When Frank Sinatra robbed RMS Queen Mary
Frank Sinatra. A salvaged WWII submarine. A robbery aboard RMS Queen Mary. This could only be 1966’s 'Assault on a Queen' - cue Duke Ellington’s oh-so-velvety jazz score and delve into a largely forgotten piece of golden-age cinema
“Do you intend to rob this ship?”
Time for some honesty. How often do you clock the screenwriter of the film you are watching? Unless you are lying, chances are those stated credits dissolve into the ether once the final scene plays out.
In our modern age, with so many media outlets, there’s an overload of screenwriting activity on the boil. It’s impossible to absorb the talent behind each expertly crafted story, however, it was a different tale during the era of psychedelic colours and free love.
The 1960s didn’t have Netflix on offer. It didn’t have mainstream home video or subscription-based serials. Instead, it was all about cinema and – for those lucky enough to have one – television. With so few channels to choose from, and only a select number of programmes, screenwriters gained a loyal following – none more so than Rod Serling.
Serling’s work on Playhouse 90 gained accolades as the finest TV anthology of its time, but his ground-breaking series The Twilight Zone propelled him into the stratosphere. Millions of viewers found time to witness his storytelling; it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came knocking.
The result was a script titled Assault on a Queen, based on a 1959 novel by Jack Finney, that revolved around emptying the RMS Queen Mary of her onboard cash deposits, utilising an abandoned submarine and masquerading as Royal Navy personnel. The production attracted some big names, the biggest of which happened to be Frank Sinatra.
Developed as a Sinatra Enterprises-Seven Arts production for Paramount Pictures, the film’s tone was conceived in a similar fashion to Sinatra’s Box-office comeback – Von Ryan’s Express.
Preceding years had found Frank Sinatra fronting several critical and commercial bombs, and Rod Serling’s script was considered a direct step towards the recovery of his reputation.
Assault on a Queen was also RMS Queen Mary’s first starring role (despite her launch footage doubling for RMS Titanic in 1958's A Night to Remember), with large swathes of filming taking place during short breaks from a busy transatlantic itinerary.
Cunard worked closely with the film’s producers to ensure that everything went to plan, even if the on-screen dialogue made RMS Queen Mary’s fictional captain appear like a whipped buffoon.
Despite Sinatra’s status as a cultural legend, an iconic soundtrack from Duke Ellington and healthy box office takings upon release in 1966, Assault on a Queen has largely faded from public view. Overshadowed by more memorable exploits to star Ol’ Blue Eyes, the Rod Serling-polished film never even received a UK market video release.
Never fear, though, as you can now purchase the film to watch digitally. Some streaming services occasionally offer Assault on a Queen to the masses, too.
A challenging task
According to Serling, arranging Assault on a Queen for the cameras was a major challenge.
"No one had been able to 'lick' the Jack Finney book, which was a best-seller a few years ago,” Serling told reporters during a visit to the film set. “It had been tried several ways. But I decided to make it a straight adventure film and it seems to have worked out pretty well. At least, Sinatra tells me he's happy with it."
That was high praise indeed, as Sinatra had gained an infamous reputation for being difficult on set when presented with less-than-excellent material. Ol’ Blue Eyes had always spoken his mind (sometimes violently) and never feared the consequences. Some say he was bipolar, but others claim it was purely his sheer professionalism at play.
Promoted as a no-holds-barred thriller with enough suave prowess to leave audiences on the edge of their seats, Sinatra portrays an adventurer who, alongside a motley crew of vagabonds, intends to steal from Cunard’s flagship – steaming for Nassau in the Bahamas.
"Virna Lisi stars with Sinatra," said Serling in another interview from the film set, "and along with Tony Franciosa, Richard Conte and some other bad types, they resurrect a submarine from World War II and try to heist the [RMS] Queen Mary."
Perhaps one of the most difficult jobs that faced producers was finding a U-boat for shooting external footage required by the script.
Having scouted various sections of the world, the production team resorted to placing an advert across various publications, of which grabbed the attention of one gentleman who owned a boatyard in New Haven, Connecticut.
He had purchased a 1935 U-boat during a war surplus auction in 1946, and had since been employing the submarine as an attention-grabber to lure new customers into parting with their hard-earned cash.
Luckily, the U-boat was in great condition. It didn’t take long before purchase and light repair work resulted in a fully-operational prop. Once transported to Hollywood, special effects experts set about transforming the submarine to appear as though it had lain beneath the waves for two decades – as per the film’s story.
