Classic Cinema: The Cruel Sea (1953) - Reviewed

Ealing Studios, the oldest film production studio still functioning in the world, produced some of Great Britain’s finest and most revered cinematic landmarks.  Moreover a majority of them came together just years after the end of the very event which shaped their creation in the first place: the Second World War.  Among the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful British films to emerge from this then-recent postwar period of cinematic reckoning with the aftermath of the war was the big screen adaptation of Lt. Commander Nicholas Monsarrat’s still galvanizing yet compelling novel The Cruel Sea

A sort of wartime memoir following the lives of several members of the Royal Navy during the Battle of the Atlantic it presents a tense ensemble drama of what it meant to fight and survive the war at sea, derived largely from Monsarrat’s personal experiences serving in the North Atlantic.  Told through the perspective of Lt. Commander George Ericson (Jack Hawkins), The Cruel Sea inhabits the lives of these soldiers at sea tasked with shielding convoys while sniffing out and destroying enemy submarines. 

Helmed by war film veteran Charles Frend and shot largely on the Ealing Studios soundstage, The Cruel Sea united a cast of fine British actors including a young Denholm Elliott (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Sir Donald Sinden and Stanley Baker.  Signaling the director’s grand return to the postwar cinematic battlefield by striking cinematic gold at the box office, The Cruel Sea is best remembered for cementing actor Jack Hawkins’ status as one of the British Film Industry’s most illustrious talents. 

A veteran himself having served in the Second World War, Hawkins appeared in many numerous war pictures and already formed an onscreen reputation as a stern yet sympathetic soldier with Angels One Five.  With The Cruel Sea in the leading role of the conflicted yet determined Lt. Commander Ericson, the film catapulted the actor to superstardom in the British film world.  Scenes of the Commander forced with the painful decision to charge on ahead past soldiers left to die in the ocean will especially burrow themselves into the viewer’s subconscious well after the film has ended.

Though certain scenes reveal limitations of the soundstages including the obvious use of a large water tank, The Cruel Sea nevertheless succeeds in conveying an experience of war fought on the barren yet harsh and unpredictable aquatic landscape of the Atlantic Ocean.  While mostly focused on the tough decisions being made by the Lt. Commander, the novel and film adapted for the screen by Eric Ambler jumps freely between side stories involving the sailors working on the HMS Compass Rose, building a sense a camaraderie as well as greater tragedy as the unforgiving war comes to pass. 

One particularly searing moment adapted faithfully from the novel involves the parting thoughts of drowning soldiers conveyed through voice-over by the cast.  For a war drama of the period, the inter-cutting between various dying characters produces a jet black sequence conveying the chilly yet ferocious indifference of elemental oceanic power expressed figuratively and literally.  That said, the film also leaves room for moments of levity including an amusing aside involving dinner thrown about the kitchen from turbulent white caps. 

Opening to glowing reviews in 1953, The Cruel Sea became the most commercially successful British film of the year and solidified actor Hawkins’ place in cinema history among the all-time great performances.  Seen now the film inhabits a rare sub-genre of war as experience in film rather than as conventional three-act narrative cinema.  Ranked 75th in the BFI’s Top 100 British Films list, The Cruel Sea still manages to knock one’s wind out with its unflinching look at life in war fought on the turbulent Atlantic Ocean in one of the world and human history’s most difficult and trying of times.

--Andrew Kotwicki