Weekend Film Recommendation: The Cruel Sea

Following on The Long Arm a month or so ago, this week’s recommendation is another film featuring the wonderful Jack Hawkins. In the high point of his career as a star (although he would go on to have a great career as a character actor in upmarket productions such as Lawrence of Arabia, Zulu, and Ben-Hur), Hawkins turns in a powerful, weighty performance as Captain Ericson in 1953’s The Cruel Sea. Scripted by Eric Ambler and based on the well-regarded Nicholas Monsarrat novel of the same name, this is a realistic, exciting and emotionally affecting portrayal of the British Royal Navy’s efforts to protect convoys from the predations of German U-Boats.

As the story begins in 1939, Ericson is called from the merchant marine to captain a corvette with a crewful of amateurs. His second lieutenant, Bennett, is a martinet of questionable ability (Stanley Baker, who really registers here in an early role for which he campaigned after being impressed with the character’s possibilities in the novel), and the junior officers below him were only recently working as barristers, journalists and in other professions that are of no value in naval combat. Ericson must train them and lead them while making the terrible wartime decisions of life or death that go with his job (If you want a short, powerful take on the nature and challenges of leadership, the events about 40 minutes into this movie are hard to beat). He is at least encouraged that when Bennett suddenly departs the ship, one of his young officers, Lockhart (Donald Sinden), starts to grow into the kind of officer he can count on.

Meanwhile, the crew have to protect convoys from U-boats, which increasingly gain the upper hand as the war wears on. In these scenes, documentary footage is smoothly blended with shots of the actors to give us the feel of being at sea as storms rage and the terrible possibility of torpedoes is ever-present. There are moments that will have you gripping the armrests and hoping along with the men that they will survive each crisis in which they find themselves.

This is a not a film that lapses into “stiff upper lip” mythology as did wartime films like In Which We Serve (recommended here last week). We see men breaking down mentally and emotionally, people suffering post-traumatic stress, marriages being torn apart and dreams being destroyed. Hawkins in particular is magnificently moving as he portrays growing heartache covered over with the psychic scar tissue that comes from making too many gut-wrenching decisions and watching his young charges learn “How to die without wasting anyone’s time”.

Director Charles Frend gets the tone exactly right and the cast acquits itself very well. A deservedly beloved war film in the UK, The Cruel Sea’s emotional impact and humanity give it resonance well-beyond British borders.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

6 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Cruel Sea”

  1. Yes, very good book, very good film. Monserrat’s anger at the shirkers, the striking dockworkers, the unfaithful wives, the neutral Irish comes through loudly in the book, more muted in the film. A view of the naval war from the sharp end.

  2. Toby: There is a lot of vivid language and well-turned phrases in the script, and I wondered if they were from the novel (not having read it) or were original to Ambler.

    1. Too long since I read the book to be absolutely sure, but definitely some are. One I remember is the “bun in the oven” joke about Bennett’s malingering.

      I read a couple of other Monserrat novels, but (in my recollection) they fell well below the level of his masterpiece.

  3. One night back in the late 1990s, a local arthouse cinema screened a double-feature of ‘The Dam Busters’ and ‘The Cruel Sea’. Although I had known about both films since childhood, I hadn’t seen either – and once again, the wait until adulthood turned out to be worth it, especially for ‘The Cruel Sea’.

    I liked ‘The Dam Busters’ a lot, but I was especially engrossed by ‘The Cruel Sea’. Gripping and stunning, it was a very powerful film indeed – and even more so when watched with an audience.

    Shortly after I was telling my father about having seen ‘The Cruel Sea’ and he mentioned that it had been the favourite film of his late father, a Royal Australian Navy veteran who had enlisted the day war had been declared in 1939 and then spent the next six years fighting throughout the Pacific theatre. That made me appreciate ‘The Cruel Sea’ even more.

  4. You can go over the last of the Canadian Flower Class corvettes in Halifax. Even tied to a concrete wharf in a deep fiord it rolls like an itchy pony. And the sonar operator sits in a phone booth on the weather deck.

  5. I read ‘The Cruel Sea’ in the mid-60s then saw the movie about 1970 on TV — hacked to bits and interrupted for spots every ten minutes. Loved them both, but in memory I conflated the two.

    Rereading the book last summer and watching the movie last winter, I was disappointed in the movie. Not because Hawkins isn’t great, but because Ambler took a subsidiary character, Ericson, and substituted his story for Monsarrat’s/Lockhart’s. The movie really doesn’t hang together as Ericson’s story. Hawkins is too young for Ericson and too old for Lockhart. My guess is the studio wrote the script for the available star without much attention to the book.

    The book is as good a ‘coming of age’ story as I’ve ever read. (It is not a ‘great’ novel, but it is a great read.) Ten years ago, when I saw the Canadian Corvette (the last remaining, I believe) tied up in Halifax, N.S., I wept — and I don’t cry. Lockhart’s romance is unforgettable, and the letter Monsarrat ascribes to Lockhart (part of which the movie incorporates) hit me very hard on both readings.

    Monsarrat wrote only one thing nearly as good: ‘The Ship that Died of Shame’. It, too, was made into a pretty good movie.

    In fin, I must respectfully dissent.

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