Malta Story

Last updated

Malta Story
Original UK film poster
Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst
Produced byPeter De Sarigny
Written by Nigel Balchin
William Fairchild
Based onstory by William Fairchild
an idea by Thorold Dickinson
Peter de Sarigny
Sir Hugh P. Lloyd (book, Briefed to Attack)
Starring Alec Guinness
Jack Hawkins
Anthony Steel
Muriel Pavlow
Flora Robson
Music by William Alwyn
Cinematography Robert Krasker
Edited by Michael Gordon
Theta Film Productions [1]
Distributed by GFD (UK)
United Artist (US)
Release date
  • 23 June 1953 (1953-06-23)(UK)
  • 5 August 1954 (1954-08-05)(US)
Running time
103 minutes (UK)
97 minutes (US)
CountryUnited Kingdom

Malta Story is a 1953 British war film, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, which is set during the air defence of Malta during the Siege of Malta in the Second World War. [2] The film uses real and unique footage of the locations at which the battles were fought and includes a love story between a RAF reconnaissance pilot and a Maltese woman, as well as the anticipated execution of her brother, caught as an Italian spy. The pilot is loosely based on Adrian Warburton; the Maltese woman's brother is based on Carmelo Borg Pisani, who was executed in 1942.


Director Brian Desmond Hurst in 1976 (portrait by Allan Warren) Brian Desmond Hurst. Allan Warren.jpg
Director Brian Desmond Hurst in 1976 (portrait by Allan Warren)


In 1942 Britain is desperately holding onto Malta. Invasion seems imminent; the Italians and Germans are regularly bombing the airfields and towns. Flight Lieutenant Peter Ross, an archaeologist in civilian life, is on his way to an RAF posting in Egypt, but is stranded when the Lockheed Hudson on which he was a passenger is bombed while attempting to refuel on Malta. Air Commodore Frank, having just lost a photo reconnaissance pilot, has Ross reassigned to him, as that is Ross's speciality.

Peter meets Maria, a young Maltese woman working in the RAF operations room. The two fall in love and spend a few romantic hours at the Neolithic temples of Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim. In the meantime, the situation at Malta becomes desperate. Famine looms, as relief convoys fall prey to Axis aircraft. A crucial convoy is severely mauled by day and night aerial attacks, but enough ships, including the vital oil tanker SS Ohio, reach Malta.

Peter proposes marriage to Maria, although they realise that wartime is not favourable to lasting love affairs, as Maria's mother suggests; nevertheless, the young couple remain hopeful of the future. Maria's brother Giuseppe is caught returning to the island from Italy, where he had been studying before the war. He finally admits to being a spy, but tries to justify by saying it is his country and he wanted to end his people's suffering. [Note 1]

The RAF holds on, and, along with Royal Navy submarines, is eventually able to take the offensive, targeting enemy shipping on its way to Rommel in Libya. Spitfires are flown in from aircraft carriers to defend the island, while attacks are carried out by aircraft such as Bristol Beaufighter fighter-bombers and Bristol Beaufort and Fairey Albacore torpedo bombers.

Then a crucial enemy convoy sails for Libya under cover of poor visibility. Frank needs desperately to locate it; he orders Peter to find it at any cost and to radio in immediately if he does. Peter, flying in his Spitfire, finally spots it, but after he reports its position, he is attacked by six enemy fighters and killed, while Maria in the operations room listens helplessly to his final radio transmissions. When there are no more messages, she picks up Peter's marker from the operations table.

Later, a newspaper article reports that Rommel has lost the Second Battle of El Alamein (in part due to supply shortages).


As appearing in Malta Story, (main roles and screen credits identified): [3]

Archival image of a Supermarine Spitfire Mk VB(trop) as shown in a screenshot from Malta Story; note the tropical air filter typically used by the VB(trop) variant Malta Story Spitfire.jpg
Archival image of a Supermarine Spitfire Mk VB(trop) as shown in a screenshot from Malta Story; note the tropical air filter typically used by the VB(trop) variant
Archival image of a Junkers Ju 88 as shown in a screenshot from Malta Story Ju-88 Malta Story.jpg
Archival image of a Junkers Ju 88 as shown in a screenshot from Malta Story



The film was the idea of the Labour Government's Central Office of Information, who wanted a movie to illustrate co-operation between the three branches of the armed services during World War Two, and thought the Siege of Malta was an ideal background. Producer Peter de Sarigny, director Thorold Dickinson and writer William Fairchild set up a company, Theta, to make it.

