In 1942 Britain is trying hard to hold on to Malta while invasion seems imminent; Italians and Germans are regularly bombing the airfields and towns. The RAF fight to survive against the odds using the few fighter aircraft remaining on the island. Flight Lieutenant Peter Ross (Alec Guinness), an archaeologist in civilian life, is on his way to an RAF posting in Egypt but is stranded in Malta due to the air attacks. He is assigned to the RAF squadron there, being an experienced photo reconnaissance pilot.
Peter meets Maria (Muriel Pavlow), a young Maltese woman working in the RAF operations room. The two fall in love and spend a few romantic hours in the Neolithic temples of Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim on the island. In the meantime the situation at Malta becomes desperate. Every day civilians are buried under the rubble of air attacks, and famine threatens their survival, as relief convoys are easy prey to the numerous bombings. The island relies on the last few ships of a convoy for supplies.
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. Giuseppe, Maria's brother (Nigel Stock) is arrested while trying to infiltrate the island from Italy, where he had been studying since before the war. He admits to being on a spying mission, which he tries to justify by saying he wants to save Malta from further destruction. Maria's mother lives a double family drama knowing that one of her children will almost certainly be executed, and the other is in a doomed love affair. .
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. Many air raids take place either to defend the island with Spitfires or a number of attack aircraft, including Bristol Beaufighter fighter-bombers, Bristol Beaufort and Fairey Swordfish torpedo bombers, which succeed in sinking Italian tankers and warships. There comes the moment when the most important enemy convoy is on its way to Libya under cover of poor visibility.
Peter's commanding officer (Jack Hawkins) needs desperately to locate this target and orders him to find it at any cost, realising that this will be virtually a suicide mission. Peter, flying in his Spitfire, finally finds it, but has to stay close to keep contact. He is attacked by six Messerschmitt Bf 109Fs. Peter stays calm, but cannot escape his fate; he is shot down and killed, while Maria in the operations room listens helplessly to his final radio transmissions.
Later the next day, Maria sits by the beach, thinking of her beloved Peter. In the end, a newspaper article notes that the attack was a success, as the Afrika Corps has lost the Second Battle of El Alamein (in part due to supply shortages) and thus their foothold in Africa.
As appearing in Malta Story, (main roles and screen credits identified):
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.
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. Dickson was replaced as director by Brian Desmond Hurst.
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." Hurst says Alec Guinness approached him asking to play the role of Ross, saying he wanted a change of pace.
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. 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. 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.
Alec Guinness, cast and playing against type, 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. 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. 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."
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).
Malta Story was the fourth most popular movie at the British box office in 1953. "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."
In a contemporary review in The New York Times, critic Armond White considered Malta Story as "restrained, routine fare." The reviewer continued, "However, the commendable British reserve they 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." Variety, however, called it, "(an) epic story of courage and endurance ..."
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." 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."
Theirs is the Glory. Arnhem, Hurst and Conflict on Film takes film director Brian Desmond Hurst's Battle of Arnhem epic as its centrepiece and chronicles Hurst's ten films on conflict including Malta Story. Released in hardback on 15 September 2016 with almost 400 pages and over 350 images "this book also shows why Hurst was an enigma, but a master of the genre, and at his very best when focusing on the vast canvas of film" (from dust jacket). ISBN 978-1-911096-63-4. Publisher Helion and Company and co-authored by David Truesdale and Allan Esler Smith.