An uneven amalgam of war picture, spy drama, and romance. In late WWI, O’Brien captains a naval crew aboard a decoy ship posing as merchant marines. They’re hunting for a notorious German U-boat.
While docked picking up fuel for their submarine escort, O’Brien and company encounter a German outfit doing the same. Of course, it’s the very outfit they’re after. O’Brien also gets mixed up with Lessing, who plays the U-Boat commander’s sister. Things drag. Lessing and O’Brien have no chemistry, and she proves unconvincing as a German national.
Ford shines with the naval action, however. We see just how difficult it was to refuel at sea, how tricky it was to transfer passengers in rough seas, and we’re treated to a memorable POV shot of a submarine surfacing. All real, shot at sea, no effects.
The technical prowess peaks with a naval battle finale that holds up today, but the coda scene between O’Brian and Lessing is laugh-out-loud bad.
That was a war story about a Q ship - some good stuff in it - but at the last moment, the head of the studio put a girl who’d never acted before in as the lead because he thought she spoke a few words of German - which she didn’t. We had a scene, I remember, in which the German submarine slips up alongside another submarine to refuel, and this girl comes out onto the bridge chewing gum! Right in the camera. So we had to go to all the trouble of doing it all over again. She just couldn’t act. But we did all the refueling at sea. That stuff was good and so was the battle stuff, but the story was bad; it was just a lot of hard work; and you couldn’t do anything with that girl. Then later they cut the hell out of it.
Peter Bogdanovich. John Ford (University of California Press, 1967), 53.↩