The Cruel Sea
Directed by: Charles Frend
Starring: Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, John Stratton, Denholm Elliot
Bases on the acclaimed novel by Nicholas Monsarrat, The Cruel Sea follows the fortunes of the inexperienced crew of the WW2 corvette, Compass Rose, as it escorts merchant ships across the Atlantic.
The Cruel Sea, made less than a decade after WW2, is quite an unflinching look at the Battle of the Atlantic, documenting how ordinary men and women were thrust into positions of authority and responsibility with little training, having to deal with ever evolving tactics and technology.
Jack Hawkins is Commander Ericson, once captain of a merchant vessel, now commander of the Flower Class corvette, Compass Rose.. His first officer is Bennet (Stanley Baker), a bully who abuses his position to cover his insecurities – especially with regard to class status (he was a second-hand car salesman before the war). His treatment of the new officers, Lockhart and Ferraby, are in sharp contrast to the more paternal Ericson.
There is an almost jovial, laid-back nature to the early scenes. The officers manage to get rid of Bennet by playing on his anxieties so much that he gets a severe stomach ulcer. The crew spend time learning about the new Asdic sonar system and are bemused by the sound effects their instructor makes to illustrate how it works. However their first taste of action – the sinking of one of the ships they are escorting – is a sobering experience, as they help survivors clamber aboard.
The Cruel Sea boasts some masterful, nerve-wracking set pieces. At one point, a coupling breaks on one of the engine pistons, and the ship has to sit dead in the water while they repair it. The crew sit and sweat if out, having to keep as silent as possible lest they attract the attention of a U-boat. Another scene sees Ericson faced with an impossible situation. A U-boat is hiding beneath a group of survivors – if Ericson tries to rescue them, he’ll be sunk; if he destroys the U-boat, he’ll be killing the men waiting to be rescued.
Most of the film is quite unsentimental, although there is a passage in the film which serves to tug at our heart-strings: One of the sailors takes a friend home to his sister’s house in Liverpool for some homely hospitality during shore leave. It’s a lovely little scene full of warmth, and his sister is genuinely happy to see him. A few months later, the two friends go back – only to discover his sister’s house had been destroyed during a night-time bombing raid. Modern viewers would spot the earlier scene for the set-up that it is, but it doesn’t take away from the shock of seeing the bombed-out house.
The production is top notch. All the ship-board scenes are authentic, with most being filmed on a Corvette (albeit a different class to the one portrayed) on location at sea. Newsreel and archive footage is edited in almost seamlessly, with only one or two moments sticking out due to the quality of the film stock. Similarly, the cast is superb, full of names who would become synonymous with quality British cinema, such as Denholm Elliot, Stanley Baker, Donald Sinden and Jack Hawkins.
The Cruel Sea ends in a manner which many film-makers would have difficulty in pulling off. Ericson and Lockhart navigate their ship back into harbour for the last time, a moment of reflection between the two friends and a brief farewell to the ship they served on. It’s a poetic, quiet and business-like moment, devoid of any overplayed sentiment – much like the rest of the film.
Optimum Releasing’s Blu Ray collection is a perfect way to catch up with some of the classics, which certainly describes The Cruel Sea.
8 out of 10 (MikeOutWest)