As a kid I saw many British war movies from the 1950s, World War II loomed over my generation as it had had a great impact on our parents, and no doubt they inculcated me with a belief that the British are the best. Maybe Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees Mog and their ilk watched too many war movies too but have never grown up. The genre requires many stiff upper lips in the face of adversity and there’s plenty of that in The Cruel but also, strikingly, tears from the hero (Jack Hawkins) as a consequence of his necessary killing of British seamen. Apparently the producer Michael Balcon and director Charles Frend had doubts about the scene; it does stand out against the conventions of the time.
Less worthy is the film’s treatment of the working classes: the faithful efficient types are there but Stanley Baker’s first lieutenant is shown to be far too uppity (and drunk) – he was a used car salesman in ‘civvy street’ – so he has to be dispensed with by the narrative. Women exist only as a virgin-whore dichotomy: Virginia McKenna’s nice girl vs. Moira Lister’s promiscuous show-biz wife.
Charles Frend had directed documentaries during the war, for example San Demetrio London(1943), as well as propaganda fiction films, such as The Foreman Went to France (1942), so he knew his onions. Documentary footage of sea battles – the film mostly focuses on ‘the battle of the Atlantic’ – are used but only serve to show up the weakness of the model work. To cavil about the (relatively) poor special effects misses the point; the film succeeds in giving us a sense of how terrifying the experience must have been. Frend also goes for some distinctive close-ups of characters to reveal their inner turmoil.
The ‘fifties cycle of war films can be seen as reassuring audiences of Britain’s greatness as it divested itself of the Empire and lost its preeminent position in world affairs (memo to Farage et. al.: ‘we no longer have an Empire’). The films celebrated the extraordinary war time effort but The Cruel Sea, at its conclusion, also reminds us of the futility of war when rescued German seaman are described as being ‘no different to us’ and Hawkins’ commander comments that they’d only sunk two U-boats in five years as they sail past numerous captured vessels.
The film was a box office hit, did good business in America, and made a star of Hawkins.