To compliment my recommendation of The Long Arm, let me endorse an even better 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 and lead them while making the terrible life or death decisions that wartime demands (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 (recommendation here). We see sailors 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.