Although it's rarely mentioned in the same breath as classics like The Dam Busters, Ice Cold In Alex and The Cruel Sea, Brian Desmond Hurst's Malta Story is a superior British war drama featuring great work from a platoon of the country's top performers.
It's 1942, and with the war in Africa and Europe in the balance, the importance of the Mediterranean island of Malta has never been greater. With the Nazis desperate to seize the isle, it falls to the stationed British forces and the gallant locals to hold firm. And as the Allies and the natives pull together so a young RAF photographer Peter Ross (Guinness) finds himself drawn to Maltese maiden Maria (Pavlow).
If you're used to Alec Guinness playing it for laughs in the Ealing comedies or instructing young Skywalker in the ways of the Force, it's quite something to see him playing a romantic lead. As you might imagine, he's hardly an Errol Flynn-style love 'em and leave 'em Lothario. Rather he's a sensitive young fellow who's made to seem more fragile still by retrospective revelations about Guinness's love life.
Jack Hawkins, meanwhile, has rarely been more hard-faced than as Air Commanding Officer Frank. Made fully a decade before he lost his voice to cancer, the Bridge On The River Kwai star is such a burly presence, he seems capable of taking the Germans on single-handed. His co-star Anthony Steel is also very good. The closest Britain came to a Tyrone Power-style heartthrob in the 1950s, Steel's often overlooked as a serious actor, yet his work here is every bit as spirited as his performances in The Black Tent and The Master Of Ballantrae.
Beautifully photographed by The Third Man DP Robert Krasker, Malta Story is Irish director Brian Desmond Hurst's greatest contribution to cinema, his other films of note including the Alastair Sim version of Scrooge and the bizarre propaganda film The Lion Has Wings. With impressive stock footage and decent supporting performances from Nigel Stock and Flora Robson, the film has suffered the same fate as Malta, whose importance to the Allies' success is now often overlooked. Still, as the island was decorated for its gallantry, so Hurst's film deserves plaudits for documenting a significant theatre of war.
In a nutshell: An excellent if underrated war drama featuring characteristically strong performances from Guinness and Hawkins.
By Richard Luck