory on the hills above the base is Alison Deaver, played by Kay Walsh who was Nancy in David Lean's Oliver Twist and was also in Stage Fright, Vice Versa, Gilbert Harding Speaks of Murder and, later, A Study in Terror and Hammer's The Witches. Alison uses her father's telescopes to watch the strapping young cadets and officers, especially Lieutenant Street (Peter Shaw, who allegedly played the tiny devil created by Dr Praetorius in Bride of Frankenstein!), a handsome but humourless young man with whom Alison is stepping out. Professor Deaver (the great Kynaston Reeves: the 1932 version of The Lodger, Four-sided Triangle, Fiend Without a Face, Uncle Nicholas in The Forsyte Saga) is a typical movie scientist, buried in a notebook and paying only vague attention to what is going on around him. Since his wife died, he and Alison have been looked after by Margaret Howells - played as slightly potty comic relief by Ellen Pollock (Non-Stop New York, Spare a Copper and, much later, in Horror Hospital) - who hasn't seen her brother for 25 years. When Newton arrives, Alison is quite taken by him and the attraction seems to be mutual. Also in the mix is Captain Hyde's son Philip (Simon Lack, who was in Nigel Kneale's The Creature and much later faced another creature in Trog), a cadet at the college, who breaks the news to his father that he wants to leave the Navy and go into business.

The plot, such as it is, hinges on Captain Hyde asking Philip to borrow a car and pick him up from nearby Churston railway station. Philip drives his father down to Churston Cove where a small boat takes the Captain out to a Royal Navy launch. His suspicions of 'secret minefields' have proved correct. There are lots of mines attached to the sea-bed (we see a deep sea diver's costume onboard the launch) which are linked by an electrical system. If British ships moor in the cove, a 'foreigner' can press a single button somewhere which will cause all these mines to float to the surface which will either destroy or blockade the British fleet; I'm not sure on that point, but whatever, it's bad news.

This technological-military innovation is barely even a McGuffin here. I don't know how credible such a device would have been in 1939 but it's not really enough to tip the film into borderline science-fiction, unlike the engine-destroying ray in the same year's Q Planes or the radio-controlled tank in Walter Forde's 1929 feature Would You Believe It?

An 'unidentified aeroplane' bombs the launch, by which I mean the Navy can't identify it and neither can I - what sorts of twin-engined monoplanes were in use with the RAF in mid-1939? Captain Hyde survives and is picked up by a fishing boat but he has completely lost his memory. The crux of the story is that Hyde swore Philip to secrecy about this brief car journey from Churston station to the cove (which, to be honest, it looks like he could have walked). Interrogated by Commander Herbert (Cecil Parker: The Man Who Changed His Mind, The Lady Vanishes, The Man in the White Suit, Circus of Fear, Oh! What a Lovely War, but probably best known as Claude in The Lady Killers), who is now acting Captain, and an officer from Naval Intelligence, Philip refuses to say anything about the lift he gave his father, even after a comedy relief station porter is brought in to attest that he saw the two of them on that day. Philip still won't say where he took his father to, but given that Captain Hyde was picked up floating in the sea near Churston it's hardly a head-scratcher. Nobody seems bothered at all about the other sailors on that ill-fated launch.

The 'mystery', if it can be called that, is how did the enemy know that Captain Hyde was on that particular launch and can Hyde's memory be retrieved in order to obtain details of these secret minefields that he discovered. Philip eventually admits to having told secret serviceman Howells who had promised to help him move to New Zealand. Lieutenant Street races over to the Deavers' house (a large Elizabethan manse with a croquet lawn, and a state-of-the-art observatory of course) to find that Margaret and her brother have traveled separately to visit Margaret's relatives in Exeter. When a taxi pulls up and disgorges Margaret who can't understand why her 'brother' failed to show, it is clear that Howells is an enemy agent on the run. He is picked up boarding a ferry and his identity revealed as 'Kapitan Mueller', the closest that the film gets to fingering Germany as the enemy. Asked how he obtained the identity papers of the real, presumably deceased, Newton Howells, Mueller simply responds, "Perhaps you can work that out using your Naval Intelligence," which is a bit of a cop-out.

