Sailor of the King

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Sailor of the king.jpg
US release poster with overseas market name, Sailor of the King.
Directed by Roy Boulting
Produced by Frank McCarthy
Written by C. S. Forester (novel)
Valentine Davies
Starring Jeffrey Hunter
Michael Rennie
Peter van Eyck
Wendy Hiller
Music by Clifton Parker
Release dates
11 June 1953 (UK)
Running time
83 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Budget $1,220,000[1]

Single-Handed is a 1953 war film based on the novel Brown on Resolution by C. S. Forester and (despite being largely set in the Pacific) filmed in the Mediterranean Sea. Jeffrey Hunter stars as a Canadian sailor serving on a British warship who battles single-handedly to delay a German World War II warship long enough for the Royal Navy to bring it to battle. The film was released in the United States as Sailor of the King.


During the First World War, Lieutenant Richard Saville, a young British naval officer on five days leave, and Miss Lucinda Bentley, a merchant's daughter from Portsmouth, get talking on the train up to London. Halfway along their journey, they miss their rail connection and spend a romantic holiday in the countryside of southern England. When Saville proposes to her, she accepts, but on the day they are due to go back to Portsmouth, she changes her mind, asking Saville to realise that neither he nor she could bear being parted for the long periods he would be at sea. They part, seemingly forever.

Saville serves out the First World War and the inter-war years, and by the first years of the Second World War, he is in command of a squadron of three cruisers on convoy duty in the Pacific. He receives a message from a British merchantman just before it is sunk by the German raider Essen, but HMS Stratford, the flagship of Saville's squadron is too low on fuel for pursuit and the convoy cannot be left unguarded. Saville decides to remain with the convoy while his other two ships - HMS Amesbury and HMS Cambridge - chase after the raider. Cambridge then has to stop to pick up survivors from the merchantman, leaving the Amesbury on her own. Amesbury finds and attacks the Essen, scoring a major torpedo hit on the Essen’s bow, but is sunk with the loss of all but two hands, Petty Officer Wheatley and Signalman Andrew 'Canada' Brown. Brown is the son of a mother keen on the navy and thus knows more about naval tactics, strategy and gunnery than most of his rank.

The Essen picks up the two survivors. Meanwhile, news of the Amesbury’s fate reaches Saville in the Stratford. Saville decides to risk all and go after the Essen with Cambridge. While the Essen is anchored in a rocky lagoon for 36 hours to carry out repairs, Brown manages to escape to the heights around the lagoon with a rifle (back home, he had won marksmanship prizes). He then proceeds to pick off sailors working on the repairs, leading the Essen’s captain to use his ship's AA guns and then big guns in vain attempts to dislodge Brown. Finally he sends a party of marines out to hunt Brown down, but just as they are about to kill him, they are recalled and the Essen departs. Brown collapses, seriously wounded.

As the Essen leaves the lagoon, she is caught and sunk by Saville's force. One of her survivors informs the British of Brown's exploits, which delayed repairs for 18 hours, thus enabling the British to catch up with them. A landing party is sent ashore from Saville's force to find Brown.

Alternate endings[edit]

The film is unusual for its period in that, for the American version, two different endings were filmed, one in which Brown survives and another in which he is killed. These were both shown in cinemas and audiences were asked to choose their favourite one. Both endings are also shown when the film is broadcast on British television (e.g. FilmFour).

First ending[edit]

The landing party searches the island for Brown, as the camera pans to his apparently dead body. The action then cuts to London and an honours investiture, where Saville receives a knighthood for his actions. Brown was found dead by the landing party and is awarded a Victoria Cross posthumously, presented to his mother. She is revealed to be the former Lucinda Bentley, who had moved to Canada after her tryst with Saville. She and Saville meet before she goes to accept her son's medal.

Second ending[edit]

The action cuts straight from the German survivor to an honours investiture in London, where Brown (who has in this version survived to receive his VC) meets Saville. Brown tells Saville that his English mother - to whom he owes his joining the navy - is living in Montreal and unable to make it to the ceremony (though whether or not she is Lucinda is not revealed). Saville informs Brown that he is to be his signaller on their next posting, on the north Atlantic convoy routes. They will both probably get a chance to see his mother in Canada. The pair then stand to attention as the national anthem plays.

Differences from the novel[edit]

In the novel, Brown is unknowingly Saville's and Lucinda Brown's illegitimate son. In the film, Lucinda initially has a different surname, Bentley. It is thus implied that she later married a man named Brown. Andrew states "my father died before I was born." Thus, it is possible either that Andrew is Lucinda's legitimate son by her marriage, or (though this is never explicitly stated) that he may in fact be Saville's son. In the novel Brown dies without knowing that his actions have secured the destruction of the German ship.

The novel had previously been filmed in 1935 under the original title Brown on Resolution. The earlier film had naturally retained the First World War setting of the actions against the German raider. In this 1953 remake, the story is transferred to the Second World War; the gap between the affair and these events is thus moved to 24 years between 1916 and 1940. This is remarkably appropriate, as WW2 produced a number of examples of convoy escorts accepting battle against heavier German commerce raiders, such as Graf Spee, Scharnhorst and Admiral Hipper in order to allow their convoys to scatter and escape.


Ships used[edit]

The Dido class cruiser HMS Cleopatra plays both the fictional Royal Navy ships "HMS Amesbury" and "HMS Stratford". As "Amesbury" she is sunk by the more powerful German raider "Essen", and as "Stratford" she triumphs at the end of the story. HMS Cleopatra herself had a distinguished war record, as she was Admiral Vian's flagship at the Second Battle of Sirte, when she was one of four light-cruisers which beat off the Italian battleship Littorio and two powerful heavy cruisers in one of the best cruiser actions of the war. The film's battle sequences depict this light-cruiser firing her guns and torpedoes in some detail.

The raider "Essen" is portrayed by HMS Manxman, a fast minelaying cruiser, fitted for the film with large mock-up gun turrets over her 4" guns. The 'torpedo damage' which forces her delay at Resolution Island is simply painted on the side of her port bow. With three enlarged raked funnels, she looks more like a First World War vessel than any of the German Second World War surface raiders, but she is sufficiently different in appearance not to be mistaken for any of the British ships. The scenes when she is holed up for repairs were filmed in the semi-circular Dwejra bay, guarded by Fungus Rock on the west coast of Gozo Island in Malta. The ship's Captain, John Trevor Lean D.S.O., played the part of the Navigator in the film as he had to be on the bridge at all times. Several of the ship's company also took part as extras, dressed in German uniforms.

The crew of HMS Glasgow are credited in the opening titles; she herself is seen in a few distant shots in company with two Dido-class cruisers, and her triple 6" guns are depicted when the "Essen" fires her main armament at the island in an attempt to dislodge Brown.


  1. ^ Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p248

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