The Cruel Sea (UK 1953)

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The mental scars of war

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.

2 comments

  1. keith1942

    I think many of Nick’s criticisms are correct but they are over-emphasised. There is a war weariness [that he acknowledges] that speaks as much to the ‘end of empire’ as to imperial traditions. He may be right that pro-Brexit politicians enjoy the film but, if so, it is by ignoring the connotative as opposed to the denotative aspects of the narrative.
    The example he gives of working class [Stanley Baker’s Bennett] is more accurately typed as petit bourgeois; that is why he is an officer. The trio of Liam Redmond [Watts], Bruce Seton [Tallow] and Meg Jenkins [Tallow’s sister] are sympathetic characterisations which add immeasurably to the film. Jenkins’ character also questions the comment about ‘virgin/whore dichotomy’. And this term seems anachronistic in the world of wartime Britain.
    I have seen the film several times, not so long ago on a reasonable 35mm print. It stands up very well and is, I think, one of the finest British war films of the period. I certainly prefer ‘British stiff upper lip’ to the jingoism of the US war film of the period.

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  2. Roy Stafford

    I’m with Keith on this. You don’t mention that this an Ealing film, arguably the most successful Ealing film at the box office, but also unusual in being scripted by the thriller writer Eric Ambler as an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel by Nicholas Monsarrat. Ealing often relied on in-house writers.

    Monsarrat was middle-class and Cambridge, but he was also a Liverpudlian and a leftist. His concerns are for men at sea and the film begins and ends with his words in Hawkins’ voice about the ‘cruel sea’. The sea is the real foe. Ealing toned down the novel and Ambler’s script removed some of the terror at sea, but this is a film about the anguish of a merchant seaman captain being pushed into the role of submarine killer. I don’t think it is about Empire as such. A few 1950s war films might be, but many are not.

    I agree with Keith re the Stanley Baker role, a weak point in the script, I think. I also agree with him about Virginia McKenna, seen here as a character with more knowledge than the ship’s crew and a woman well able to take care of herself. She would go on to be a major British star in other war films, twice as the central character.

    The film may well have made Hawkins a star in Hollywood but he had been in leading roles in the UK before 1953, I think. What is remarkable is the range of authority figures he plays, all with a similar avuncular middle-class charm. This makes his representation of a certain kind of masculinity problematic — and in ‘The Cruel Sea’ it is even more shocking when he loses control. But also more ‘human’.

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