The Sea Wolves is an old-fashioned war adventure movie in the very best meaning of the term old-fashioned. Andrew V. McLaglen was arguably the best director of such movies in the business at the time and he delivers all the excitement anyone could reasonably want.
The movie was based on the real-life raid on Goa by the Calcutta Light Horse in 1943, a mission that was not publicly revealed until 1978 due to the unfortunate circumstance that it involved a fairly major violation of Portuguese neutrality. The Calcutta Light Horse was a reserve cavalry regiment that had not seen active duty since the Boer War. In 1943 German U-boats were taking a heavy toll of Allied shipping in the Indian Ocean. They were acting on information broadcast from a transmitter on the German merchant ship Ehrenfels which had been interned at Goa (a tiny Portuguese enclave on the west coast of India). This in itself was a violation of Portuguese neutrality so the British felt justified in taking action but they could not afford to do so openly. A plan was hatched whereby the members of the Calcutta Light Horse, all retired soldiers, would sink the Ehrenfels.
In the film version the plan is hatched by Colonel Lewis Pugh (Gregory Peck) and Captain Gavin Stewart (Roger Moore) of the British SOE, a top-secret intelligence organisation which carried out a variety of what would today be called covert operations. They come up with the plan after having failed to eliminate the German spies passing on the intelligence that was then broadcast to the U-boats by the Ehrenfels.
The Colonel of the Light Horse, Bill Grice (David Niven), is only too eager to get involved, having been turned down for active service due to his age. The other members of the Light Horse are just as old and broken-down, and just as keen. They steal an ancient Indian barge which they then have to sail right around India before reaching their objective. Meanwhile Captain Stewart has got himself involved with a beautiful German spy - there’s no point in having Roger Moore in the movie if he can’t get mixed up with glamorous female spies.
The movie takes quite a while to get to the main action but that’s no problem because there is plenty of minor action to keep things bubbling along happily until then. The movie naturally ends with the sort of spectacular action set-piece that McLaglen was so good at.
Along the way you can have fun spotting all the superb British character actors who fill the supporting roles with such élan. Kenneth Griffith, Trevor Howard, Patrick Macnee, Allan Cuthbertson, Donald Houston - the list is too long to give in full but they’re all clearly having a terrific time. Of course they all over-act, but over-acting never hurt an action adventure movie. Gregory Peck relishes his last opportunity to play an action hero and at the age of 64 shows he can still teach younger actors a few things about how to do these things right. Peck has no problem playing a British officer - his natural speaking voice was rather patrician anyway and he wisely makes no attempt to do anything more in the way of an accent. He shares top billing with Moore and Niven. In 1980 Peck was still a major star, having had a massive hit with The Omen just a few years earlier.
There are plenty of amusing moments but while the operation has a certain comic-opera quality McLaglen wisely does not approach this movie as outright comedy, which might have had the effect of making a far-fetched plot (admittedly based on outrageously unlikely true events) seem merely silly. These old crocks are brave men and the movie treats them with the respect they deserve.
This Anglo-American-Swiss co-production was filmed on location in Germany and India. The budget was obviously quite generous and the action sequences are very impressively mounted. Enormous amounts of small arms ammunition get expended and there are enough explosions to gladden the heart of the most jaded action fan.
Reginald Rose’s screenplay was based on James Leasor’s book on the actual raid. Some of the German survivors of the raid acted as historical advisers.
Warner Home Video’s Region 1 DVD is totally lacking in extras but it does present the movie in a superb 16x9 enhanced transfer, and at a very reasonable price. My only quibble, and it’s a very minor one, is that the DVD cover artwork seems to depict Niven and Moore in German uniform, which they don’t wear at any stage in the film,
The Sea Wolves delivers the goods. This is a consciously heroic movie about some very unlikely heroes. There’s no cynicism here, and its absence is entirely to be welcomed. Great fun and highly recommended.