The Riddle Of The Sands (1979)

Directed by Tony Maylam
Michael York, Simon MacCorkindale, Alan Badel, Jenny Agutter, Wolf Kahler.
Music by Howard Blake

Those of you who have struggled through my numerous postings will notice I have a fascination with the beginnings of the spy genre and how it has evolved. That includes all the historical books and characters that were the precursors to the great spy boom in the sixties. Early characters like Bulldog Drummond, Richard Hannay, Ashendon, and even Fu Manchu. And books like Eskine Childers The Riddle Of The Sands. Here’s a bit of a preamble before I get to the review.

When you look up the history of spy stories, a few names pop up again and again. One of those names is Erskine Childers, and his novel The Riddle Of The Sands is considered to be one of the classics of the genre. Peter Haining is his book, ‘The Classic Era Of Crime Fiction’, has this to say:

“The 1903 marked a watershed in the history of espionage fiction with the publication of The Riddle Of The Sands: A Record Of Secret Service by Erskine Childers…the novel which marked the transition between the late nineteenth century genre of imaginary invasions and the coming of the ‘heroic spy novel’ in the twentieth century…”

We skip forward 76 years to this film production.

The film starts off the Frisan Islands, Germany in 1901. Arthur Davies (Simon MacCorkindale) is an amateur yachtsman and is charting the islands and the sandbars for The Admiralty. His solitude is interrupted when he spies the boat, the Medusa. From that boat a girl, Clara (Jenny Agutter) rows across and invites him to dinner. He accepts the invitation.

That evening, on the Medusa, Davies meets Clara’s father, Dollman (Alan Badel), who is the captain of the boat. Another guest is a German military officer. Over dinner, Davies in probed about his presence in the area. He says he is going to try his luck as a hunter and shoot some duck. Dollman and the German officer are polite, but try to persuade Davies to move on. They say that there are no duck in the area.

The next morning, Davies awakens to a cacophony of duck song. It appears that something in this area is not quite above board. So Davies sends a letter to his friend, Charles Caruthers (Michael York). Caruthers works for the Foreign Office, or F.O. as it is often called is spy literature and films. Davies invites Carithers to join him on his yacht. Caruthers agrees thinking it will be a luxury cruise. Instead he gets a berth on Davies’ small yacht, which began it’s life as a lifeboat.

Davies conveys his concerns, and suggests that Dollman is trying to kill him. At first Caruthers is sceptical, but piece by piece, incident by incident, it seems that Davies (and Caruthers as his traveling companion) are not welcome in these waters. Soon the two amateur sailors are snooping about, and stumble on the plans for a German invasion of largely undefended stretches of the English coastline

One of the problems with the film is that it feels like a period drama than a spy film. That is not because of the way it is shot or even the story, but because of the pedestrian pacing (particularly at the start). And the build up to the climax, could have been more tense. The Riddle Of The Sands cannot be considered one of the great spy films, but it is a very earnest and fairly successful attempt at bringing one of the great espionage novels to the silver screen.

What the film does have going for it, is some great atmospheric cinematography by Christopher Challis. The scenes as our two protagonists row towards Memot in heavy fog are well shot and very evocative. Equally the production design by Hazel Peiser and the set design by Robin Peyton lift the film above the ordinary.

So to finish off, I thought I’d shed a bit more light on The Riddle Of The Sands author, Eskine Childers. Despite the book’s status it appears that Childers was not a popular guy. At the end of the first World War he settled in Dublin and joined the I.R.A. Quoting from Haining again:

“..Childers was regarded as ‘the best hated man in the British Isles’ – Winston Churchill branded him ‘a mischief making, murderous renegade’.“

Subsequently Childers was arrested in 1922 and condemned to death. He was executed by firing squad. Such is life.

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