The movie was originally called The Bright Flame and was about the story of the actual siege with a fictional story about Lt Ross, who falls in love with a Maltese girl, Maria, whose brother is hanged as a spy by the British. Ross is shot down on a mission but survives and is visited by Maria's mother, who remains loyal to Britain. [4]

J. Arthur Rank and John Davis, who ran Rank Productions, wanted the film to move in a different direction. Nigel Balchin was hired to rewrite the script, adding a plot line to emphasise the loneliness of command, emphasised the British characters over the Maltese, and having Ross die at the end, but after having obtained information to help the British win at the Battle of El Alamein. Dickinson was replaced as director by Brian Desmond Hurst. [4]

The Ulster born director Brian Desmond Hurst was persuaded by his lifelong friend, John Ford, to direct the Malta Story. Ford told Hurst, "it's right up your street." [5] [6] Hurst says Alec Guinness approached him asking to play the role of Ross, saying he wanted a change of pace. [4]


The unique footage used in the Malta Story is actual historic archive material. In the aerial sequences, combat footage of aircraft that attacked Malta, such as the Italian Savoia-Marchetti SM.79 torpedo/horizontal bomber and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109F fighters and Junkers Ju 88 bombers can be seen, along with many other wartime RAF aircraft. [2] Additionally, many scenes were shot in Malta with the real types of aircraft still in operational service at that time, some of which did not exist any longer elsewhere. The production only had the use of three later Supermarine Spitfire Mk XVIs, which had been located in storage. [7] Although a modicum of model work and studio rear projection footage was needed, careful editing of archival newsreel and location photography created an authentic looking, near-documentary style. [5] [Note 2]

Alec Guinness, cast and playing against type, [5] as part of the Old Vic Company, had played in Malta as part of a tour that had travelled to Portugal, Egypt, Italy and Greece in 1939. [8] Guinness had served in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War, joining first as a seaman in 1941 and being commissioned the following year, and actually serving in the Mediterranean Theatre. [Note 3] [Note 4] During the Malta Story production, he found that he was drawn to the social life of the large Royal Navy base on the island, often joining with servicemen at the local "watering holes." [11]

The Fast Minelaying Cruiser HMS Manxman is mentioned by name in the film as bringing Vice-Admiral Payne to Malta to relieve Vice-Admiral Willie Banks. In the film Manxman is briefly depicted by a Dido-class cruiser – clearly identifiable from her 5.25-inch gun turrets which were unique to this cruiser class. (HMS Manxman herself was coincidentally used in another 1953 film which was also shot in Malta. This was Sailor of the King, in which she depicted the fictional German raider Essen. This film also used the Dido-class Cruiser HMS Cleopatra, which was then operating as part of the Mediterranean Fleet).

It was one of several war films Anthony Steel made where he played in support of an older male actor. [12]


Box office

Malta Story was the fourth most popular movie at the British box office in 1953. [13] "The combination of an A-list cast, the portrayal of the iron resilience of the Maltese people, the gallantry of the RAF pilots and a tragic love story were the four components of its success." [14]

Critical reception

Contemporary reviews judged Malta Story to be a fairly average war picture.

In a contemporary review in The New York Times , critic A. H. Weiler considered it "restrained, routine fare" with "rickety, stock love stories," concluding that "the commendable British reserve [the characters] display in the face of peril does not add luster to the standard yarn in which they are involved. This 'Malta Story,' unlike the actual one, does not stir the senses or send the spirit soaring." [15]

Variety wrote that the film had some "highly dramatic moments," but found that "this type of war story no longer packs the big punch. It's like watching a slightly aged film with its characters out of relation to present times." The review added that Guinness "isn't given much of a chance to emote and his performance therefore is slightly disappointing." [16]

