Kenneth Tynan famously described Ealing producer Michael Balcon as being interested in films about ‘men at work, men engrossed in a crisis, men who communicate with their women mainly by post-card.’ (quoted in Barr, 77): however cynical, it is a description that is particularly apt for The Cruel Sea, which is two hours of naval officers acting professional or learning how to be professional.
The Cruel Sea is Ealing’s (arguably triumphant) return to the genre that helped define much of their early 1940s work – a war film about courage under fire, camaraderie and national spirit. Its depiction of naval warfare is reliant on some of the documentary-inspired elements that fuelled Ealing films such as San Demetrio London (1943) and non-Ealing projects like The Way Ahead (1944), expertly mixing actual battle footage, location shooting on a decommissioned ship, and some impressive model work. To this is added a note of world-weary commentary on the futility of war and its effect on men and their relationships – largely with the ships they sail on, actual women coming in a distant second.
But the reason for that ‘arguably triumphant’ note above is that the film, despite its canonical and popular status (the version I watched was the recent Blu-Ray release, one of the first Ealing films to get that technological make-over), never really gets beyond solid and reliable, with the occasional flash of creative and thematic interest. I can't imagine, for example, revisiting this the way I might Fiddlers Three. That may be because I have, over the years, seen my share of war films where British officers are strong and resilient, in love with the service and respectful of their fellow men, and willing to give their all to the war effort – this one ticks all those boxes, but it can feel desultory at times.
For those who haven’t seen it, a brief recap: Captain Ericson (Jack Hawkins) takes command of a corvette-class ship, the Compass Rose. Given largely untrained men such as Lockhart (Donald Sinden), Ferraby (John Stratton) and Morrell (Denholm Elliot), he has to mould them into professional naval officers fit to fight the German U-boats who keep attacking British convoys. The film tracks the officers and crew through the war.
In one sense then, this follows the pattern of British wartime films like Millions Like Us (1943) and The Way Ahead, with a group of people from different backgrounds brought together who, through personal bickering and wartime adversity, find a way to work together for the common good. But this film isn’t really interested in the wartime myth of a classless British war machine where working, middle and upper class could mingle and fight together; The Cruel Sea’s heroes are solidly middle class – Ericson comes from commercial shipping, Lockhart was a journalist, Ferraby a banker – and their stories take precedence over the lower ranks. When the Compass Rose is sunk by a torpedo, the film shows a mass of sailors jumping overboard, but it is the fate of 1st Lieutenant Lockhart and Captain Ericson that it is concerned about.
[You wouldn’t have to dig far to posit a queer reading of this film around Lockhart and Ericson, as their relationship far outweighs anything between Lockhart and his Wren girlfriend (Virginia McKenna) or Ericson’s never-seen wife. Yet as the film states, this is largely about men and their machines – the concern and stress that plays over their faces when the ship lies dead in the water, their shared grief when she sinks, makes that clear]
Hawkins is the more interesting of the two main actors, largely because Sinden (although good) has the thankless task of playing the uncertain learner to Hawkins’ gruffer, complex captain. Hawkins gets to play a maudlin drunk, a stern professional, a man of action, and a man haunted by his actions. He also gets the meatier dramatic scenes: having to decide whether to sacrifice survivors in the water in order to destroy a U-Boat with depth charges, listening to the screams of men dying in the engine room when the Compass Rose in torpedoed, stubbornly insisting that the Saltash Castle continue to hunt for a second U-boat when all signs point to its destruction (and when even Lockhart begins to question him). Hawkins is also given leave to perform most of this through close-ups rather than dialogue: the more frenetic pace of editing during the depth charge sequence continually cutting back to his anguish as he makes the decision to sacrifice a small number of men for the greater good of stopping a U-boat. Focused on his eyes and face, the film gives away nothing until he barks the order to fire. It is as vicious in its way as Went the Day Well? was, and does more to show the morality of wartime than any of the film’s speeches on war’s dehumanising nature. Equally, later on, as Ericson boards his new command, he ‘hears’ the screams of the dead men from the sinking of the Compass Rose – and Hawkins gives a brief hint at the real man hidden inside the stern captain’s figure.
It is with moments such as the first depth charges, or the torpedo attack, that the film feels alive – editing, performance, and soundtrack pull together with common purpose. The sound editor deserves special mention for the film’s use of sound effects: at certain points, scenes are scored almost entirely by the noise of the sonar blips; when the Compass Rose lies dead in the water for essential repairs, the slightest noise is amplified (a pencil rolls across a table; a dropped glass, the engineers hammering) and gives the scene added tension. (this scene also benefits from a brief moment of tension-releasing humour at the end, where one officer tells the chief engineer that there were U –boats popping up to complain about the noise)
However, the strength of such sequences reveals one of the problems of the film: because of its episodic narrative (the film is based on a book, so may feature the highlights of that original story), the film only really comes alive (in that way) three or four times: around major sequences involving a U-boat hunt, the ship being targeted, or a new mission. In between, there are activities on ship and, more often towards the end of the film, scenes in civilian life where small dramas play out around the romantic relationships. Yet these are never as convincing, or as compelling as the drama around them, and the balance between the two is never met.
Yet these scenes remain fascinating in another way because it is the only time we see any female characters – even if they are sketchy, half-formed characters whose job is to appear, look pretty, then wait around until the next lull between action sequences. Virginia McKenna gets the most to do, convincing Sinden’s character that it is better to have something to lose than to have nothing to look forward to (she also complains that women don’t get to have the same professional relationships as men in wartime: a brief comment that is never pursued), but apart from that, the women are place-holders: Morrell’s glamorous actress wife (played by Moira Lister) who is having an affair behind his back (a brief but noticeable dig at glamour and media over hardship and the professions), Tallow’s sister (reliable wife material, but killed in an air raid), and Ferraby’s wife June who (if memory serves) has one line, at a party onboard ship.
Given the vocal and often dominant women in the other Ealing films watched to date, the absence of stronger female characters in the home front narrative (or, at least, minor characters who are more interestingly drawn) is particularly noticeable here. Given one of those characters is played by Moira Lister, who was so impressive in A Run for Your Money, it points out the vagaries of roles for women in the time period but also, possibly, across Ealing films more generally. As this blog continues, I imagine more of those comparisons and recurrences will occur.
Thematically, the film also makes a few veiled comments about men and technology in war, specially around the use of sonar and radar. Initially, these technologies are doubted (at one point, the ship receives a message that there may be 11 U-boats in the area, but the sonar cannot spot any), but the battle and the U-boat search becomes increasingly reliant on such technology. However, the final U-boat is only caught because of Ericson’s ‘hunch’ that the submarine is still out there – something confirmed by sonar, but only made possible by human intuition. Technology remains an uncertain tool, never entirely positive.
The film ends as it began, with a series of episodic events around another U-boat hunt and Lockhart and Ericson comparing notes on the last six years. But as 'The End' appeared on screen, and although I could see the elements of this film that have given it a classic status, I couldn't help wishing for the more focused and spontaneous Ealing of Fiddlers Three or The Love Lottery than this solid but largely forgettable film.