Sea Devils is a swashbuckling Technicolor adventure romp with Rock Hudson as a smuggler and Yvonne de Carlo as a glamorous spy.
It’s supposed to be set in 1800, although characters keep referring to Napoleon as the Emperor (he did not assume that title until 1805). The internal evidence of the movie suggests that the setting is in fact around 1805.
The wars between England and France have made it difficult for the fishermen of the island of Guernsey (in the Channel Islands) to earn their normal livelihood, but every cloud has a silver lining and they have discovered that smuggling is easier, plays better and is more fun. The most notorious and most skillful of the Guernsey smugglers is Gilliat (Rock Hudson), captain of the Sea Devil. The Sea Devil is a small fast two-masted ship that the Customs men have tried to catch on many occasions, without success.
Gilliatt’s arch rival is Rantaine (Maxwell Reed), another smuggler although a very untrustworthy one even by smuggler standards. Rantaine lands a lucrative job, transporting a woman to France. Before he can make his departure he has an unfortunate encounter with Gilliatt in the local pub and as a result it’s Gilliatt who ends up with the job. The woman, Droucette (Yvonne de Carlo), spins a sob story about trying to rescue her brother, the only other surviving member of her family, her parents having been guillotined during the Terror.
Gilliat soon discovers that Droucette is a spy, but he thinks she is a French spy when in fact she is an English spy. This misunderstanding will cause Droucette a great deal of trouble and danger. Had she told Gilliatt the truth in the first place this could all have been avoided, but in that case we wouldn’t have had a movie.
Droucette’s mission is to discover the details of the French plan for the invasion of England. She intends to get these details from the man most likely to know them, Napoleon himself. She is posing as a French countess who is a real French spy, currently under lock and key in the Tower of London.
She has to work quickly. It is only a matter of time before the cunning French counter-espionage chief, Fouche (Jacques B. Brunius) discovers her real identity.
Gilliatt very nearly manages to sabotage Droucette’s mission, acting under the impression that he is trying to foil the dastardly plans of a French secret agent. He will get his chance to redeem himself however, being the one man capable of carrying out a daring plan to rescue Droucette and thus save England.
I don’t think anyone involved in this movie was taking it too seriously. It’s essentially a light-hearted adventure romp combined with romance, and on its own terms it works quite satisfactorily. Hudson gets to be brave and dashing and take off his shirt a lot and de Carlo gets to be brave and resourceful and beautiful. The movie makes no great demands on the acting abilities of either lead. Their most important tasks are to look good and to avoid being dull and they both achieve these ends without too much trouble. OK, maybe Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power and Stewart Granger were better at doing this sort of thing but Hudson gives it his best shot and he does fairly well. Gilliatt may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer but he’s well-meaning and he’s impossible to dislike, and most crucially Hudson makes sure we’re never tempted to despise Gilliatt even when he gets things hopelessly muddled.
The movie’s biggest asset is its director, Raoul Walsh. Walsh knew how to do action movies and Sea Devils is in very capable hands.
This movie was made by Coronado Productions and released by RKO. It seems to have been fairly modestly budgeted by the standards of 1950s swashbucklers. There are no large-scale action set-pieces but while the action is mostly on a small scale it’s adroitly executed.
Optimum’s Region 2 release is barebones but it’s a decent transfer and it’s absurdly cheap.
Sea Devils is just good old-fashioned fun. It’s not a great movie by any means and it’s not one of the best of the swashbucklers but it’s decent enough entertainment.