John L. Scott of the Los Angeles Times called the film "long on bombing scenes but somewhat short on human drama." [17] The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote, "The action scenes are, as expected, capably handled. But the film misses out entirely on characterisation. Most of the men are pure 'Boys Own Paper,' all clean-cut profiles and noble, far-seeing gazes." [18] John McCarten of The New Yorker wrote, "Regrettably, there is lacking—as there is in most fictionalized accounts of war—some of the awful impact of impersonal horror that can be caught in documentary films, and the plot spins slowly from a familiar dramatic spool." [19] Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post found the romance subplot "too pat and self-consciously contrived to give much life to the film," but praised the battle scenes, concluding: "Robert Krasker's on-the-spot photography and the clips from wartime film records are splendid and give 'Malta Story' its essential spirit. [20]

In a later review of Malta Story, Leonard Maltin commented that "on-location filming of this WW2 British-air-force-in-action yarn is sparked by underplayed acting." [21] Aviation film historians, Jack Hardwick and Ed Schnepf gave it a 3/5 rating, noting the use of period aircraft made it "good buff material." [22]

In 1955 Guinness called it his "worst" movie "because of the lost time element." [23]


Theirs is the Glory: Arnhem, Hurst and Conflict on Film takes Hurst's Battle of Arnhem epic as its centrepiece and then chronicles Hurst's life and experiences during the First World War and profiles each of his other nine films on conflict, including Malta Story. [24]

Related Research Articles

<i>Battle of Britain</i> (film) 1969 WWII film by Guy Hamilton

Battle of Britain is a 1969 British Second World War film directed by Guy Hamilton, and produced by Harry Saltzman and S. Benjamin Fisz. The film documents the events of the Battle of Britain. The film drew many respected British actors to accept roles as key figures of the battle, including Laurence Olivier as Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Trevor Howard as Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, and Patrick Wymark as Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Air Officer commanding No. 12 Group RAF. It also starred Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer and Robert Shaw as Squadron Leaders. The script by James Kennaway and Wilfred Greatorex was based on the book The Narrow Margin by Derek Wood and Derek Dempster.

<i>The First of the Few</i> 1942 film by Leslie Howard

The First of the Few is a 1942 British black-and-white biographical film produced and directed by Leslie Howard, who stars as R. J. Mitchell, the designer of the Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft. David Niven co-stars as a Royal Air Force officer and test pilot, a composite character that represents the pilots who flew Mitchell's seaplanes and tested the Spitfire. The film depicts Mitchell's strong work ethic in designing the Spitfire and his death. The film's title alludes to Winston Churchill's speech describing Battle of Britain aircrew, subsequently known as the Few: "Never was so much owed by so many to so few".

<i>Dark Blue World</i> 2001 film by Jan Svěrák

Dark Blue World is a 2001 film by Czech director Jan Svěrák, the Academy Award-winning director of Kolya, about Czech pilots who fought for the British Royal Air Force (RAF) during the Second World War. The screenplay was written by Zdeněk Svěrák, the director's father. The film stars Czech actors Ondřej Vetchý, Kryštof Hádek and Oldřich Kaiser. British actors include Tara Fitzgerald, Charles Dance and Anna Massey.

<i>633 Squadron</i> 1964 film

633 Squadron is a 1964 British war film directed by Walter Grauman and starring Cliff Robertson, George Chakiris, and Maria Perschy. The plot, which involves the exploits of a fictional World War II British fighter-bomber squadron, was based on the 1956 novel of the same name by former Royal Air Force officer Frederick E. Smith, which itself drew on several real RAF operations. The film was produced by Cecil F. Ford for the second film of Mirisch Productions UK subsidiary Mirisch Films for United Artists. 633 Squadron was the first aviation film to be shot in colour and Panavision widescreen.

<i>Piece of Cake</i> (TV series)

Piece of Cake is a 1988 British six-part television serial depicting the life of a Royal Air Force fighter squadron from the day of the British entry into World War II through to one of the toughest days in the Battle of Britain. The series was produced by Holmes Associates for LWT for ITV and had a budget of five million pounds.

<i>A Yank in the R.A.F.</i> 1941 American black-and-white war film directed by Henry King

A Yank in the R.A.F. is a 1941 American black-and-white war film directed by Henry King and starring Tyrone Power and Betty Grable. It is considered a typical early-World War II production. Originally titled The Eagle Squadron, it is based on a story by "Melville Crossman", the pen name for 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck. It follows an American pilot who joins the Royal Air Force (RAF), during a period when the United States was still neutral.

