Malta Story (1953)


Introduction

Malta Story is a 1953 British war film, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, which is set during the air defence of Malta during the Siege of Malta in the Second World War.

The film uses real and unique footage of the locations at which the battles were fought and includes a love story between a RAF reconnaissance pilot and a Maltese woman, as well as the anticipated execution of her brother, caught as an Italian spy. The pilot is loosely based on Adrian Warburton; the Maltese woman’s brother is based on Carmelo Borg Pisani, who was executed in 1942.

Outline

In 1942 Britain is desperately holding onto Malta. Invasion seems imminent; the Italians and Germans are regularly bombing the airfields and towns. Flight Lieutenant Peter Ross, an archaeologist in civilian life, is on his way to an RAF posting in Egypt, but is stranded when the Lockheed Hudson on which he was a passenger is bombed while attempting to refuel on Malta. Air Commodore Frank, having just lost a photo reconnaissance pilot, has Ross reassigned to him, as that is Ross’s speciality.

Peter meets Maria, a young Maltese woman working in the RAF operations room. The two fall in love and spend a few romantic hours at the Neolithic temples of Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim. In the meantime, the situation at Malta becomes desperate. Famine looms, as relief convoys fall prey to Axis aircraft. A crucial convoy is severely mauled by day and night aerial attacks, but enough ships, including the vital oil tanker SS Ohio, reach Malta.

Peter proposes marriage to Maria, although they realise that wartime is not favourable to lasting love affairs, as Maria’s mother suggests; nevertheless, the young couple remain hopeful of the future. Maria’s brother Giuseppe is caught returning to the island from Italy, where he had been studying before the war. He finally admits to being a spy, but tries to justify by saying it is his country and he wanted to end his people’s suffering.

The RAF holds on, and, along with Royal Navy submarines, is eventually able to take the offensive, targeting enemy shipping on its way to Rommel’s Afrika Korps in Libya. Spitfires are flown in from aircraft carriers to defend the island, while attacks are carried out by aircraft such as Bristol Beaufighter fighter-bombers and Bristol Beaufort and Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers.

Then a crucial enemy convoy sails for Libya under cover of poor visibility. Frank needs desperately to locate it; he orders Peter to find it at any cost and to radio in immediately if he does. Peter, flying in his Spitfire, finally spots it, but after he reports its position, he is attacked by six enemy fighters and killed, while Maria in the operations room listens helplessly to his final radio transmissions. When there are no more messages, she picks up Peter’s marker from the operations table.

Later, a newspaper article reports that Rommel has lost the Second Battle of El Alamein (in part due to supply shortages).

Cast

  • Alec Guinness as Flight Lieutenant Peter Ross.
  • Jack Hawkins as Air Vice Marshal Frank.
  • Anthony Steel as Wing Commander Bartlett.
  • Muriel Pavlow as Maria Gonzar.
  • Renée Asherson as Joan Rivers.
  • Hugh Burden as Eden, Security.
  • Nigel Stock as Giuseppe Gonzar (aka Ricardi).
  • Reginald Tate as Vice Admiral Payne.
  • Ralph Truman as Vice Admiral Willie Banks.
  • Flora Robson as Melita Gonzar, Maria’s and Giuseppe’s mother.
  • Ronald Adam as Operations Room controller (uncredited).
  • Derek Aylward as uncredited.
  • Peter Barkworth as Cypher Clerk (uncredited).
  • Ivor Barnard as Old Man (uncredited).
  • Peter Bull as Flying Officer (uncredited).
  • Stuart Burge as Paolo Gonzar, Maria’s brother (uncredited).
  • Edward Chaffers as Stripey (uncredited).
  • Michael Craig as British officer (uncredited).
  • Rosalie Crutchley as Carmella Gonzar, Paolo’s wife (uncredited).
  • Maurice Denham as British officer (uncredited).
  • Jerry Desmonde as General (uncredited).
  • Thomas Heathcote as a radar operator (uncredited).
  • Gordon Jackson as soldier, Army airfield defence troop (uncredited).
  • Geoffrey Keen as Sergeant Major, Army airfield defence troop (uncredited).
  • Dermot Kelly as British soldier at airport (uncredited).
  • Sam Kydd as soldier, Army airfield defence troop (uncredited).
  • Richard Leven as soldier (uncredited).
  • Colin Loudan as O’Connor (uncredited).
  • Victor Maddern as soldier, Army airfield defence troop (uncredited).
  • Michael Medwin as Ramsey, CO ‘Phantom’ Squadron (uncredited).
  • Lee Patterson as officer on truck (uncredited).
  • William Russell as officer at prison (uncredited).
  • Marc Sheldon as uncredited.
  • Harold Siddons as Matthews, bomber pilot (uncredited).
  • Noel Willman as Hobley, Navy pilot (uncredited).

Production

Development

The film was the idea of the Labour Government’s Central Office of Information, who wanted a movie to illustrate co-operation between the three branches of the armed services during World War Two, and thought the Siege of Malta was an ideal background. Producer Peter de Sarigny, director Thorold Dickinson and writer William Fairchild set up a company, Theta, to make it.