Meanwhile, attempts to retrieve Captain Hyde's memory come to nothing until the sound of a biplane flying over the base causes him to relive those few moments when the other plane made repeated bombing runs across the launch (a scene achieved using remarkably good back-projection, it must be said) and when he recognises his son it's clear that his memory has returned and the Royal Navy is safe.

Alison is reunited with Lieutenant Street; Philip, who has realised that he wants to stay in the Navy after all, is sent out to rejoin the inspection parade; as the band plays the National Anthem the camera pans to a painting of King George VI on the Commander's wall; and the film finishes with a picture of Nelson and the caption, 'England expects that every man this day will do his duty.' (The opening credits play over paintings of Napoleonic naval battles and this broadcast was possibly inspired by the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar a few days earlier, although it may also have been something of a tribute to Kay Walsh, coming only six weeks after her death at age 93.)

This all makes the film sound more complicated and exciting than it is, though for the most part it's an enjoyable, jolly romp. There is also a red herring subplot in Professor Deaver's odd behaviour: he partakes of late night walks and cryptic phone conversations, and somebody points out that he is actually a foreigner. But it turns out that he is secretly planning to marry a glamourpuss named Miss Day, seen briefly on the other end of a telephone. To the film's credit, the comic relief never intrudes or seems out of place and is occasionally actually amusing. The station porter is played with a bug-eyed, moustachioed eccentricity that puts one in mind of James Finlayson and Margaret Howells has one terrific line when Lieutenant Street asks her if she is sure that the man calling himself Newton Howells really is her long-lost brother. "Oh yes," she says, "I distinctly recall there being two of us."

But the development and especially the resolution of the weak plot is just not there, as you can see. The film is of interest to Naval historians for its footage of pre-war (just) cadets parading at the Royal Naval College although it's a shame that in a film about the Royal Navy we never see a single ship. The only craft on view are the launch that gets bombed, the fishing boat that picks up Hyde and the Dartmouth estuary ferry. There are a few nice shots of a GWR locomotive and carriages and some nice old 1930s cars, plus footage shot from the ground of two planes flying over. But no ships.

So why, you are wondering, is this film of such interest? The answer is: it's in colour. Sons of the Sea was the first British feature film ever shot using a single-strip colour process, in this case a system known as 'Dufaycolor'. (The company which developed the system was a UK-US collaboration - although inventor Louis Dufay was French - hence the American spelling.) Four years previously the process had been used for two sequences in Radio Parade of 1935, but this was its first use for an entire film. Only the opening logo of 'Grand National Pictures', the film's US distributor, is in black and white.

Technicolor at this time was still a three-strip process, meaning that the image was split into its three primary colours which were recorded on three strips of negative film, later combined to create a full-colour print. This required, as you can imagine, a pretty large and cumbersome camera. Dufaycolor got round this by using special negative film that carried rows of microscopic filters, enabling all three colours to be recorded on one strip of film. This meant that Dufaycolor films could be shot using existing cameras and there is some nice fluid camera movement in this film that simply wouldn't be possible with a Technicolor camera of the same vintage.

The Centre for British Film and Television Studies at Birkbeck University in London has a rather scholarly essay on the use of Dufaycolor in non-fiction films, which is where it was mostly featured. Unfortunately the war put paid to all further development of Dufaycolor movies in the UK and although it was used for a few years afterwards, it had pretty much died out by the 1950s.

It must be said that the colour in the print shown by the BBC (which had the odd scratch and jump but was for the most part in very good nick) was outstanding. The blue of the sea, the green of the field, the yellow of Alison's dress - all amazingly vivid, albeit more muted than one might be used to from later colour films, more like a picture postcard. The beautiful West Country weather certainly must have helped matters. The colours reminded me a little of the ones you see on those Hammer publicity stills which were actually black and white photos coloured by hand.

There is no attempt here to foreground the colour process or to let it dominate the story. In fact there is a lot of black and white; the Naval cadet uniforms of this era are black jackets with white trousers and white caps, and Howells is first seen wearing an all-white suit. There is very little contrast within the blacks, but there is some surprisingly effective day-for-night photography. Because of the nature of the process, almost a sort of primitive digitisation, the picture is not terribly sharp or crisp, but the colours make up for any softness in the image. There may not be much of a plot but this is a wonderful film to watch, a real feast for the eyes.

