Monday, June 10, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Malta Story" (1953)

We don't think about it much now because he became so iconic for his roles in David Lean epics and "Star Wars," but Alec Guinness was quite the odd duck for a movie star. "Malta Story" features him at perhaps his duckiest.

He was nobody's idea of a classically handsome, jaw-jutting leading man. Guinness had a thin face with protruding eyes that often appeared shifty, as if he was unwilling to look at people straight on. He held his small, tight mouth in a querulous state of flux, the corners slyly upturned as if he was protecting a private joke.

Guinness could seem both peevish and bemused at the same time, so it's not surprising that for the early stretch of his career he was best known for comedy.

Nonetheless, in 1951 British movie theater exhibitors voted Guinness the top male star of the year. And he would soon begin to rack up an impressive array of dramatic roles, culminating in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," which won him a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar.

"Malta Story" tells the story of the Siege of Malta, a little-known bit of World War II history (at least in America) through the eyes of a British reconnaissance pilot, Peter Ross. On his way to being stationed in Cairo to help scout out Rommel's desert forces, he's trapped on the island when his transport plane is bombed on a layover, and soon is conscripted into the local British forces, who are hungry for able pilots.

People with even a passing knowledge of geography know Sicily as the large land mass off of Italy -- the misshapen "ball" getting the "boot" from the mainland. Malta is a tiny crumb of land further along the same trajectory, known mainly on this side of the pond for its cinematic association with a certain fictional falcon.

But in the Mediterranean theater of war prior to the arrival of the Americans, Malta was a small but pivotal linchpin in the Allied plans. Sitting more or less in the middle of the sea, it provided a perfect location from which the British could stage naval and aerial attacks against the German convoys carrying troops and equipment to Rommel.

The Germans, well aware of this, made every attempt to dislodge them. The native Maltese suffered terribly in the incessant bombing campaign and naval blockade, scrabbling for food by day and digging the dead out of the rubble at night.

When Ross arrives, the Air Commodore (the redoubtable Jack Hawkins) is at wits' end. They barely have enough aircraft to carry out defensive patrols, and not enough petrol from them to linger for very long. So when he gets his hands on an experienced reconnaissance pilot, he soon puts him to good use.

Ross' daring missions, following his instincts instead of the letter of his orders, lead to a mild rebuke that soon gives way to high praise for the valuable intelligence they bring in.

The British forces suffer multiple setbacks -- at one point they finally receive a flight of new Spitfire fighter planes, nearly half of which are immediately destroyed in a German raid. But gradually, achingly, they manage to make up ground, and eventually take the fight to the Axis.

Director Brian Desmond Hurst and screenwriter Nigel Balchin throw in a romance between Ross and a local girl named Maria (Muriel Pavlow) who works in the RAF headquarters. It's a pretty standard mid-century screen affair, with the only trouble coming in the form of Maria's traditionalist mother (Flora Robson). Later her heart is broken when it's revealed her son has been spying for the Italians.

The movie's biggest problem is the focus swings back and forth between the war campaign, the romance and the family intrigue, and without much rhyme or reason. The Hawkins character more or less takes over the second half of the movie, and as a reconnaissance pilot Ross doesn't have any role to play in the actual fighting. If it weren't for the insipid love affair, there wouldn't be any reason for the Ross character to hang around at all.

Speaking of the battle scenes, they're a combination of stock footage, models and recreations using actual aircraft and ships. The mix is generally pretty good, though the model planes are easy to spot.

Director Hurst initially didn't want to cast Guinness, who he pegged as not a leading man type. But the actor was persistent. "I am tired of playing funny little men," Guinness said, according to the director's website.

Apparently, the cinematic world agreed. Although "Malta Story" wasn't the film to do it, Alec Guinness would soon be known for much more than being silly.

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