When it’s on: Thursday, 12 March (1.05 pm)
Clearly I like Malta because I’ve twice been there on holiday. It’s a fascinating set of islands. For such a tiny place, a pinprick in the Mediterranean Sea, it’s been at the hub of civilised history since there was such a thing and it’s stuffed with attractions, from Neolithic temples to walled medieval cities and Baroque cathedrals, dating from the time when it was owned by the Knights of St John. Malta’s record during World War Two is something of a footnote within the grander scheme, but it was a key strategic location. Occupied by the British, it was pivotal in supplying and disrupting the war effort for either side in the North African theatre. As a consequence, it was heavily bombed by the Axis powers, flying night and day bombing raids from Sicily, ahead of a likely invasion that, if successful, would almost certainly have led to victory in Egypt for Rommel and the closing of the Suez Canal to the Allies.
One of the stranger things to visit in Malta are the Lascaris War Rooms. This is the British control centre from which the war effort was conducted. It might have changed a bit in the seven years since I went, but I remember struggling just to find it, the path taking me down, down down, through tunnels and gangplanks as though descending into some netherworld. Eventually, I emerged into a clearing, the city of Valletta far above, a somewhat plain door before me representing the museum entrance. I wasn’t sure what I expected when I entered, but the nondescript whitewashed tunnels and unassuming doors were probably about right for this place, with its grim purpose and teeth gritted lack of decoration. Still, really interesting stuff. I was given a walkman, which related the story of the war rooms and indeed the conflict as a whole whilst I wandered through the control rooms, stared at the enormous Mediterranean wall charts and the ‘battle boards’ upon which they would move pieces representing ships, planes, thousands of lives. I’d recommend it as a change of scenery, a reminder of one of the more crucial yet far less celebrated moments in Malta’s history.
The Lascaris War Rooms, along with Valletta itself, feature strongly in Malta Story. Brian Desmond Hurst was a director from East Belfast who had scored a considerable box office success in Britain with his adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge, in 1951, now routinely considered to be the best version, but his career stretched back to the 1920s, back when he was working for John Ford on Hangman’s Horse. It was Ford who persuaded Desmond Hurst to take the job of directing Malta Story, cannily seeing it as ‘right up your street,’ and so the production moved to Valletta to begin filming. It was the director’s second visit to the island, his first coming in 1915 when he stopped off with his Irish Rifles regiment on their way to a fateful engagement at Gallipoli.
The film focuses principally on the Axis attacks on Malta, the struggle to fight off enemy bombers, the desperate need for supplies to make it through, the toll it takes on the Maltese who shelter from the ceaseless raids, cope with dwindling food supplies and listen to exhortations from Radio Rome on the wireless that beg them to surrender. The latter are represented by Melita Gonzar (Flora Robson), the matriarch who sees first hand the effect all this is having on her family and who lives in a bittersweet relationship with the British, the cause of their suffering. No Britons on Malta, no more war. When her son, who she believes has been captured and imprisoned on Sicily, emerges as a spy working for the enemy, the pain it causes her is excruciating. It’s a great role, wonderfully understated and surprisingly dignified, amidst the bombast of all those scenes depicting bits of the island being blasted. Much of the footage is carefully edited stock from the historical archives, mixed in with shots of the three Spitfires that were loaned to the production flying out in retaliation. It doesn’t matter. The scenes contain their own power. We know all about the London Blitz, but war was hell everywhere, no more so than on embattled Malta. When the island is collectively awarded the George Cross, in recognition of its suffering, it comes across as a curiously half-baked gesture.
These bits, spliced to give the film a documentary film, are Malta Story at its best. Jack Hawkins is on reliable form as the stoical British commanding officer, every decision given heft by the sense of realism over what failure will amount to. Wing Commander Bartlett is played by Anthony Steel, at the height of his fame following The Wooden Horse but nothing like a leading man. Despite that, there’s a touching element to the romantic storyline he shares with Renee Asherson’s operations room worker, like both are thrown together in an effort to find some personal happiness in the thick of the struggle.
The tale is told nominally from the perspective of Flight Lieutenant Peter Ross (Alec Guinness). A photo reconnaissance pilot, used to flying high over the enemy in order to take shots of potential targets, is on his way to Alexandria but finds himself stranded in Malta when the carrier plane transporting him is hit by a bomb. Ross does his work out of Valletta instead and comes across a train carrying glider parts into Sicily, elements proving there will be an imminent attack. Showing himself to be useful, he also comes a Maltese girl, Maria (Muriel Pavlow), Melita’s daughter, and the pair fall in love, though their relationship is played against cultural clashes between the British and the island’s natives, and worries over what they will do when the war is concluded.
Guinness specifically asked to play Ross, asking Desmond Hurst to be allowed to take on a romantic lead due to being ‘fed up with playing funny little men’. Better known on screen as a comedy actor, there’s a reason why he got few parts of this type. The actor’s scenes with Pavlow are strangely uncomfortable, lacking in chemistry and played very stiffly, whereas when he takes to the skies he appears much more at home. Little wonder perhaps, that Ross simply disappears from the film for large parts when there’s all that juicy war footage to focus upon. He should be the heart of the film; instead, he’s its weak link.
Malta Story: ***