Further logistical headaches loomed when organising around Cunard’s impossibly florid schedule. It wasn’t going to be possible to acquire the RMS Queen Mary to fit around the preferred production timetable, especially as Cunard was catering for the late-1965 cruise season.
As such, the production team would have to travel to Nassau, in the Bahamas, to meet the ship and film when possible. All the sequences involving the legendary vessel were therefore filmed on location, much to the amazement of passengers and crew.
After all, it’s not every day that Frank Sinatra and actress Virna Lisi (dubbed the 'Italian Marilyn Monroe') swagger up the deck of your cruise.
RMS Queen Mary’s Hollywood debut
Assault on a Queen was released on June 15, 1966, filmed in glorious 35mm anamorphic Panavision, and featured an oh-so-1960s mono soundtrack, complemented by a unique musical score.
The music for the film had originally been assigned to legendary jazz composer Duke Ellington, but he eventually had to depart to keep obligations for upcoming tour dates. Two subsequent musicians – Van Cleave and Frank Comstock – were brought in to orchestrate the film and finish the score before arranging the material.
Sadly, the soundtrack tapes have been lost to time, and the full extent of what Ellington recorded will ultimately never be heard. A soundtrack album does exist, released in June 2016 by Dragon's Domain Records, taken from monaural music stems, as the master tapes no longer exist.
According to reports from the time, movie-goers sat hushed as Ol’ Blue Eyes took to the screen, with younger audiences discovering Frank Sinatra for the first time, whereas seasoned fans lapped up Sinatra’s new role as RMS Queen Mary’s distinguished adversary.
Similar to Von Ryan’s Express, Sinatra’s character (spoiler alert) is not successful in achieving his end goal. Whereas the Nazis turned Sinatra into Swiss cheese as he ran for his train at the end of Von Ryan’s Express, Assault on a Queen found treachery among the U-boat team sinking efforts to escape with the loot.
Paddling away from the scuttled submarine following tense action aboard RMS Queen Mary, Sinatra at least gains the love interest of Virna Lisi. “South America is that way”, Frank laments while grabbing an oar, as the Cunard flagship steams away unharmed.
Later publicity for the film (when it hit the VHS market in North America) fell into a common trap with a terminological error, by referring to the ocean liner as 'HMS Queen Mary", thus implying that she was a warship at the time of the events depicted in the movie.
Futhermore, talking of errors, when the ship is forced to stop by Sinatra's crew, she should have exhausted most of her steam pressure through safety valves. This never happens in the film. The ship's whistle is also wrong, as in reality, the sound is much deeper.
Yet, we’re splitting hairs. And yes, you are correct, I probably need to get out more.
Ironically, RMS Queen Mary’s Hollywood debut occurred during her penultimate year of cruising. Having re-established herself as a luxurious transatlantic cruise liner following duties in WWII, the ship’s upkeep and outdated propulsion system had become too expensive to maintain.
Withdrawn from service at the end of 1967, following a stretch of time where Cunard operated at a loss prior to the emergence of QE2, the ship was sold to the city of Long Beach, California for use as a hotel, museum and tourist attraction. She remains there today, with her interiors often used by modern Hollywood productions – including Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour.
As Frank Sinatra exhales a classy line from Serling's script in the closing frames: “Exit the gracious Queen".
Is Assault on a Queen worth watching?
Look at the poster. Just look at it.
The cinema advertisements promise the coolest caper in the history of cinema. A jazzy action flick where Frank Sinatra robs RMS Queen Mary using a WWII Nazi submarine sounds almost too good to be true.
Sadly, those adverts are just bits of paper, and Assault on a Queen certainly dazzles on paper. On screen, it's a slightly different matter.
Employing Duke Ellington to compose the score looks good on paper. The cast looks good on paper. The story looks good on paper. The box office receipts certainly look good on paper.
Problem is, the film doesn't cash the cheques those adverts write. Ellington's soundtrack detracts from the film's tension, a bit like playing easy-listening lounge music over the robbery from Michael Mann's Heat.
The plot is engaging and exciting on the page, but the director (Jack Donohue; hand-picked by Sinatra as he was a close friend) spends over 80 minutes trudging through cliches until the heist starts. Even then, the heist doesn't justify the preceding one hour and 20 minutes.
Donohue was primarily a television director, and his direction can often feel uninspired. Sinatra is robbing Cunard's famous RMS Queen Mary, using a U-boat and charismatic henchmen, and it mostly feels like a feverish version of Dynasty. All that's missing is Joan Collins casually telling rivals that they are "scum".
Worth a watch? Out of pure curiosity, or to see RMS Queen Mary in action, then absolutely. Don't expect too much and you'll enjoy a prime slice of 1960s entertainment.