James Franciscus first came to prominence as Detective Halloran in the great 1958-1959 TV series The Naked City. By the close of the sixties he had made the jump to the big screen, and Hell Boats (1970) is one of his early efforts. The movie is a World War II action flick set on the island of Malta, with Franciscus playing Lieutenant Commander Jeffords, an American leading a crew of British sailors in a daring raid on the Nazis.
The time is 1942, and Rommel is on the march. Vice Admiral Ashurst (Moultrie Kelsall) calls Jeffords into his office to discuss the mission, and discovers that the Lieutenant Commander is a Yank. Jeffords explains that his mother is English, and that he had volunteered for the Royal Navy. I’m not really sure why they went this route, other than maybe as an opportunity to show some American “outside the box” thinking when it came to pulling off the raid. Otherwise the only excuse to put him in charge of the Brits would simply be a plot device to hire Franciscus for the role, which seems unlikely.
In any case, Jeffords accepts the dangerous mission, and is surprised to discover upon arrival that the Commander of the base is Ashurt’s son (Ronald Allen). They are stationed on an island just a few miles away from Malta, which the Germans are occupying. The thinking is that if they can destroy the stronghold at Malta, in particular the submarines that are parked there, that Rommel will not be able to use it as a jump-off point. Like an island-based, low-budget Dirty Dozen (1967) this seems likely to become a one-way mission.
To add some spice to the story, Jeffords encounters a woman bathing in the nude in the Mediterranean and offers her his shirt when the air-raid alarms go off. She turns out to be Alison Ashurst (Elizabeth Shepherd), the extremely dissatisfied wife of the Commander. The soap-opera elements go deeper as we discover that the Commander was sent there by his father the Admiral, at the request of Alison. A chance to regain his manhood appears with the arrival of Jeffords and his mission though.
Things plod along like this until about the last half-hour of the movie, when the action begins. First there is a reconnaissance mission to Malta, to get the lay of the land, and locate the exact position of the submarine “pens” they plan to destroy. Next comes the raid itself, which is the best part of the movie. They use a captured German “E” boat as a Trojan Horse to get inside the perimeter, then scuba divers are sent off to plant explosives inside the facilities. When it is discovered that the “E” boat was a ruse, the Germans hit it with everything they have.
Who will make it out alive, and will Commander Ashurst redeem himself in the eyes of his wife and father? Those are the suspenseful questions at the heart of Hell Boats, which in the end is a fairly predictable yarn with some decent action sequences.
Hell Boats is part of MGM's Limited Edition Collection series of “manufacturing on demand” (“MOD”) DVDs.