No. 603 Squadron RAF Force Protection squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force

No. 603 Squadron is a squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. On reforming on 1 October 1999, the primary role of 603 Squadron, was as a Survive to Operate squadron, as well as providing Force Protection.

No. 452 Squadron RAAF Royal Australian Air Force squadron

No. 452 Squadron is a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) air traffic control unit. It was established in 1941 as a fighter squadron, in accordance with Article XV of the Empire Air Training Scheme during World War II. The squadron flew Supermarine Spitfires for the entire war, initially over the United Kingdom and Nazi-occupied Europe. It was later based in Australia and the Netherlands East Indies, before being disbanded in 1945. It was re-raised in its current role in February 2011.

<i>Angels One Five</i>

Angels One Five is a 1952 British war film directed by George More O'Ferrall and starring Jack Hawkins, Michael Denison, Dulcie Gray, John Gregson, Cyril Raymond and Veronica Hurst. Based on the book What Are Your Angels Now? by Pelham Groom, the plot centres on a young fighter pilot immediately before and during the Battle of Britain in the Second World War. Some scenes in the film were shot at RAF Uxbridge, home to a wartime operations room.

<i>Appointment in London</i> 1953 film by Philip Leacock

Appointment in London is a 1953 British war film set during the Second World War and starring Dirk Bogarde. The film was directed by Philip Leacock and based on a story by John Wooldridge, who as an RAF bomber pilot flew 108 operational sorties over Europe. Wooldridge, who after the war established himself as a successful film composer before being killed in a car accident in 1958, also wrote the film score and participated in writing the screenplay.

No. 242 Squadron RAF was a Royal Air Force (RAF) squadron. It flew in many roles during the First World War, Second World War and Cold War.

No. 611 Squadron RAF

No. 611 Squadron is a British Royal Air Force squadron. It was first formed in 1936 and was disbanded in 1957 after seeing combat as a fighter unit during the Second World War. It was reformed as a reserve squadron in 2013.

<i>Dangerous Moonlight</i>

Dangerous Moonlight is a 1941 British film, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Anton Walbrook. Among the costumes, the gowns were designed by Cecil Beaton. The film is best known for its score written by Richard Addinsell, orchestrated by Roy Douglas, which includes the Warsaw Concerto.

<i>High Flight</i> (film)

High Flight is a 1957, CinemaScope, British, cold war drama film in Technicolor, directed by John Gilling and featuring Ray Milland, Bernard Lee and Leslie Phillips. High Flight was filmed with the co-operation of the Royal Air Force (RAF). The title of the film was derived from the poem of the same title by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American aviator who flew for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and lost his life in 1941 over RAF Cranwell, where much of the film was shot.

<i>Thunder Birds</i> (1942 film) 1942 film by William A. Wellman

Thunder Birds is a 1942 Technicolor film directed by William A. Wellman and starring Gene Tierney, Preston Foster, and John Sutton. It features aerial photography and location filming at an actual Arizona training base of the United States Army Air Forces named Thunderbird Field No. 1 during World War II.

Captain Joseph "Mutt" Summers,, was chief test pilot at Vickers-Armstrongs and Supermarine.

No 81 Squadron was a squadron of the Royal Air Force. It flew Fighter aircraft during the Second World War, and reconnaissance aircraft in the Far East after the war and was disbanded in 1970.

Ronald Adam (actor) British RAF officer, actor and theatre manager

Ronald George Hinings Adams, known professionally as Ronald Adam, was a British officer of the RFC and RAF, an actor on stage and screen, and a successful theatre manager.

Harold Siddons

Harold Siddons was a British film and television actor, appearing in Genevieve, The Dam Busters, Appointment in London, They Who Dare, The Purple Plain, Quatermass and the Pit, A Night To Remember and The Wrong Arm of the Law. He served in Bomber Command during the [Second World War] as a flight engineer, latterly with 582 Squadron as the Flight Engineer Leader on its formation in April 1944 and is a descendant of Sarah Siddons.

No. 485 Squadron RNZAF

No. 485 (NZ) Squadron was a fighter squadron established for service during the Second World War. It was the first New Zealand squadron formed under Article XV of the Empire Air Training Plan. Although many of its flying personnel were largely drawn from the Royal New Zealand Air Force, the squadron, which operated Supermarine Spitfires, served in Europe under the operational and administrative command of the Royal Air Force.


