UNDER TEN FLAGS
I would go to the ends of the earth to see a movie Charles Laughton is in. I would go to the ends of the earth to see a movie starring Van Heflin, the latter a slightly less skilled actor. Both capture and lock in my attention when they are on the screen. Now I had a film with both actors together. What more could I ask?
UNDER TEN FLAGS is a true story about the tracking and destroying of a Nazi freighter that conceals itself as a peaceful vessel and then when it gets close enough, removes the disguise and fires on and sinks the targeted boat. In this case, though, the captain of the rogue ship, Van Heflin, orders that the victimized ship be sunk but that no one on board should die, everyone being taken aboard his ship as prisoner. This is hardly what Hitler had in mind but then this captain is not a Nazi, just a practioner, clinging to his humanity while doing his job.). He even cares for a dog on board, like Hitler with his dog and all Aryan children, but as affirmation of his humanity not as oxymoron. The Nazi helping him is his aide, played by John Erickson, an actor who at one time was considered a new Brando.
Charles Laughton, is the stern British naval leader trying to catch Heflin, maintaining a stern professional efficiency in the atmosphere he must command—giant map and all. Cecil Parker is the boss over him. Alec Nicol (another strong controlled performance) is the expert Texan spy who pulls off an almost miraculous theft of the critical German naval code, a robbery which leads to the end of the reign of Heflin’s freighter.
Though this was war, war seemed to be happening someplace else far away. To me, the high point of drama of the film was the magnificent speech given by Liam Redmond as the dying captain of the victimized British ship. Though there is no scene in the film when Laughton and Heflin meet face to face, there was a clear sense of a tussle between them, as if they were playing internet chess.
I have to give the film to Heflin’s more controlled performance. Laughton was too Laughtony, with his tics, changes in direction, double takes. I kept saying to myself, “Where is the director? Tone him down!” Still, I’ll take thisover no Laughton at all. Heflin’s character wound up as NATO commander after the war. I assume his character and Laughton’s met for tea at some time. I wonder what was said.