February 16, 2017
Malta Story – UK, 1953
There’s a scene in Brian Desmond Hurst’s Malta Story that struck me as particularly peculiar as I watched it. In the scene, we get a view of downtown Malta, an area filled with bombed out buildings and sprinkled with the occasional café and business. There’s even a class being conducted outside. Suddenly, the serenity is interrupted by an alarm and immediately people scatter. Some head in buildings; most head to a shelter. Within no time, a plane appears and begins dropping bombs all around. In less than a minute, the siege ends and another alarm sounds. Out come the crowds and the students that previously meandered there, and life continues as if nothing of significance had just occurred. The scene is a testament to the madness that war breeds, for it seems to suggest that bombings have become just another part of the day, as routine as having breakfast and leaving for work.
As stunning as the scene is, it is also part of what makes Malta Story a frustrating film to watch, for while it is believable that long-term residents and soldiers may become somewhat numb to daily assaults from the air, it is not realistic that a character like RAF reconnaissance photographer Peter Ross would. Ross, played by the legendary Alec Guinness, is a man with a rather soft soul. More interested in trains than planes and in history than war, he is less a soldier than a documentarian, and his stay on Malta is wholly unintended. However, not even he comments on the insanity that he sees around him, and since no one gives voice to it, it doesn’t register the way it should. We should feel the residents’ anxiety; instead, we just watch passively and wait for the plot to move forward.
Malta Story has two main story lines. The first one details the state of Malta as a whole, under siege, unprotected, and situated perilously between Axis forces. Much of its vulnerability is conveyed by the military hierarchy on Malta, and these men, as well as the women who work with them, are some of the only characters who understand the gravity of their situation. However, while this story line has the potential to be very engaging, all too often the film leaps from situation to situation without giving the audience enough pause to be able to register the danger that anyone is in. For example, in at one point, the British forces are short of planes and under siege. Then they are elated because planes finally arrive, and then just as quickly we see them celebrating military victories. None of it registers emotionally. Only when the film slows down, which it doesn’t do nearly enough, do viewers get a chance to see the residents’ level of desperation and vulnerability.
The second story line involves a romance between Ross and a young local woman named Maria Gonzar (Muriel Pavlow). This is a standard element of this kind of movie, and its success largely depends of whether the film devotes enough time to establishing a connection between the pair or whether it conveys the desperation that causes two people to get together when they might not otherwise. Malta Story takes a different path. It’s the kind more often seen in standard romance films. Two people meet, take a liking to each other, and soon begin dating. The war is practically an afterthought. Only Maria’s mother (Flora Robson) reacts the way someone might be expected to. This is especially true when she learns that food rations have been cut yet again. Robson gives a great performance, and I would likely have enjoyed the film a great deal more had she been its focal point.
At the time of its release, one of the film’s selling points was its reenactments of combat and its persistent use of archival war footage. However, the film doesn’t know how to use these images. At times, characters shout out that they are under attack only for it to cut to footage of a formation of Axis planes that look as if they’re flying at a snail’s pace. When they do attack, the action often takes place in the background and thus seems far away from both the characters and the audience. The result of this is that we are never truly drawn into the moment because what we see seems so disconnected to the characters’ reality. This is a cardinal sin, for a movie like this one needs to make us feel; I just felt impatience.
This is not to suggest that there aren’t individual scenes that work quite well. The film is actually quite moving whenever Robson is on screen, and there are individual moments when we see fleeting images that inspire varying degrees of hope and desperation. Also, the scenes in the command room are well shot, giving the viewer an intriguing look at old-time technology and military strategizing. However, the film lacks the focus needed to succeed completely. In a way, it reminded me of Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, a film that underwent numerous rewrites in order for it to better reflect the most recent events of the war. As a result, the film feels disjointed, and its pieces never truly come together. The same can be said of Malta Story. Its varied plot points simply never form a cohesive narrative. The film is dull when it should be exciting and fast-paced when it should take its time. This left me cold and unattached to the events transpiring on the screen, and not even the presence of a legend could change this. It’s a shame really. They had the right actors and the right setting; they just didn’t have the right script. Malta deserved better. (on DVD and Blu-ray)