26 October 1999 | H.J.
Beautiful, thoughtful British film-making from the past.
If my ship were going down, and I had that one last moment to grab a treasured something, my copy of the book, THE CRUEL SEA by Nicholas Monsarrat might well be what I choose. (That is supposing I already had my life vest on.) This book has affected my life deeply since I first came across it as a teenager. It is why I joined the US Navy. (where I ironically ended up in the submarine service.) It formed an invaluable step in teaching me what `duty' meant, and `honor.' It is therefore a bit more difficult for me to judge this motion picture than most. Were it horrid, I should still love it, I suppose. Fortunately it is not horrid. `The Cruel Sea is in fact first rate.
It is difficult to translate any full-length novel to the screen. There are too many `moments in time' to get them all in. So the adaptation of a novel by a screenwriter becomes a process of selection. Eric Ambler did his usual excellent job in writing this script, and if he left out some of the better bits, he also got the best bits in. Charles Frend directs it well within the style of the early 1950's. The special effects are above average for the time and not unacceptable by today's standards, although they are not spectacular. The film editing is clean and crisp with little to complain about. The musical score is not intrusive, but not up to the rest of the effort. It would be ten years before the art of Movie Music caught up to the rest, and here the score is no worse any other film of 1953. It is however the acting that gives this movie the push to get it far above the rest.
Jack Hawkins is marvelous in his understated competence as Captain Ericson, and the actors who play his officers (including a very young and very British Denholm Elliot) all turn in workman-like performances. It is however the overall excellence of the entire cast that is impressive. One of the major strengths of British films from the end of the Second World War through the 1970's was the incredibly fine ensemble casting that provided first-rate acting even in the smallest parts. Walter Fitzgerald in his 30 second role as the air raid warden shows true compassion when he says, `Yes, Mister Tallow, that was your house, wasn't it?'
All of the vivid, bloody color that made `Platoon' and `Saving Private Ryan' the two best combat films ever made are absent here. This was a different type of warfare, the blood, all of the color washed away by the cruel sea. The Battle of the North Atlantic was a very British battle. A five and a half year long stoic battle of endurance, of perseverance, of honor and duty. This is the side of the Second Word War that most lived, but few have ever been able to put into words. `The Cruel Sea' is much more than just a history lesson though. It is a very good movie, and it is a beautiful example of what British film could be in 1953. I highly recommend it.