The rather charming directorial credit is 'Sole direction: Maurice Elvey' (High Treason, The Lodger, The Tunnel) but the writing credits are typically complex for the age. This British Consolidated Pictures Production is ‘by’ Gerald Elliott (The Frog, Return of the Frog) and Maurice Elvey, but the ‘scenario’ is credited to D William Woolf and George Barraud (also an actor - he was in Charlie Chan in London) while Reginald Long (who wrote, and starred in, the 1936 borderline horror The Avenging Hand) is credited with ‘dialogue’. I wonder whether the film might actually be based on a stage play as it’s awfully talky and if you conflated the Devears’ observatory and sitting room into one set, then used a cover-all office for every room in the college, you could do it on stage fairly easily. This would explain why parts make little sense or seem utterly perfunctory (for example, the Miss Day subplot), if chunks of the story were cut out in order to make room for all the parade footage and other exterior shots, while keeping the running time under 80 minutes. There are two Doctor Watsons in the cast: a very young Nigel Stock (The Dambusters, The Lost Continent) plays Philip’s chum Rudd and would later star in the 1960s TV version of Sherlock Holmes opposite Peter Cushing, while Ian Fleming (not the James Bond author!) had already played Watson in The Sleeping Cardinal, The Missing Rembrandt, The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes and Silver Blaze. Also credited on screen are Charles Eaton and Robert Field.

Cinematographer Eric Cross also lit The Mystery of the Marie Celeste and handled the underwater photography on little-seen 1934 British monster movie The Secret of the Loch; editor Dug (sic) Myers went on to cut Blood of the Vampire; sound recordist Leo Wilkins worked on The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes, The Cruel Sea and The Lady Killers; ‘interior settings’ (ie. art direction) is by Jack Maxted (Diamonds are Forever, Jason and the Argonauts, Warlords of Atlantis); make-up artist HF Fletcher is presumably Harry Fletcher (Curse of the Fly, The Earth Does Screaming). The other credited crew are production manager Louis London and assistant director Fred V Merrick (Elvey’s younger brother) who is miscredited as FW Merrick.

‘For Dufaycolor’, says the credits: ‘Adrian Klein, John New, Joan Bridge’. Klein (who is incorrectly listed as ‘Adrian Clyne’ on the Inaccurate Movie Database and elsewhere) worked for an even more obscure process, Gasparcolor, for whom he made several short animated films and one short documentary, before becoming official spokesman for Dufraycolor. A former Army Major, he published an extraordinary book called Coloured Light: An Art Medium in 1926 (reprinted as Colour Music: The Art of Light eleven years later) which suggested that music and colour should be inextricably linked in performance; he also wrote one of the first books on colour cinematography in 1936. Joan Bridge defected to Technicolor after the war, working on Blithe Spirit, A Matter of Life and Death, Genevieve and Ben Hur, eventually putting her colour skills to use as costume designer on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Half a Sixpence and other pictures. I can’t find anything on John New.

Possibly the most fascinating career that encompases this film is that of South African cameraman Ted Moore. After serving in the RAF film crew he working on such high profile movies as The African Queen and Genevieve before making the natural progression from camera operator to cinematographer in the mid-1950s and racking up a CV which includes Cockleshell Heroes, The Gamma People, The Day of the Triffids, Dr No (and six other Bonds), Psychomania, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, Clash of the Titans, A Man for All Seasons (for which he won an Oscar), Orca - Killer Whale and The Martian Chronicles!

For the film itself, MJS rating: D+
For the technical aspects: MJS rating: A
Review originally posted 4th June 2005.


  1. I have just watched the Renown DVD of this movie that I picked up in a charity shop for £2. I agree with your detailed review almost entirely although sense I may have enjoyed the film slightly more. I have now seen several Maurice Elvey movies and have seldom felt disappointed. Leslie Banks is a particularly favourite actor of mine (remember being very impressed by him in, I think, The Arsenal Stadium Mystery). I do think the emphasis on the German enemy is more clearly stated than you give credit as the German National Anthem plays on a few occasions to indicate espionage. Interestingly, similarly to Powell/Pressburger works, the German spy is shown to have some humanity and depth and the audience are reminded that agents of all nations must do their duty. I wonder if Elvey got any political flak for this? Well, thank you for this excellent review, your description of the colour being like an early postcard is spot on.