Before there was John Le Carré or Graham Greene or Ian Fleming, there was Erskine Childers, whose 1903 novel “The Riddle of the Sands” paved a prototypical pathway for all twentieth-century spy thrillers to come. This 1979 film adaptation of it is rather too plain and dry to capture all of the tale’s adventure, but it does appear to be an earnest effort to translate most of it to the screen.
Perhaps part of the film’s problem lies with director Tony Maylam, who also helped adapt the screenplay. He’s done mostly documentary films, and his no-nonsense approach to “Riddle of the Sands” may have been too sedately objective for what might have been a more exciting tale in another director’s hands. Still, the movie is pleasant-enough to look at, and its stars tend to carry the day.
The story is pretty straightforward by more-modern spy-thriller standards. The setting is 1901 in the desolate, largely uninhabited Frisian Islands of Germany’s North Sea waters. A young man, Arthur Davies (Simon MacCorkindale), is sailing around the islands in a small boat, charting the islands and hunting duck. But in his travels, he meets up with a yacht belonging to a German officer named Dollmann (Alan Badel), who, with his wife (Olga Lowe) and daughter (Jenny Agutter), is also sailing around the islands. Dollmann invites Davies aboard for dinner, and it isn’t long before Davies begins suspecting Dollmann is up to no good. Davies isn’t sure what, but something about Dollmann worries him. He thinks maybe Dollmann is really English and working as a German spy.
Now, you have to understand that even though World War I was more than a decade away, England and Germany had been on shaky grounds for some time before. In 1901 it was entirely possible that Germany might have been plotting some nefarious mischief toward England.
So Davies contacts an old Oxford friend of his, Charles Carruthers (Michael York), now working in the Foreign Office to come out to the islands and join him in unraveling a possible mystery. Understand, too, that in 1903, when Childers wrote his book, Arthur Conan Doyle was among the most-popular writers of the time, and his fictional detective team of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson were selling stories faster than anybody could believe. It’s no coincidence that Childers decided he needed a pair of English investigators, too.
Carruthers is bored at the moment and thinks it might be time for vacation; thus, he heads off to the Frisian Islands to help his pal. From there, intrigue and adventure ensue, with ominous threats following the pair everywhere. Before long, the two young men are knee-deep in trouble, and the plot they uncover is more sinister than anything they could have imagined.
MacCorkindale and York are fine in their roles, MacCorkindale’s character the more passionate, headstrong fellow, York’s character the more serious, stuffy one. Agutter’s character is barely noticeable, but she provides the presence of a beautiful female so necessary to every spy story since. No, it’s not really the actors who are at issue but the characters themselves; they are simply not very colorful. Author Childers was exploring new territory here and going for realism; the idea of a superhero spy was obviously the last thing on his mind.
Among other issues, there’s Howard Blake’s rather melodramatic music that doesn’t just underline alll the plot details but almost buries them. Then, too, there is an awful lot of rowing and sailing in the film, which might have been OK in the novel but don’t translate very well cinematically to the big screen. It’s part of what contributes to “The Riddle of the Sands” being such a slow-moving spy story, one probably better suited to something like TV’s “Masterpiece Theater” rather than to theatrical release. Maylam’s somewhat staid direction doesn’t help, either. One feels there’s still a good, rousing action yarn in there somewhere, but it might take a more-imaginative director to bring out without being so static. (A later, 1987, German TV production may have made a better impression; I don’t know.) Or perhaps Maylam was just being too literal in adapting the novel to the screen, a novel that didn’t translate well.
Nevertheless, what begins as a sort of lark for the two young protagonists does eventually turn into a fairly suspenseful, tension-filled narrative by the end. What’s more, the movie works well as a period piece, and Christopher Challis’s location photography in Germany and Holland is well worth seeing.
The title? Well, trust me, it ties in. You just have to wait for it.
The VCI video engineers offer the film in two screen formats on the one disc: a 2.35 ratio anamorphic presentation, enhanced for widescreen TV’s, and a 2.35:1 ratio non-anamorphic display, letterboxed (with black bars top, bottom, and sides on a widescreen TV). I have no idea why they chose to include both formats rather than just the anamorphic one.
In any case, in the enhanced version you’ll find a normal amount of film grain, especially noticeable in wide expanses of sky. You’ll also find good, natural colors, often strongly represented, although darker areas of the screen can sometimes appear murky. Object definition is about average for an up-scaled picture, with occasional evidence of edge enhancement. Restored and digitally remastered, it looks fairly clean, except for some minor imperfections and noise, which are hardly an issue.
VCI give you the choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural sound or a remixed 5.1 track. The 5.1 seemed a trifle brighter and edgier to me than the mono, but it provides a wider front-channel experience. In any case, there is not much surround activity involved nor much in the way of deep bass, high treble, or wide dynamics.
The bonuses include a three-minute, self-moving photo gallery; twelve animated scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and English subtitles.
Given the historical importance of the story as one of the first spy yarns of all time, it seems a shame the 1979 movie version doesn’t provide as much emotional involvement as it might have. Nevertheless, one can easily enjoy the movie for its location shooting, its period setting, and its three attractive stars–York, MacCorkindale, and Agutter. They elevate the film from the commonplace at least to the watchable.