Described by The News of the World as “a great and stirring British war film”, The Gift Horse follows a ship and her crew from the time they come together in 1940 until the climactic Combined Operations raid on St Nazaire on March 28 1942. The ship in question is the Ballantrae, one of 50 aged destroyers given to Britain in 1940 in return for the lease of naval and air bases.
Trevor Howard plays the role of the newly-appointed captain, back in service after having left the navy following a court martial. The Ballantrae is not only old but has a tendency to break down at crucial moments. At first, everything goes wrong for her and Howard earns the enmity of his crew for an apparent combination of incompetence in action and a ruthless demand for discipline – and a series of events brings him near to a second court martial.
But, as The Gift Horse follows the personal lives of the ship’s company, the situation gradually improves. The ship rams and sinks a U-boat and Howard’s relations with the men become friendlier. Then the destroyer is chosen to lead the dangerous raid on St Nazaire: laden with explosives, its mission to ram the dock gates and pave the way for a commando attack…
The mixture of comedy, drama, pathos and action is familiar enough from exposure to British war films but the quality of the writing, Compton Bennett’s direction and, particularly, the acting of the key players, brings the story up fresh. Howard, said the Sunday Express, “gives the film dignity, drama and authenticity”. Richard Attenborough, as a sea lawyer who finally knuckles under to discipline, gives “his best performance for years”, said The Sunday Times.
UK / 1952
Director: Compton Bennett
Writers: William Fairchild, Hugh Hastings, William Rose
Cast: Trevor Howard, Richard Attenborough, Sonny Tufts, James Donald, Joan Rice, Bernard Lee, Dora Bryan, Hugh Williams, Patric Doonan