Based upon Nicholas Monserrat’s 1951 novel of the same name, The Cruel Sea (1953), reissued now for the first time on Blu-ray, follows the officers of a British naval ship during the Second World War. A production of Michael Balcon’s Ealing Studios, the 1953 film is rarely included in the pantheon of that studio’s great works these days, taking a back seat to those famously raucous comedies of the 1940s and ’50s.
Narrated by Ericsson (Jack Hawkins), the captain of the Compass Rose, a convoy escort ship, The Cruel Sea depicts life at sea in full detail: the threat of German U-boat attacks; the difficulty of maintaining relationships with those left at home; and, frequently, long stretches of boredom. Indeed, the director Charles Frend, makes great use of boredom, and sees fit to inflict it on his audience for nigh-on forty minutes of the movie, before he realises that there is indeed some dramatic tension to be wrought from this material. The screenwriter, incidentally, was a man named Eric Ambler, whose name could not be more fitting given how aimless and entirely lacking in urgency the opening of the film is.
Ambler must also be held accountable for what are sadly very thinly sketched characters, for the most part. Ericsson, despite his position as narrator, is relegated to the sidelines for much of the film’s initial hour, while his subordinates Lockhart (Donald Sinden), Ferraby (John Stratton) and Morrell (Denholm Elliot) serve as the film’s initial leads. This was a miscalculation; without wishing to give away too much of the film’s plot, these three do not comprise a triumvirate for the entire picture, and the film strengthens greatly once the focus shifts towards Lockhart and Elliot’s naval bromance.
This, it turns out, is what the film was lacking most of all in the first act; a central relationship between decently-realised characters, and the second hour is immeasurably better for taking an interest in the interaction between these two men, bound by their shared experiences as friends but required by protocol to treat one another as their commanding officer and underling respectively. We are suddenly invited to share in Ericsson’s self-doubt and guilt over decisions made in the heat of battle.
We see Lockhart’s blossoming romance with the very pretty Second Officer Julie Hallam (Virginia McKenna), who works in one of the command centres back home in Blighty. Hawkins and Sinden are the only standout performers in the film, but they are certainly the best-written characters. From the rest of the Compass Rose crew, Denholm Elliott does very well with the rather slight material with which he has to work.
The black and white cinematography by Gordon Dines, presented crisply and cleanly on the new blu-ray transfer, is never less than good, and frequently a joy to observe. At other times, the clarity of the image does no favours for the scenes that are clearly shot in a studio tank, or scenes shot against rear projection backdrops, the cast gamely faking the pitch and roll of the ship while someone off-screen throws water over them. There are also one or two endearingly obvious uses of model-work for some explosions which might not have been so glaring if not for the high quality of the transfer. Win some, lose some.
Though the ending comes about rather suddenly – and with some rather trite observations on the nature of “the enemy”, especially considering that both the film and the source material of The Cruel Sea were produced several years after the conclusion of hostilities – the final half hour of the film is arguably the strongest. It really is a shame that it takes so long to really get going, because once it does, The Cruel Sea is a very watchable film.
Though its special effects are inevitable very dated, the technical craft aspects of the movie are top notch. The production over all is notably short on some of the charm, wit and sparkle that characterises the more famous Ealing films and, say, the masterful wartime pictures of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, but it cannot be faulted too harshly for that. If you can sit through the torpid initial act, you may well find something here that’s well worth your time.