22 January 2013 | secondtake
A rather great understated war film--terrific photography and Brando
I had no expectation here. The name was odd. And the description was odd--a WWII film from the point of view of the enemy. Sort of. And so I didn't really think I'd be fully captive.
And I was. This is a special film war film. For one thing it has Marlon Brando being his arrogant best, and Yul Brynner, too. It presents an odd dramatic situation, a tension between strong willed characters who don't quite know what the other is up to. Here I mean Brando playing a German plant on this ship going from Japan to Europe, and Brynner, the captain, a disgruntled German with some experience both with the wheel and the bottle.
The ship is a modern (1942) Japanese ship, and among the crew are a bunch of political prisoners, who of course can't be totally trusted. The cargo is rubber, the most sought after material in the early war (later it would be uranium, I suppose).
Cinematographer Connie Hall is quite aggressive and brilliant with his photography, keeping the angles and movement nearly constant. The light is dramatic, the sharpness clean. And he got nominated for an Oscar for his work. The interior of the ship is large and filled with strange turns, great heights, lots of interior and exterior spaces that take you by surprise. Beautiful stuff.
The plot moves more quickly than you'd expect, too, with little surprises and turns, like finding a burning American ship at night and rescuing survivors. One of these is a young woman who was born in Berlin and they question her--why is a German on an enemy ship? And she says she is not German. And they ask what is she? You expect here that she might say she was American, but even better she says, "I am anti-German."
The script is tight and believable. The scenario, which is not formed from fact as far as I could discover (it's based on a novel), seems reasonable. And it ends up being more subtle than you'd expect. Yes, there are aspects that are obvious dramatic additions--the one woman who appears, for example, happens to be Jewish--but these end up being ways of showing people's characters. Ultimately that's what this movie is about.