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Viewers who want to see Die Hard in a wartime setting will flip over Roy Boulting's Sailor of the King, in which a lone British seaman holds an entire German warship at bay with nothing but guts and a stolen rifle. The very sea-worthy tale can boast a commendably realistic surface battle and a wholly logical standoff in a hidden Galapagos lagoon. Framing the story, however, is a romantic sub-plot handled with an embarrassing lack of common sense, negating the presence of actress Wendy Hiller (I Know Where I'm Going!) and scrambling the film's impact.
Sailor of the King has a central idea that warms the hearts of gun-nuts everywhere: a young seaman makes a major tactical difference in a mighty sea battle by sniping at a disabled enemy vessel. Ah yes, one man and one trusty rifle holding an entire battleship at bay, the kind of fantasy that the framers of the constitution must have had in mind when they drafted the second amendment.
Actually, Roy Boulting's exciting war drama is a snappy, seldom-screened popcorn picture with praiseworthy qualities. Naval warfare is shown without undue embellishment or glamorization, as two smaller English ships fail to stop a larger, faster German raider with bigger guns. The engagement is woefully one-sided (as most are), showing seaman Brown's ship pulverized by accurate enemy fire without ever really getting within target range. With the bridge destroyed, the Brits fire all their torpedoes in the hopes of a lucky hit ... and just before they go down, seaman Brown sees the strike on the German ships' bow.
Brown is pulled from the water to become a prisoner on Peter van Eyck's damaged but still-dangerous ship. Luckily, the captain underestimates Brown's desire to keep fighting. Brown discusses the situation with Bernard Lee's feisty Stoker, who gives his blessing for Brown's plan because he's not keen on surviving the war anyway, after losing his leg. But does Brown really know what he's getting into? The young sailor steals a gun and sneaks over the side, climbing high into the rocks overlooking the German ship at anchorage. From a couple of hundred yards away, Brown starts mowing down the German repair crew faster than you can say Texas clock tower. The ship's anti-aircraft guns rake the cliffside but Brown avoids being blown to bits. The Germans have no choice but to hide below decks, giving the English more time to find them.
Sailor of the King is a terrific audition piece for Jeffrey Hunter. He's given the familiar "I'm Canadian" excuse to justify his accent, but is certainly personable enough to hold screen center for the entire running time. He's also thoughtful enough to give the Brown character a serious foundation. The wild plan to turn a rifle on his captors is taken with the full knowledge that he'll most likely fail, and nobody will know that he died riddled with bullets on a lonely island. We like all of Brown's choices and understand that he had little opportunity to grab anything but a rifle on his way off the enemy ship. But if he'd just taken a shirt with him, he might have lasted longer in the hot Equatorial sun. We're sure that Jeffrey Hunter's agent didn't mind, as his young client goes through the battle shirtless, showing off a photogenic muscular physique. Of such details are careers made.
Roy Boulting's movie might have been a classic if it were not for some incredibly incompetent storytelling; the entire Michael Rennie part of the story may have been an afterthought to pad the film to feature length. A long prologue set twenty years earlier sees Brown's mother Lucinda (the delightful Wendy Hiller) having a chance romantic meeting with Michael Rennie's rather dull young lieutenant Saville, sort of a rip-off of the train scenes in Brief Encounter. Lt. Saville spends a week with Lucinda in a rural inn (shocking!) and then walks away from the romance at the first suggestion that it might not be good for his career. Fade out. As soon as we meet Brown, who was raised in Canada by his mother "because father died when I was young", it's obvious who's son he is. Admiral Saville again pulls back from full commitment when he stays behind with his flagship because it might run out of fuel. Young Brown, of course, has the Right Stuff that Pop lacks, and doesn't hesitate to leap into his personal war.
The conclusion (or conclusions, see below) doesn't begin to address this clumsy framing story. Saville never comes to terms with his bad judgment. Lucinda carried the entire burden of their long-ago relationship. Saville lets her down, and then after she raises their child, he lets the son down by not fighting in good faith. If the Navy expects this kind of commitment from the nation's women, they're kidding themselves.
Fox's England-based production is immaculate, with ship scenes that wouldn't be bettered until Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's Battle of the River Plate (Pursuit of the Graf Spee) three years later. A real cruiser slips into a tiny desert-cliff lagoon that becomes the arena for Brown's last stand. The credibility of this location greatly enhances the film's excitement; except for a couple of mattes to add a tarp to the bow of the ship, it's all real. The earlier battle scenes are equally convincing, mostly showing the opposing craft from a great distance.
Fox's DVD of Sailor of the King looks fine in a good B&W transfer. The most attractive extra is the alternate English ending. (spoiler) In the American version, Jeffrey Hunter's character is all smiles for a scene back in London. The English were shown a version that brings Wendy Hiller's Lucinda to London instead. Both endings are pitifully weak in that nothing is resolved between the supposedly noble Michael Rennie character and his unofficial family. The movie's terrific central section is book-ended by an incredibly inane framing story. In England it was released as Single-Handed, but the better title for this mess would be Bastard for the King.
If Fox wants to dig deeper into its London-produced holdings, it might try the superb No Highway (aka No Highway in the Sky), a 1951 film with James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, and Glynis Johns.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sailor of the King rates: