In the Spring of 1901, Carruthers, an aristocratic junior official in the British Foreign Office, is invited on a yachting and duck-shooting holiday by an old University acquaintance called Arthur Davies. On Carruthers' arrival on Germany's Northern coast to join the yacht Davies explains to him that he has a hidden agenda for the trip and the invitation beyond duck-hunting. While boating around the Frisian Islands ostensibly correcting antiquated British sea charts of the coastline's shifting topography, by chance he had met a retired German sailor by the name of Dollman and his family, including a daughter called Clara, with whom Davies has initiated a romantic attachment. He narrates further that whilst sailing together along the coast in a gale Dollman had, when Davies had tried to put into a particular estuary for shelter, inexplicably prevented him from entering by executing a deliberately hazardous sea-manoeuvre, to the degree that both their lives had been endangered by it. Davies then reveals to Carruthers that his real interest in the area is that he suspects that the Imperial German Navy is engaged in covert military activity of some nature in the Frisian Islands, with the intention of threatening the security of the North Sea from the British perspective, which the Royal Navy is strategically misdirected to meet, and this is why he has invited Carruthers' presence, given his linguistic ability in Deutsch and professional contacts within Whitehall, on a pre-text of a holiday.
Carruthers and Davies go on, amidst cryptic warnings-off from circling German naval officers, sailing expeditions among the Frisian isles and inlets, and fights, to carry out covert surveillance at the estuary in question, to discover that the II Reich is using a naval base hidden in the islands to carry out rehearsals for a seaborne passage across the North Sea of a German army with the aim of militarily invading England, and that Herr "Dollman" is in fact Lieutenant Thomas, an embittered former Royal Navy officer who is treasonously assisting their preparations with his detailed knowledge of England's coast and naval defences.
After sabotaging one of the rehearsals, whilst escaping to Holland by sea in 2 roped yachts with the information about it, along with a badly wounded Thomson and his family as prisoners, Davies abandons Thomson with his wife in Davies' boat to allow him to return to Germany to seek medical assistance for his wounds at the insistence of Clara, who agrees to accompany Davies and Carruthers back to England in her father's yacht with his papers revealing the German plans in detail. Thomson and his wife are murdered by the pursuing German authorities - led by Kaiser Wilhelm II, in person - when their vessel is rammed and destroyed.Michael York as Charles Carruthers
Simon MacCorkindale as Arthur Davies
Jenny Agutter as Clara Dollmann
Alan Badel as Dollmann
Michael Sheard as Böehme
Hans Meyer as Grimm
Wolf Kahler as Kaiser Wilhelm II
Olga Lowe as Frau Dollmann
Jurgen Andersen as Von Brüning
Ronald Markham as Withers
The film ends with the yacht bearing Carruthers, Davies and Clara bound for Holland, with a Carruthers' voiced narration detailing how their return to England with the information would lead to a shift in England's sea defence strategy towards the II Reich, that would avert the threat of war.
Several producers and directors had tried to make a film based on the novel but the Childers family had not wanted to sell the rights. This ceased to be a problem when the novel passed into the public domain.
Tony Maylam and Desmond Challis formed a production company to make the film and succeeded in raising the finance from the Rank Organisation, who had recently decided to get back into film production. Additional finance was provided by the National Film Finance Corporation. It was the feature film debut for both Challis and Maylam.
The script was basically faithful to the novel although some details and the ending were changed. Maylam thought the novel "had a rather more anti-climactic ending, and we felt a more up-beat ending was essential for a feature film. But we feel it is still very much in the Childers style."
Among the changes were the inclusion of the Kaiser (although his presence at the trial towing of the lighter is hinted at in the book) and the fate of the character of Dollman (in the original novel he drowned himself; in the film he is mortally wounded after being shot, then killed when the Germans ram his yacht.) Maylam:
The failing of the book is that Dollman falls apart as a character in the last chapter. In one breath he is a total opportunist who would do anything for his grand plan. The next moment he is a defeated man. I believe he was an opportunist to the bitter end. Oh, the purists will have a go at me, definitely, but in all other respects we have strived to remain faithful to the book. Without bastardising the story, we are making the characters more defined and the ending is now much more believable and exciting.
Filming was done in the Netherlands, West Germany and at Bushey Studios, Hertfordshire, England. Many scenes were shot on the Frisian Islands on the North Sea coast of Germany and the Netherlands, the same locale as in the book.
The unit was partly based in the town of Enkhuizen in the Netherlands; although that town had no relevance to the novel, its harbour provided easy access to the Zuider Zee where the unit could shoot sailing sequences all day unhampered by tidal delays. Many of the crew lived on board a cruiser during the shoot because it was cheaper than staying in local accommodation, of which there was a shortage.
Several scenes were also shot in the German village of Greetsiel. The sequence of Carruthers and Davies navigating their way between sandbanks in the Frisian Islands was shot on Frensham Ponds in Surrey with the aid of nine large fog machines; this was done because the tidal flows and sands of the Frisian Islands would have made actually filming there very difficult.
While filming on the boat playing the Medusa, cinematographer Christopher Challis and camera operator John Palmer would hold the camera in place with slings of rope and elastic, soaking up the ship's motion and allowing the operator free rein. This technique was developed by Challis and Palmer when they made The Deep (1977).
Davies' boat, the Dulcibella, was converted from an Isle of Wight lifeboat.
The film was Tony Maylam's feature film debut. He said during filming:
So much rests on this picture. It's very important to prove myself. I owe a big debt to people like Alan Parker and Ridley Scott, who proved to the film establishment that a young film director can get it all together and deliver. If this is a commercial and artistic success it can only help my generation of filmmakers. My motto is compromise under pressure. One hopes one doesn't have to compromise too much. But let's face it, the whole of life's a compromise.
During filming, Michael York took an option for the film rights on a biography on Erskine Childers, The Zeal of the Convert by Burke Wilkinson. This film was never made.
The film was not the hoped for success at the box office and was one of the last films financed by the Rank Organisation. It was not released in the US until 1984.
The critic from the Observer called the film "an affectionate, commendably straight adaptation... the excitement somewhat abates in the perfunctorily handled scenes ashore... the cinematographer Christopher Challis uses the Panavision screen to fine dramatic effect." The Guardian also praised the cinematography but complained "the set pieces are none too convincing and the whole regrettably lacks the eye for detail that could have made it into an entirely convincing period piece."
The New York Times called the film a "slow but affable period piece" while the Los Angeles Times said it "has the quaint, old fashioned sound of a Hardy Boys mystery about it" which "plays like a slightly more lethal boys' adventure story."