The Cruel Sea Review

It’s the war. The whole, bloody war. We’ve just got to do these things and say our prayers at the end…

Ealing’s film of Nicholas Monserrat’s bestseller The Cruel Sea was a massive commercial success in 1952/53 and provided a valuable reminder, amidst talk of a new Elizabethan era and nostalgia for the finest hour, of the horror of the war which Britain had so narrowly won. In later years, it became a by-word for the stiff-upper-lip war drama which seemed out of date and the brilliant realism and integrity of the film was forgotten. But looked at today, The Cruel Sea seems like one of Ealing’s most enduring dramatic achievements and an influential film in the genre.
The Cruel Sea is the story of a ship, a Flower Class corvette convoy vessel called the Compass Rose. It is led by a merchant seaman, Ericson (Hawkins), and his officers Lockhart (Sinden), Morell (Elliott) and Ferraby (Stratton). We follow them through the war as they rescue survivors of U-Boat attacks, wait for battle and suffer terrible losses.

A good measure of the success of the film is due to Jack Hawkins, an actor who never got his due when he was alive and is still all too often forgotten when British films are discussed. The tragedy of his life is perhaps better known than much of his career, the throat cancer with which he was afflicted destroying his renowned voice and forcing him, for the sake of his career, to accept re-voicing by Charles Gray or Robert Rietty.
But I think Hawkins was one of the pivotal planks of British cinema during the 1950s and 1960s, moving effortlessly between realistic war drama, comedy thriller, tragedy and domestic cosiness. He had a glorious knack of suggesting intelligence and thoughtfulness and could either turn this to sympathetic characterisations or ambiguous ones, as in his General Allenby who plays such a vital role in Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. The Cruel Sea is one of the highlights of his career, giving a role which he had played countless times before in films such as Angels One Five - but he never played it better or with more principled intellect than he does here. He is an extraordinarily principled actor - he doesn’t go soft on us or try to pretend that men in war are saints, and this is exemplified in the famous scene where he ploughs on through merchant seamen stranded in the ocean in order to depth-charge a U-Boat. This is horrific but we accept this from Hawkins because of his strength of character - and we even sympathise with him because he shows the moral price that such decisions exact on men in command.

The sheer drudgery of life on the Atlantic is evoked with brilliant economy in a rain-swathed night-watches and the endless waiting for action is just as important as the action itself. When it comes, this action is handled by Charles Frend with immense panache, as you’d expect from the director of the excellent semi-documentary San Demetrio, London. But The Cruel Sea isn’t really an action-adventure film. What it achieves with unusual force is a sense of the sheer horror of the war and the toll it exacted on the men who fought in it. We see the terror of battle and the tragedy. We see men die, alone in the cold water; Ericson turns to alcohol for comfort; Ferraby, suffers a nervous breakdown after the ship is sunk by enemy fire; other men are cuckolded or bereaved; Lockhart finds it impossible to maintain a relationship. A sense of waste is palpable throughout. It’s a painful and sad film and the victorious ending is tempered by the knowledge of what led there and Ericson’s awareness at the end that, after all the suffering, he only sunk two U-Boats suggests a certain sense of irony which was fairly radical in British war films.

The sentimental popular image of Ealing as a producer of light comedy is not evident in this film . But, for all their renown as the makers of comedy, Ealing already had a record of realism where the war was concerned – Alberto Cavalcanti’s extraordinarily chilling Went The Day Well? - and were adept at downbeat social dramas such as Robert Hamer’s extraordinarily bleak It Always Rains on Sunday. The interest in class which keeps recurring in Ealing films is certainly evident here to some extent – the baiting of Stanley Baker’s character for being a used-car salesman, the divisions between the officers and their men – but so is a sense that the war – to a small extent at least - broke down class barriers and forced public schoolboys such as Lockhart and Morell to mix with men from the state sector, perhaps for the first time. It’s also interesting that the film subverts the stiff-upper-lip stereotype for which it became famous. Jack Hawkins is allowed to express a range of emotions and, at one point, we even see him crying. There are doubts and fears expressed throughout by the very characters who we would expect to be most repressed. Eric Ambler’s admirable screenplay deserves a good deal of credit for this. He brings the same understanding of men in conflict that he showed in The Way Ahead - one of the best of all British war movies – along with the insight into the male psyche that is evident both in his novels and his quite brilliant characterisation of the jealous husband in his script for David Lean’s The Passionate Friends.

Technically, The Cruel Sea is admirable. It mixes a wide range of footage – scenes shot with back-projection, footage of a real Flower Class corvette, scenes shot in the tank at Ealing studios – and looks just about seamless thanks to the crisp black and white cinematography of Gordon Dines, a DP who is perhaps best remembered for The Blue Lamp. It’s also edited with a great sense of pace by Peter Tanner (a man who worked with everyone from John Cassavetes to Lionel Jeffries) and seems a lot shorter than its two-hour running time. I can think of few other British war films of the period which still seem so relevant to today but in its intense and thoughtful examination of the cost of war on human beings, The Cruel Sea remains essential viewing.

The Disc

Optimum’s disc of The Cruel Sea is nothing to write home about. The transfer, presented in full screen, is afflicted by frequent print damage – speckles and scratches throughout. The level of detail is very good, however, and there is a crisp quality to the image which would be pleasing if you weren’t sometimes trying to watch it through scratches. On the whole, it’s just acceptable but, given how important this film is, it’s about time we had a decent, restored version of it. The mono soundtrack is absolutely fine.

There are no extras nor are there any subtitles.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 03:13:07

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