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The movie business was booming all across Europe in the 1960s thanks to the earlier breakthrough of Italian and English films into world markets. European genre thrillers were often picked up for distribution in the United States. Most were routinely dubbed into multiple languages to play to enthusiastic audiences across the continent, which included many rural areas not yet served by Television. American studios and their English subsidiaries found that they could negotiate tax breaks and outright subsidies by filming in Europe, and production of all kinds exploded. International dealmaker Samuel Bronston took advantage of huge monetary incentives offered by Franco's Spain, and built an enormous studio outside of Madrid. Filming in Spain was so financially attractive that Italian and German producers shot movies there all through the 1960s.
Also trying to get into the act was Italy's neighbor Yugoslavia, which maintained plenty of WW2-era hardware to rent to big-spending foreign producers, including vehicles and armor once used by the Germans. Among the better known films made there was the Clint Eastwood's Kelly's Heroes. But Yugoslavian companies also partnered with foreign capital to make their own movies. A good example of an average genre production is 1968's Adriatic Sea of Fire (Flammes sur l'Adriatique), a Yugoslav-French co-production with a mixed cast and crew. It has two credited directors, the French Alexandre Astruc and the local director Stjepan Cikes.
Adriatic Sea of Fire begins with an exciting premise. The officers of the Yugoslavian naval destroyer Zagreb argue among themselves about a possible German invasion of their country; the ship is on its way to volunteer for service with the British fleet at Malta.. Lt. Michel Masic (Gérard Barray) is upset that his Captain Popovitch (Relja Basic) seems unconcerned about the Germans massing on the border when suspicious news arrives that the government in Sarajevo has already capitulated to the Nazi invaders. German planes attack and a key engine valve is damaged. Masic goes ashore to get a new valve from stores, and finds that all the Navy personnel are leaving their posts. He commandeers a car owned by the beautiful Mirjana (Claudine Auger) to drive to a warehouse. Barely escaping the Germans, Masic promises to see Mirjana again and returns to the ship. There he discovers that Captain Popovitch has decided to follow new orders to surrender the ship to the German naval forces. Masic locks himself in the engine room and oversees the repair, but cannot convince the crew or his best friend, Naval doctor Basic (Raoul Saint-Yves) that Popovitch is a collaborator. Popvich has Masic arrested and forces the Zagreb into port, where German occupation troops detain most of the crew. Masic is detained on board, to be shot. But Raoul makes contact with Mirjana and swims back to the heavily guarded ship to free his loyal colleague. They now have only one choice -- to scuttle the Zagreb before the Germans take control.
The modestly scaled Adriatic Sea of Fire doesn't exploit the dramatic possibilities in its real-life story. The dashing hero is convinced that his Captain is a pro-German agent but acts far too slowly. The other officers barely seem to care about the alarming events. Even after being fired upon by enemy planes, they meekly surrender their formidable vessel. The story doesn't even work up much suspense over Michel Masic's singlehanded effort to repair the boat and continue the fight. The handsome French star Gérard Barray played men of action in more escapist French thrillers but makes little impact here. Beautiful Claudine Auger, James Bond's Domino in Thunderball, gets pulled along on Masic's shore side mission and falls deeply in love with him within the span of an afternoon. In a country stricken by a chaotic invasion, she calmly awaits her man at his next port.
The movie does provide a seagoing adventure on the real ship provided by the Yugoslavian navy. Although the tight spaces below decks occasionally limit the movement of the camera, war movie buffs that pore over Jane's Fighting Ships will get their fill of authentic shipboard interiors. The film's action scenes aren't all that exciting -- a lot of smoke on the decks, some fireball explosions set off near the ship -- but the attacking airplanes and other hardware are all real. The real disappointment in Adriatic Sea of Fire is that its publicity promises big naval battles and a daring escape to join the Allies in Malta. We instead witness a believable but unexciting scenario: the Germans take over the ship without resistance.
The most notable thing about Adriatic Sea of Fire is that its French co-director (who receives sole credit on French prints) was a major player in post-war French cinema. Novelist and critic Alexandre Astruc is always mentioned in histories of the French New Wave of the late 1950s. Years before the young Cahiers du cinéma group became film directors, Astruc was envisioning a new kind of French cinema and directing films of his own. Astruc collaborated with André Bazin in the founding of Cahiers. His famous 1948 article about caméra-stylo ("camera-pen") advanced the notion that film directors are authors that write in images instead of words. Although many French New Wave films would use conventional film grammar and genre structures, Astruc joined essayists Bazin and François Truffaut in predicting that cinema would stop confecting pictorial equivalents of literary devices and develop its own distinct visual language. 1
After a pair of highly regarded short subjects and two feature films, Alexandre Astruc's filmmaking career eventually turned to TV movies and documentaries. The commercially inclined Adriatic Sea of Fire was preceded by a more prestigious feature about WW2 resistance fighters, 1966's La longue marche starring Robert Hossein, Maurice Roney and Jean-Louis Trintignant. It's unclear exactly what Astruc's contribution was to Adriatic Sea of Fire, but the direction of the mixed French-Yugoslav cast is entirely impersonal.
Pathfinder Pictures' DVD of Adriatic Sea of Fire is an undistinguished flat-letterboxed (1.66:1) presentation of a clean print, with good color. The original French language track is the default; the show carries removable English subtitles but offers an English dub track as well. No extras are included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Adriatic Sea of Fire rates:
1. Reference: Richard John Neupert, French New Wave Cinema University of Wisconsin Press 2002
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