The movie was originally called The Bright Flame and was about the story of the actual siege with a fictional story about Lieutenant Ross, who falls in love with a Maltese girl, Maria, whose brother is hanged as a spy by the British. Ross is shot down on a mission but survives and is visited by Maria’s mother, who remains loyal to Britain.

J. Arthur Rank and John Davis, who ran Rank Productions, wanted the film to move in a different direction. Nigel Balchin was hired to rewrite the script, adding a plot line to emphasise the loneliness of command, emphasised the British characters over the Maltese, and having Ross die at the end, but after having obtained information to help the British win at the Battle of El Alamein. Dickinson was replaced as director by Brian Desmond Hurst.

The Ulster born director Brian Desmond Hurst was persuaded by his lifelong friend, John Ford, to direct the Malta Story. Ford told Hurst, “it’s right up your street.” Hurst says Alec Guinness approached him asking to play the role of Ross, saying he wanted a change of pace.

Shooting

The unique footage used in the Malta Story is actual historic archive material. In the aerial sequences, combat footage of aircraft that attacked Malta, such as the Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 torpedo/horizontal bomber and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109F fighters and Junkers Ju 88 bombers can be seen, along with many other wartime RAF aircraft. Additionally, many scenes were shot in Malta with the real types of aircraft still in operational service at that time, some of which did not exist any longer elsewhere. The production only had the use of three later Supermarine Spitfire Mk XVIs, which had been located in storage. Although a modicum of model work and studio rear projection footage was needed, careful editing of archival newsreel and location photography created an authentic looking, near-documentary style.

Alec Guinness, cast and playing against type, as part of the Old Vic Company, had played in Malta as part of a tour that had travelled to Portugal, Egypt, Italy and Greece in 1939. Guinness had served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War, joining first as a seaman in 1941 and being commissioned the following year, and actually serving in the Mediterranean Theatre. During the Malta Story production, he found that he was drawn to the social life of the large Royal Navy base on the island, often joining with servicemen at the local “watering holes.”

The Fast Minelaying Cruiser HMS Manxman is mentioned by name in the film as bringing Vice Admiral Payne to Malta to relieve Vice Admiral Willie Banks. In the film Manxman is briefly depicted by a Dido-class cruiser – clearly identifiable from her 5.25-inch gun turrets which were unique to this cruiser class. (HMS Manxman herself was coincidentally used in another 1953 film which was also shot in Malta. This was Sailor of the King, in which she depicted the fictional German raider Essen. This film also used the Dido-class Cruiser HMS Cleopatra, which was then operating as part of the Mediterranean Fleet).

It was one of several war films Anthony Steel made where he played in support of an older male actor.

Release

Box Office

Malta Story was the fourth most popular movie at the British box office in 1953. “The combination of an A-list cast, the portrayal of the iron resilience of the Maltese people, the gallantry of the RAF pilots and a tragic love story were the four components of its success.”

Critical Reception

Contemporary reviews judged Malta Story to be a fairly average war picture.

Books

Theirs is the Glory: Arnhem, Hurst and Conflict on Film takes Hurst’s Battle of Arnhem epic as its centrepiece and then chronicles Hurst’s life and experiences during the First World War and profiles each of his other nine films on conflict, including Malta Story.

Trivia

  • Benito Mussolini’s decision not to invade Malta in June 1940 has been called the worst Axis mistake of World War II. Italian generals overestimated Malta’s defences.
    • If the Italians had invaded the colony in late June 1940 it would have been impossible for the Royal Navy to resupply the garrison.
  • Late in the movie there is a shot of a merchant ship with a huge hole in her bow.
    • This is actual footage of the Brisbane Star, part of the Pedestal convoy, which remarkably completed the trip under her own power.
  • The footage of the stricken Ohio being towed into harbour is footage of the actual event, shot in 1942.
  • This movie was not well received in Malta, as the country was still under British occupation.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s):
    • Brian Desmond Hurst.
  • Producer(s):
    • Peter De Sarigny … producer.
    • Earl St. John … executive producer.
  • Writer(s):
    • Thorold Dickinson … (idea).
    • Peter De Sarigny … (idea) (as Peter de Sarigny).
    • Hugh P. Lloyd … (author of “Briefed to Attack”) (as Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh P. Lloyd K.C.B. K.B.E. M.C. D.F.C.).
    • William Fairchild … (screenplay).
    • Nigel Balchin … (screenplay).
    • William Fairchild … (story).
  • Music:
    • William Alwyn.
  • Cinematography:
    • Robert Krasker … director of photography.
  • Editor(s):
    • Michael Gordon.
  • Production:
    • British Film-Makers (as A Theta Film Production).
  • Distributor(s):
    • General Film Distributors (GFD) (1953) (UK) (theatrical) (as General Film Distributors Limited).
    • Kommunenes Filmcentral (KF) (1953) (Norway) (theatrical).
    • United Artists (1954) (USA) (theatrical).
    • Futurevision Ltd. (1986) (UK) (VHS).
    • Carlton Visual Entertainment (2004) (UK) (DVD).
    • Thorn EMI Video Australia (1985) (Australia) (video).
    • Topanga Canyon Films (2018) (Spain) (all media).
  • Release Date: 23 June 1953 (London, UK).
  • Rating: U.
  • Running Time: 103 minutes.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

Video Link(s)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.