Monday, November 7, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Attack on the Iron Coast" (1968)

A laughably bad World War II picture from 1968, "Attack on the Iron Coast" registers as nearly a parody of the genre, replete with hammy acting and silly action scenes. The director, Paul Wendkos, made his name with "Gidget" and its myriad sequels, and is mostly known for his television work. After making this film starring Lloyd Bridges -- another TV vet with "Sea Hunt" -- Wendkos would go on to direct the pilot of "Hawaii Five-O" and a couple of its first-season episodes.

I'd say his talent found its perfect match.

Bridges plays Jamie Wilson, a Canadian major who concocts a hare-brained scheme called Mad Dog to ram a British destroyer into the German-held port of La Plagé. The Nazi regime is using the French dry dock to repair its battleships with great efficiency, adding to the massive naval losses of Allied ships. Wilson wants to load a ship up with explosives and blow the whole thing to smithereens.

The story essentially consists of two parts: the hard-charging Wilson trying to convince his conservative British cohorts to OK the mission, and then the mission itself with its greatest critic forced to command the expedition. Andrew keir plays Captain Owen Franklin, who haughtily refuses to have anything to do with Mad Dog at least a half-dozen times, but comes to be its greatest advocate -- even going so far as to ignore an order from high command to abort the mission.

Keir gives a straightforward performance, as unctuousness gives way to stoic English stiff upper lip in the heat of battle.

Interestingly, Franklin is clearly portrayed as being a seasoned older officer, while Wilson is supposed to be the young gun continually challenging his elders with his brash tactics. In fact, the gray-bearded Keir was a 42-year-old youngster when this movie came out, while Bridges was 55 (but looked about 38).

Mad Dog may sound like Hollywood claptrap, but it was actually based on a real raid on St. Nazaire in March 1942 that succeeded using almost exactly the same tactics depicted in the movie. It' a wild enough story that one wonders why the studio didn't simply do a historically accurate story using the names of the real combatants, along the lines of "A Bridge Too Far."

My guess is the producers felt an urge to load up the story with the usual war-movie cliches -- two commanders in conflict, a romance running as sidebar (Wilson's wife is played by Sue Wilson), and a heroically implausible sacrifice by the main character at the end.

The latter occurs when Wilson, buried in wreckage aboard the ship's bridge, struggles to reach the detonation clock. The wires have been severed in the collision with the dry dock gate. A German soldier shoots Wilson, but in his dying swoon he manages to contact the wires and the whole thing goes boom.

Never mind that earlier Franklin had specifically told Wilson (and thereby the audience) that the device was self-contained so it would still detonate if the ship was damaged. And yet two thin little copper wires are left running exposed to the bridge floor. Ridiculous.

The portrayal of the Nazi commanders is knee-slapping goofy. Walter Gotell plays Van Horst, who prefers to eat and drink and debauch rather than pay attention to his duties guarding the coast. When we first meet the German officers, they're literally watching a skin flick while gorging themselves, and cannot even tear their eyes away from the lascivious images of women undressing to duly respond to reports of a strange ship approaching.

"Attack on the Iron Coast" has nothing going for it. The raid upon which it was based may have been a rousing military success, but as war films go the fictional version is totally fubar.

1 stars out of four

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