Seven Thunders

Referring to a film as a war movie probably brings to mind images of large set piece combat scenes, of pitched battles raging across the screen with intensity. Seven Thunders (1957) is a war movie and although it does feature an impressively destructive climactic set piece it is really a story (in truth a series of interlocking and interwoven tales) which is played out against, and given added urgency due to, the backdrop of war and occupation. It combines elements of a thriller, drama, and romance and ultimately ties together all the apparently disparate strands. As such, like all genre pictures, it is able to draw in and blend that which one might more readily associate with a different genre. That said, it perhaps tries to cast its net too far and too wide.

And speaking of casting nets, the opening scene by the dockside in the port of Marseille during the Nazi occupation sees a fishing vessel deposit its latest catch. Along with the bounty yielded by the Mediterranean is a pair of escaped Allied prisoners of war on the latest leg of their journey, having escaped from prison camps in Italy. Dave (Stephen Boyd) and Jim (Tony Wright) are taken to a safe house, somewhere to lie low till they can be shunted further along the line. The principal narrative thread is the experience of these two men, with particular focus on Dave and the street smart  young French girl (Anna Gaylor) he finds himself reluctantly falling in love with. Running parallel to this is the matter of Doctor Martout (James Robertson Justice), on the surface a man who is dedicated to aiding the flight of large numbers of refugees and otherwise doomed individuals, but in reality a cold and utterly ruthless serial murderer. Eventually, these two plot strands converge as the relentless Nazi pressure contrives to force the increasingly restless Jim to seek an alternative means of exiting a neighborhood that is soon to be razed to the ground. As these plotlines creep toward their dramatic confluence, other characters and tales spin out of and around them, adding more layers of both tragedy and comedy. There is the impoverished  intermediary (Eugene Deckers) who unwittingly sends victims to the psychopathic Martout and then finds his own life touched by an unspeakable loss. There is the young Wehrmacht soldier whose lack of lack of judgement, self-confidence and self-control brings about that loss. There is then the Englishwoman (Kathleen Harrison) who provides some much needed comic relief, not least when it is discovered that breaking through her wardrobe leads not to a magical land such as C S Lewis might have imagined but instead to a bordello. So, there is no shortage of incident as events build toward an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

All told, I don’t feel Seven Thunders ranks as one of Hugo Fregonese’s more successful pictures, although there is much to enjoy and appreciate in it and the director does some characteristically strong work. The main story is a compelling one and Fregonese gets the most out of the burgeoning romance between Boyd and Gaylor, capturing the immediacy of wartime relationships and gaining credibility both from the performances and the Marseille locations. On the other hand, the Martout sub-plot feels largely unnecessary – it’s neither poorly executed nor uninteresting, but it feels a little undeveloped in itself and also nudges the principal story aside on occasion. If it’s purpose is to add extra tension to the climax, I’m not sure that is necessary. In terms of linking elements together, the Martout strand fleshes out Eugene Deckers role and that in turn affords greater significance to the shocking and tragic business involving the Wehrmacht soldier. Still, I’d have thought those aspects could have been blended in by  some other means. I guess my criticism would be directed at the writing then as opposed to the direction. That writing derives from a novel by Rupert Croft-Cooke, someone whose work I’m more familiar with under his Leo Bruce pseudonym. Leo Bruce wrote some witty detective fiction and those lighter moments I mentioned involving Kathleen Harrison recall this.

Stephen Boyd was on the cusp of real stardom when Seven Thunders was made. He had recently had a memorable part in the fine thriller The Man Who Never Was and was about to get another good role in Henry King’s The Bravados, as well as prominent parts in some glossy melodramas in Hollywood. Overshadowing all this though would be the plum role as Messala in Wyler’s Ben-Hur. He handles the action scenes very competently, including a rooftop fight with a snooping German and the final escape from the city that is collapsing around his ears. The romantic relationship with Anna Gaylor works well too, there’s a sweetness to it and some chemistry between the players. Tony Wright, who had been cast in the early Hammer picture Bad Blonde / The Flanagan Boy opposite Barbara Payton and then portrayed the villain in Tiger in the Smoke, has less to do but carries it off satisfactorily. I tend to think of James Robertson Justice as primarily a comic actor, for the simple reason that those were the parts I first saw him in. However, he did plenty of dramatic work and I think there is something startlingly effective about seeing actors one associates with lighter work portraying out and out evil characters. I know I got a definite chill from seeing him calmly informing one of his victims of the fate which awaits him.

Kathleen Harrison had a long career, and a long life too, playing some wonderful eccentrics and brings both humor and believability to her turn as the woman who has made a life for herself in the French port. As the proprietress of the adjoining bordello, former dancer Katherine Kath nails the world weariness of her character and seasons it with a dash of knowing levity. In other supporting parts, Eugene Deckers has about his creased features that careworn seediness that is a close cousin to despair and, along with Rosalie Crutchley as his downtrodden wife, deals sensitively and effectively with some of the most touching and heartrending moments in the movie.

