The famous mantra “War Is Hell”, coined by William Tecumseh Sherman, has been the inspiration for many movies, including Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986) and Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998), which present war as something savage, brutal and unforgiving. But there are an equal number of films which present battle as something poetic and noble; Overlord (Stuart Cooper, 1975) and The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998) for example, which are beautiful and stirring films, evocative and ethereal. The Cruel Sea, based on a 1951 novel by Nicholas Monsarrat and adapted for the screen by Eric Ambler, finds a middle ground; it’s a documentary-style drama about those men who never really saw war. They were engaged in conflict, sure, and felt the elevated paranoia, sickness and emotional turmoil of Navy life, but they floated through patches of deafening silence, not encountering an enemy for months… sometimes years. It’s an incredibly naturalistic film, paced and, for the time at least, unflinching. I’m always wary of that word when approaching a work of fiction, but I think it’s a fair tag for The Cruel Sea, which is a film I wish I’d liked more.
It only takes one missing ingredient to botch a perfectly good cake, if you’ll forgive the odd metaphor, and The Cruel Sea is missing a few vital ingredients. Firstly, a tangible sense of atmosphere. The HMS Compass Rose has an authentic lived-in quality, perhaps due to the fact that it is a real ex warship; the HMS Coreopsis. The interiors are rusted, grimy and packed with heat, and the Captain’s quarters are decked out in what seems to be perfect period detail. Of course, the film was shot only seven years after WWII, but a lot can happen to a ship in that time. However, despite the realism of the ship The Cruel Sea still lacks a true sense of fear. The Compass Rose is isolated in the outer regions of the ocean, facing an uncompromising enemy who could be closing in at any minute. The men don’t know the conditions of their families back home and it’s possible that they would lose all sense of time. I can only imagine how much terror must have been packed, wall-to-wall, within the steel lining of those ships. Yet Frend’s film never gets into the psychology of the men, explores the realms of fear or even employs the landscape in an involving way. Exterior shots are distanced, focusing on the sparse unpopulated space, but there’s very little sense of actual danger. The film is produced by Ealing Studios, and some of the scenes in the Captain’s quarters, where wine flows as freely as the conversation, could have come from one of their comedies; just without the jokes. The film does become harsher in its final third, where the emotional punch lands a few solid blows, but it’s not enough to make up for the unfocused and meandering tone of the first hour.
The performances are largely excellent, especially Jack Hawkins in the role of the world-weary Ericson, yet he’s not fully fleshed out as a character. There’s a cynicism and a sadness to Hawkins’ portrayal, and the film does hand him a heavy emotional card at the halfway point, which I shan’t spoil here except to say that it involves a life or death decision. The weight of this decision has a physical effect on Ericson, who seems tired of war and the sea. It’s a compelling performance from an actor I’m very fond of, and it’s remarkable to see what he drew from such workmanlike material. It’s not that Ambler’s screenplay is bad, it’s just stripped down. The film pays perhaps too much attention to the ships, and although I don’t doubt how accurate a portrayal this is (you have to commend a war film somewhat about the absence of war), that fact alone does not make for a dramatically engaging narrative film. Too many side characters felt hollow, and I did not care for them. Once again this is rectified in the third act, when the men are allowed home for a short while and their familial relationships are explored. These scenes were engaging, but should have come much earlier; the weight of their ties makes the action on the ship much more profound.
There are some set-pieces, and they impress in their economic evocation of tension; the scenes are measured and play off the reactions of the men rather than onscreen violence. Unlike most action scenes today they involve tactics, courage and teamwork – they are not about flashy explosions, and are mercifully silent in the age of crashingly loud gunfire (Pearl Harbour, Michael Bay, 2001, would be a prime offender). It’s not that I’m suggesting war was quiet; just that it wasn’t edited for 5.1 Surround Sound speakers. The Cruel Sea also understands how to pace an action sequence, yet the rest of the film feels terminally protracted and dragged out to a length that would make Terrence Malick blush. I was never bored, but I was never wholly engaged either. Again, the last half hour picks up the pace, and those final scenes are outstanding, but a few missing ingredients in the Cruel Sea cake meant that it wasn’t quite enough, and on the whole I was disappointed…
Nice transfer, that I must admit. It’s not the best I’ve seen but nor is it the worst; the image is crisp and clear, a significant step up from the DVD and some of those exterior shots, with light filtering through dense clouds, are beautiful. Alongside the theatrical trailer there are two extras, and they’re pretty solid. One is a short stills gallery and the other is a 32-minute interview with Sir Donald Sinden, which is an absolute delight. A little vanilla, but perfectly serviceable.
The Cruel Sea is released on DVD 12th June 2011.
Director: Charles Frend
Stars: Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, John Stratton
Runtime: 126 min