The Riddle of the Sands was one of the first of the great espionage novels. It also has the distinction of being the only spy novel to be written by an author, Erskine Childers, who ended up being shot for treason. The most surprising thing about this novel is that it had to wait until 1979 for a movie adaptation.
The novel was written in 1903, a time when tensions were running high in Europe, particularly between Britain and Germany. The two powers were involved in a frantic naval arms race, with fears on the part of the British that the Kaiser’s High Seas Fleet might soon be in a position to challenge British command of the seas. This background is essential for an understanding of the story.
A young English yachtsman has been exploring the German coastline, specifically that part of the coastline that provides Germany’s outlet to the North Sea. And he’s noticed some odd things, and he’s attracted some surprisingly hostile attentions. The large steam yacht Medusa and the gunboat Kormoran have both gone close to sinking his tiny yacht. The incidents seemed like accidents, but Arthur (Simon MacCorkindale) has had his suspicions aroused.
Arthur invites an old friend of his from his Oxford days to join him in his nautical adventures. Charles Carruthers (Michael York) speaks fluent German and works for the Foreign Office. At first he is extremely sceptical, but before too long he is forced to admit that something strange is certainly going on, and that it seems to be something that Germany wants to hide from the outside world.
These two amateur spies have stumbled upon something very big indeed, something beyond their wildest fears or imaginings. They need proof however, and they need to stay alive long enough to get that proof back to the British Admiralty.
It’s the gentleman amateur status of the two slightly reluctant British spies that gives the story its charm, and it also adds considerably to the tension. Arthur and Charles are entirely alone, reliant on their own wit and bravery to pull off an espionage coup of incalculable importance to their country.
Much depends upon the performances of Simon MacCorkindale and Michael York, and they do a splendid job, making their characters both sympathetic and plausible without overdoing the Boys’ Own Paper type of jingoistic heroics that might easily have made the tale merely tedious. Alan Badel as Dollmann is a suitably mysterious and menacing foe. Jenny Agutter as his daughter is mainly there to provide some love interest but she gives some unexpected depth to what could have been a very marginal character, and she manages a creditable German accent.
There’s some action, but not a huge amount. It’s not that sort of spy story. These are not James Bond-style action heroes, they’re just ordinary Englishmen caught up in extraordinary circumstances. There’s more than enough atmosphere and suspense to compensate for the relative lack of action.
This is a decidedly untypical spy film, and all the more interesting for not conforming to the clichés of the genre. It’s also a fine sea story. There’s some good period detail, and some impressive location shooting in the Netherlands and Germany. The strange sandy coastline with its shifting sandbars and its incessant mists makes an unusual but effective setting.
It’s a movie that appears to have been largely forgotten since its 1979 release. Perhaps the lack of explosions and shootouts might make it seem rather old-fashioned but if you’re a connoisseur of off-beat espionage movies it’s very much worth seeking out (as is the novel on which it’s based).