There is a UK DVD of Seven Thunders available; while the image is generally clean and attractive I’m not sure about the aspect ratio of the presentation, it may be open matte but I think it looks a little cramped at the sides in some shots. In the final analysis, I would rate this as a movie that works well for the most part despite the fact the script attempts to pack in more story than is strictly necessary.

47 thoughts on “Seven Thunders

  1. I have never seen this one. Like you, I tend to prefer narratives that don’t feel overloaded as the film can otherwise start to be wearisome in some cases. But I do always appreciate seeing Justice in non comedic roles! I like Boyd in lots of films but he’s not someone I have ever warmed up to, must admit. Sounds like a mish mash but at least an interesting one!

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    • Too little story isn’t ideal either of course, but a busy narrative can be a bit draining. There’s more that works her than doesn’t so I wouldn’t want to sound too negative.
      I think Boyd was happy to take on complex characters throughout his career and that meant viewers not always liking or sympathizing with those people. I thought The Third Secret presented him with one of those challenging parts.

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  2. I likewise have never seen this one. But I do find the cast of interest so on the must watch list it goes. As for the director, I did like his work on, SADDLE TRAMP, APACHE DRUMS, THE RAID and BLACK TUESDAY, to be quite acceptable.
    Gord

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  3. I haven’t seen this picture for many years but there is one singularly disturbing scene that lingers in the memory: The moment where Kathleen (Ethel Huggett) Harrison jumps into bed with 50’s British beefcake Tony Wright…..

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  4. During last nights You-tube search, I came upon a Stephen Boyd film from 1962 named, LISA aka THE INSPECTOR. Besides Boyd, the cast includes, Delores Hart, Leo McKern, Donald Pleaceance, Harry Andrews, Hugh Griffith and Geoffrey Keen. Boyd plays a Policeman trying to help a woman (Hart) get out of the country.

    Never seen it myself. Have any of you good folks ever taken it in?

    Just go to You-Tube and type in Stephen Boyd and the film should pop right up.

    Gord

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    • Thanks Gordon……I went ahead and took it in the other night. I thought it was pretty good. The location shooting in CinemaScope DeLuxe Color was a big plus. Also, it was the roles of the supporting characters is what really made the film maintain it’s adventurous brisk pace with some tender moments being played out by Stephen Boyd and Dolores Hart.

      SPOILER ALERT – Best scene in the film is when Hart enters the room of a slumbering Boyd……intimately shot with deep sensual overtones. It left you thinking……only what if.

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      • Scott
        Glad you liked it. I’ll take it in myself next weekend. You called it,, that is a fine collection of supporting actors.
        I see that Miss Hart quit acting the next year and became a nun.

        Gord

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  5. OFF TOPIC…….again. This time for you trivia buffs.

    After viewing the Richard Dix version of Earp, I take a stroll around the web. What is this?……a movie poster of what appeared to be Gary Cooper (Wild Bill Hickok) in the “Plainsman” (1936). But, it’s not…..it’s little known actor George Houston (The Lone Rider series in ’41-’42) playing Wild Bill Hickok in a 1938 Sam Newfield low budget effort titled “Frontier Scout”. Well….the resemblance between Cooper and Houston both playing Hickok peaked my interest. So…..I found the movie online and gave it a go.

    What I found most interesting is how well done Houston’s attempts were in emulating Cooper’s persona, all the way down to the Hickok costume that must have been borrowed from Paramount’s costume department. Beyond the scarf worn by Houston, it was an identical match, inclusive of the frontiersman coat with the same insignia on the chest pocket and the Cooper lid. Newfield and company were a pretty crafty bunch. Thus, possibly they were trying to capitalize on the earlier success of the “Plainsman” and produce a Hickok serial that would have preempted The Lone Rider series. Of course, I am just speculating. For the movie itself, it had some good moments. Also, fun watching Houston doing a better job playing Cooper than Hickok. Recommended if you like the inside stuff of making movies.

    For those interested, here it is………….

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  6. ,Weekend films

    First up is MOZAMBIQUE 1965 with Steve Cochran and Hilegarde Neff.
    Next will be, TWILIGHT FOR THE GODS 1958. with Rock Hudson, Cyd Charisse, Arthur Kennedy, Charles McGraw.
    To finish off the weekend, a couple of episodes of the great UK spy series, THE SANDBAGGERS.

    Gord

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      • Colin

        Never seen it myself as it never turned up on TV anywhere. Finally it popped up on TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES here on June 22nd so I recorded it I checked out the first few minutes and it is a sharp crisp looking print. I like the writer, Ernest K Gann a lot, ISLAND IN THE SKY, SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, FATE IS THE HUNTER, THE RAGING TIDE and THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY.

        Gord.

