The Sea Wolves (1980) – Directed by Andrew W. McLaglen – Starring Gregory Peck, Roger Moore, David Niven, Trevor Howard, Barbara Kellerman, and Patrick Macnee.
THE SEA WOLVES is an odd movie.
Given the title and the cover image they use at Netflix, I had thought I was getting a later version of an Alistair MacLean movie, which, as you know because you’re a loyal reader, I’d been reviewing for my appearance on Van Allen Plexico’s White Rocket Podcast. With Gregory Peck, Roger Moore, and David Niven looking so serious on the cover image, I was expecting a derivative MacLean film that would’t be as good, necessarily, but would still be entertaining.
Well, it’s not a MacLean film, but it is entertaining. It is, however, the kind of movie that doesn’t make any sense. The fact that it’s based on a true story makes the fact that it doesn’t make any sense make even less sense. And all of that is part of its charm.
Ostensibly, THE SEA WOLVES is a war movie. A World War II movie, to be precise, in which the Brits want to blow up a Nazi ship in neutral territory that is broadcasting detailed information about Allied ships, resulting in them getting blown to the bottom of the ocean by German U-boats. Being in neutral territory off the coast of Goa, the Brits can’t go after the ships without causing all sorts of international problems. Hamstrung, the Brits give the mission to the Calcutta Light Horse, which was part of the Cavalry Reserve in the British Indian Army.
What does all of that mean? It means old Brits living in India and playing lots of polo and drinking lots of beer get tasked with taking out a German controlled ship in neutral territory all the way on the opposite coast of India.
If this were a MacLean story, the film would start with Colonel Lewis Pugh (Gregory Peck) and Captain Gavin Stewart (Roger Moore) bringing in Colonel Grice (David Niven) and the rest of his Light Horse contingent, and then they’d go on a big adventure leading to a massive final action sequence. Of course, given that the Calcutta Light Horse isn’t a group of professional soldiers, but a group of ex-soldiers who have invited to not get involved in the war, maybe it would never be a MacLean story.
Instead of the band of ragtag brothers out to save the day, THE SEA WOLVES gives us a whole lot of Gregory Peck and Roger Moore playing Secret Agent Men in Goa, where Gavin finds time to fall in love with Mrs. Cromwell (Barbara Kellerman), who just so happens to be the Nazis #2 man in the Indian state.
It’s the relationship between Peck and Moore that gives SEA WOLVES its charm, and it is a very charming, enjoyable movie. It’s not a movie that I want to think too much about (the Brits only option is to do nothing or recruit some non-soldiers?) but if just sitting and watching it play out is a good time. Peck and Moore are fantastic playing off one another, and this is one of my favorite Peck performances. He’s so relaxed here that he plays almost every scene with this interior smirk that gives Pugh a persona that’s both professional and cocky. You’d think Moore would play the relaxed cocky one, and he does that, too. Instead of these performances either clashing with one another or canceling each other out, they actually work wonderfully together. It’s like watching two versions of the same man, separated by 30 years of experience.
I could easily have watched these two guys the entire movie and while that would not have been true to the spirit of what the actual Calcutta Light Horse did (and it’s to the movie’s credit that it makes sure you know this is a story based on real people), it would have been a more enjoyable movie. Once Pugh and Gavin split up – Pugh oversees the operation while Gavin stays in Goa to create distractions. All of the Light Horse guys are great but we get so little of them – and so little of David Niven – that their presence in the film distracts me from what I just spent the bulk of the movie watching.
I do not normally try to think for you, the reader. That’s just bad form. I’ll tell you what I think of a movie and attempt to stay away from ordaining what you think of a movie. That said, and to continue with my opening comments, if you come to the film wanting a war movie, you’re not going to get one. There’s very little World War II in the film. Instead, THE SEA WOLVES is like a relaxed adventure film that highlights an upper middle class British gentility. Whatever the purpose of the Light Horse originally was, in SEA WOLVES it’s just an old boy’s club where “men get to be men unless their woman is there to shake her head at them.” These are men looking for a bit of glory, who are unhappy to be considered out to pasture. They want to help. They want a bit of danger. And it’s … it’s almost tragic. They want to be important again and they treat the whole enterprise like they’re out on a fox hunt.
That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch them, because THE SEA WOLVES is the perfect example of what I used to call an AMC movie. I haven’t had cable in so long I have no real idea what kinds of movies that AMC still broadcasts, but back in the day they played a lot of movies I’d never heard of that nonetheless starred a bunch of people I had heard of. Using SEA WOLVES as an example – I’d see the ad for a film starring Peck, Moore, and Niven and then wonder why I didn’t instantly recognize what movie it was. How could I not know about a movie starring Gregory Peck, Roger Moore, and David Niven?
Then I’d watch the film and know why – it was thoroughly mediocre and maybe even disappointing. As time goes by we think of old actors only for their best or most memorable films. We forget that even big stars probably starred in a bunch of clunkers, and that was the role that AMC existed to fill, to remind us of those probably clunkers.
SEA WOLVES isn’t a clunker, though. It’s not a highly memorable movie but it’s a perfect example of what I wanted but usually did not get out of an AMC movie – an enjoyable film starring a bunch of actors I like doing things they’re good at. That’s SEA WOLVES. It’s not overly memorable, it’s not overly well made, but it is thoroughly entertaining, and proof that sometimes even war movies can be breezy and light and charming.