When it’s on: Friday, 22 February (11.05 am)
I’ve always approached wartime films that are set at sea with trepidation. By all accounts a terrifying theatre of war, the adaptations just seem to have the potential for tedium, lengthy passages where nothing much happens, which in capable hands can produce gripping tension but can equally be dull. For me, a fine example of the former is Peter Weir’s Master and Commander, whilst I confess to switching off during much of The Battle of the River Plate, and that was directed by the mighty Powell and Pressburger.
Having snapped up The Cruel Sea on The War Collection boxset following the recommendation of Simon Heffer on a recent BBC4 documentary, it was finally time to raise the anchor and watch two hours of watery drama. The entry it’s most routinely compared with is In Which We Serve, the collaborative effort of Noel Coward and David Lean, and I guess it’s a comparison that makes some broad sense, given that both entries are resolutely British naval war films about much the same subject. But that’s about it. The earlier release was intended to contain a strong propaganda element, focusing on the captain who, despite his class difference to the men, maintains complete control and earns everyone’s respect thanks to his sure-footed command. Even after the destruction of his ship, Coward’s ‘Captain D’ can look back on his band of seafaring brothers with fondness and a real sense of camaraderie. It’s an emotionally heavy tale with its optimistic message about the fighting British spirit, which is nothing less than you’d expect.
The Cruel Sea is quite a different animal, and it’s worth noting the film’s year of release – 1953 – with the war in the past and bittersweet sentiments seeping in. It was based on Nicholas Monsarrat’s bestselling novel, the rights for which were bought by Ealing after the author requested that such an obviously British tale ought to be made by a native studio. What’s striking is its willingness to refrain from telling a chest beating story, capturing not just the book’s theme of futility in war but also the mood of the contemporary British public. This country might have been on the winning side, it argues, but at what cost? The contrast with American war cinema, which only fully embraced such sentiments after Vietnam, can’t be overstated.
Charles Frend was hired to direct The Cruel Sea. His other great entry into the Ealing catalogue was Scott of the Antarctic, in which the indomitable human spirit was conveyed as well as its powerlessness in the face of the South Pole’s relentless conditions. The freezing temperatures are here replaced with the north Atlantic, which in the opening narration is outlined clearly as the enemy. It’s the story of Ericson (Jack Hawkins), a former merchant navy Captain who’s pressed into service at the head of an obviously inexperienced crew. These include British stalwarts like Donald Sinden and Denholm Elliott, whilst Stanley Baker gets a notable cameo as Ericson’s initial First Lieutenant who masks his own fears with harshness and brutality to others. Sinden soon takes over as ‘Number One’ on the Compass Rose, a small corvette charged with leading convoys of supply ships across the ocean. Each voyage is filled with peril. British naval superiority over Germany has been established early, so the enemy retaliates with U-Boat attacks, made worse because the ship’s sonar equipment is still relatively primitive and everyone knows they’re a relatively easy target.
Whilst The Cruel Sea contains a number of scenes that involve men waiting around for attack, the tension is ratcheted up both by the threat of the U-Boats and the conditions. The North Atlantic is established as dangerous enough in its own right, capable of producing storms that are every bit as terrifying as the human enemy, particularly to a ‘green’ crew that is forced to mature into a seafaring force quickly. But once the weather calms, the submarine attacks resume. The inadequacies of the ship’s sonar equipment becomes apparent as vessels around the Compass Rose are picked off, seemingly at will, and it’s never clear where the U-Boats are. One of the film’s most famous scenes involves the Rose going to pick up some survivors from an attack, who are floating in the water, but then the detection equipment picks up the presence of a U-Boat right beneath the men. Ericson is left with an agonising decision – save the men and risk everyone’s lives, or fire on the submarine and doom the survivors. The latter action is the only one he can choose, yet the cost is immense. Not only does the enemy escape, but he’s haunted by his actions, turning to drink and tears as the enormity of what he’s done stays with him.
This feeling of guilt returns when the Compass Rose is finally capsized after a depth charge attack. Unable to do anything but get as many men off the boat as possible, Captain Ericson can hear through the stokers the doomed screams of those trapped in the lower decks as water floods in, before he closes the pipe in sheer frustration and despair. Later, as he and Lockhart (Sinden) take over their impressive new ship, Ericson is stood alone by the stokers and once again listens to the echo of their screams, a poignant reminder of the blood he feels is on his hands, a point underlined by the fact that after spending the entire war at sea he’s been responsible for destroying just two U-Boats.
Scenes on land are spaced out and rare, with the contrast between the conflict at sea and in Britain writ large. It’s in the latter moments that a romance sparks between Lockhart and the beautiful Julie (Virginia McKenna), the latter’s prominent placing on the publicity and cast list belying her relatively few scenes. More telling is the scene in which a seaman returns home until to find his sister has been killed in a Blitz raid, not to mention Elliott’s former lawyer learning that his wife (Moira Lister) has blithely transferred her affections in his absence.
The point is one of many The Cruel Sea makes about the sacrifices and toll taken by men at war, hammered home by its underlying message of futility. There’s a sense that everything the crew have given up their lives for makes little difference in the long run, lending a tragic irony to the physical and mental hardships they suffer, and it’s a bold message to convey in a film from the 1950s. There’s little glory and few moments involving any cheer, only a grim-faced element of keeping calm and, excuse the cliché, carrying on, and it works rather well. I was also impressed with the degree of faith it maintained with the source material, truncating certain passages and omitting some of the novel’s grislier moments. It made stars of its cast, particularly Hawkins, whose shattered emotional core shines through after initially coming across every inch the stern-faced Captain.
The Cruel Sea: ****