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  7. Nice to see Colin (more or less) return to genre movies, although I thought THE MACOMBER AFFAIR write up was superb, one of Colin’s best ever , I thought.
    I do agree that SEVEN THUNDERS is not one of Fregonese’s best pictures,I’ve only seen it on TV where it came across as rather slapdash. Always good to see Kathleen Harrison,she’s heartbreakingly good in TURN THE KEY SOFTLY a very underrated Brit Noir with some excellent London location shooting.
    Kathleen is also very good in Michael Winner’s WEST 11 which has just been released on Blu Ray.
    So glad you have picked up The Whistler set, Colin,and it’s a shame that MARK OF THE WHISTLER is missing,something to do with “rights” issues, even sadder because that entry was one of the very best in an overall strong series.
    I had a nice surprise recently, I picked up the Blu Ray of a B Movie thatnI’ve never heard of, STEP BY STEP (1946).
    The Warner Archive transfer is lovely and the film moves like a rocket despite the fact a cute dog is involved and a crusty old coot (George Cleveland doing his usual shtick). For lovers of really fast paced B Movies you can’t go far wrong with STEP BY STEP. The Blu Ray also includes a truly weird Daffy Duck cartoon which has our feathered hero as “Duck Tracy” seeing off a whole gallery of grotesque villains.

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    • Good too hear from you, John., and thanks for the compliment regarding that post on The Macomber Affair.
      As for a return to genre movie – mind you, I’d say everything featured here is genre material of one type or another – there’s a strong possibility the next entry may be (wait for it…) a western! Anyway, I like to keep the mix moving and go for whatever catches my attention – anything to stave off the dreaded staleness.

      As for Step By Step, is that the Lawrence Tierney movie? I haven’t seen it myself but I recall reading it’s an atypical Tierney vehicle, lighter in tone than one might expect. That’s not perhaps surprising given the fact it was written by Stuart Palmer, a novelist and writer I really like but who seems like an odd match for the star. In truth, I tend to avoid Tierney movies as I never could warm to the man’s persona.

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  8. “Staleness”……………Never at RTHC I might add!
    Yes STEP BY STEP is the Tierney and oddly enough I’ve never
    seen any of his B Noirs where he had the lead……..
    (DILLINGER,THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE and so on)
    I actually found Tierney rather engaging in STEP BY STEP
    although in real life he had a reputation are a boozer and brawler.
    The cute dog certainly softens the tone of the movie but
    the fast pacing keeps the viewer engaged.

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    • Hello there John k and ALL Trivia Nuts……

      When anyone has a positive comment about Lawrence Tierney it puts a smile on my face and my antennas go up. STEP BY STEP, filmed 12/45-1/46 and released 8/46, is a well put together, fast paced little espionage thriller by RKO. Tierney actually was quite good and I’m sure quite pleasing to the eyes for the female audience.

      Previous to STEP BY STEP, Tierney was borrowed by King Brothers and Monogram to play the title role of “Dillinger” (rel. April ’45). Following his return to RKO and after a few films with small and supporting roles the studio decided to elevate Tierney to top billed star status for STEP BY STEP, mainly due to the ongoing box office success of his portrayal of Dillinger. Casting Tierney in the lead role of STEP BY STEP allowed the studio to promote their new star as an athletic heroic leading man (John Payne comes to mind). In 1948, it was back to full-on noir for Tierney. Let’s face it…….Hollywood studios had a lot of pretty boys filling the ranks, thus everyone was better served with the likes of a Lawrence Tierney.

      So why Tierney in DILLINGER’? Prior to “Dillinger”, Tierney had several uncredited bit roles for RKO. For three of those roles he literally walked-on. The first two, “Government Girl” & “Ghost Ship” both in ’43 and both uncredited. The third, “Youth Runs Wild” in ’44 and credited. Both “Ghost Ship” and “Youth Runs Wild” were Produced by Val Lewton and Directed by Mark Robson so they had first hand knowledge of Tierney.

      Now here is the twist…….reviews of YOUTH RUNS WILD generally get very bad marks and critics just can’t fathom why the likes of Lewton and Robson would have any association with the making of this film. Consequently, there are heaps of written claims the film went through many significant changes to the script and leaving loads of celluloid on the cutting room floor due to interference of government and industrial complex oversight during the nation’s wartime effort. The making of the movie was initially to be a companion piece to “Youth in Crisis” (1943), an Academy Award-nominated March of Time short subject. However, the censors just wouldn’t leave it alone. The end result of the movie being a chopped up mess.

      So what’s all this got to do with DILLINGER and Lawrence Tierney? There are strong indications that the role played by Tierney in YOUTH RUNS WILD was significantly changed. The final product has him playing a significant supporting role right up there with the starring cast……..and by no means a minor bit part. The amount of screen time and quality thereof is central to gathering one’s attention. He simply takes over any sequence he’s in. I also think it may be possible that Lewton and Robson brought Tierney in to fill in some holes created by the censors adding significantly to the character he was playing. One last thing……Tierney appeared in this film right before appearing in DILLINGER. Ya wanna to see the making of a tough guy……..watch this short snippet below……………………..

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  9. Scott,
    Thanks so much for all the Tierney info…very interesting.
    I’ve obviously got a lot of catching up to do.
    I thought he was fine in STEP BY STEP I like films
    where the fugitive duo are on the lam from the cops and the Nazi’s.

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