Well known that Fairey Swordfish had open cockpits while Albacores,looking superficially similar, possessed canopy enclosed in crew and pilot compartments.

Wings of the Navy, Captaincies, Eric Brown, Published by Naval Institute Press, 1980.


  1. The plotline involving the character, Giuseppe Gonzar, has some parallels to the real story of Carmelo Borg Pisani.
  2. The Spitfires shown in action are, however, mainly of the later types that flew from Malta after 1943–44. In 1942, the RAF was mainly using the V type, that appears rarely in the film.
  3. Guinness is listed in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) under the name Alec Guinness Cuffe. [9]
  4. Guinness commanded a landing craft taking part in the invasion of Sicily and Elba and later ferried supplies to the Yugoslav partisans. [9] [10]


  1. "Malta Story (1953)". BFI. Retrieved 20 June 2020.
  2. 1 2 Parish 1990, p. 268.
  3. "Credits: Malta Story (1953)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 9 April 2012.
  4. 1 2 3 British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference by Sue Harper, Vincent Porter Oxford University Press, 2003 p 38-40
  5. 1 2 3 "Malta Story (1953)." Retrieved: 11 January 2012.
  6. "Thorold Dickinson." The New York Times, 2010. Retrieved 8 April 2012.
  7. Farmer 1984, p. 53.
  8. Guinness 1998, p. 114.
  9. Houterman, J.N. "Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) Officers 1940–1945.", 2012. Retrieved 6 June 2012.
  10. Guinness 2001, p. 40.
  11. Read 2005, p. 253.
  12. Vagg, Stephen (23 September 2020). "The Emasculation of Anthony Steel: A Cold Streak Saga". Filmink.
  13. "From London." Sunday_Mail_(Adelaide, SA: 1912–1954), 9 January 1954, p. 50. via National Library of Australia. Retrieved: 10 July 2012.
  14. Smith 2010, p. 15.
  15. Weiler, A. H. (A. W.)."Malta Story (1953): Three Films Arrive; 'Malta Story,' a British Import, at the Guild ..." The New York Times, 17 July 1954.
  16. "Film Reviews: Malta Story". Variety : 24. 14 July 1954.
  17. Scott, John L. (September 30, 1954). "Guinness Plays Serious Role in 'Malta Story'". Los Angeles Times . Part III, p. 11.
  18. "Malta Story". The Monthly Film Bulletin . 20 (235): 118. August 1953.
  19. McCarten, John (24 July 1954). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker : 40.
  20. Coe, Richard L. (30 September 1954). "Guiness (sic) Actually Plays It Straight". The Washington Post : 36.
  21. Maltin, Leonard. "Review: Malta Story." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 8 April 2012.
  22. Hardwick and Schnepf 1989, p. 59.
  23. Guinness Credits Success to Luck Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times 23 Oct 1955: D1.
  24. ISBN   978-1-911096-63-4. Publisher Helion and Company and co-authored by David Truesdale and Allan Esler Smith and a foreword by Sir Roger Moore. Available here:


  • Farmer, James H. Broken Wings: Hollywood's Air Crashes. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Pub Co., 1995. 2nd edition. ISBN   978-0-9331-2646-6.
  • Guinness, Alec. A Positively Final Appearance: A Journal, 1996–1998. London: Penguin Books, 2001. ISBN   978-0140299649.
  • Guinness, Alec. My Name Escapes Me. London: Penguin Books, 1998. ISBN   978-0140277456.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies". The Making of the Great Aviation Films, General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Maltin, Leonard. Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide 2009. New York: New American Library, 2009 (originally published as TV Movies, then Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide), First edition 1969, published annually since 1988. ISBN   978-0-451-22468-2.
  • Parish, James Robert. The Great Combat Pictures: Twentieth-Century Warfare on the Screen. Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, 1990. ISBN   978-0810823150.
  • Read, Piers Paul. Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. ISBN   978-0743244985.
  • Smith, Allan Esler. "Malta Story (released 1953)- The Director's Cut." Treasures of Malta, Number 48, Vol. XVI, No. 3, Summer 2010. Valletta, Malta: Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti in association with the Malta Tourism Authority.