Quite why "Yangtse Incident" has taken so long to come to DVD in an age where classics are routinely knocked out at knock down prices is beyond me. That said, this excellent film has always unfairly played second fiddle to "Cruel Sea", "In Which We Serve", "Sink the Bismark", "Above Us the Waves" et al.
The story of HMS AMETHYST's detention by communist forces during the Chinese civil war, and her subsequent escape, may not be well known by modern generations but this film does a sound job of dramatising events and an outstanding job of bringing to life the violence and danger of being in a warship pounded by shells. It misses a trick or two in portraying Lt Cdr Kerans, who assumes command during the incident, as a little too crisp and stiff upper-lipped, when the man himself was a far more complex and flawed character. That said, Richard Todd (drawing as he so often did on his personal wartime experiences) excels in his portrayal of an inspirational leader. His strong supporting cast deliver a pitch perfect rendition of Royal Navy sailors of the time, even allowing for a little toning down and poetic licence. Bernard Cribbins and Ian Bannen both make early outings in film as junior sailors and William Hartnell is particularly strong as the experienced Leading Hand who has what it takes when the chips are down; the courage and determination in his backened face as he struggles to his feet and takes the wheel after all others in the wheelhouse are killed make this one of the finer moments in cinema's portrayal of naval warfare.
Indeed, it is the brilliant depicition of the smoke, flame, shrapnel and carnage that occur when shells rip into armoured metal boxes that marks this film out. As AMETHYST's guns return fire the scenes descend into a cacophony of defeaning, shattering gunfire and confusion. There was obviously no CGI when this film was made, but there was an abundance of laid-up warships. As a result, AMETHYST began production starring as herself but fell victim to one of the substantial and numerous underwater explosions used to simulate shell splashes, opening up her hull plates and forcing the use of a stand in for the remainder of filming.
The film is not perfect, and in portraying some of the monotony of AMETHYST's days and weeks as a hostage it loses as little pace in the middle section. You might also have wished for a slightly more convincing Communist Chinese colonel than the Georgian actor Akim Tamiroff, his particularly un-chinese face and accent highlighted even more by the presence of Cantonese actor Keye Luke as his subaltern.
Richard Todd and Co, real warships, real explosions, a rip roaringly patriotic score - well you can't go wrong really....God Save the King.