The Cruel Sea on Blu-ray: fighting U-boats with pink gin and a stiff upper lip

June 6, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in Retro with 0 Comments

Hot on the heels of this week’s arrival of Cross of Iron on Blu-ray, Optimum are releasing a very different WWII film, The Cruel Sea, next week (Monday 13th June).  Extras are light, but the disc does include an interview with Donald Sinden, who’s one of those old-school charmers you can’t help enjoy listening to.

the cruel sea Blu-ray

The Cruel Sea
(Charles Frend, GB, 1953)

Ignore the melodramatic title and its flag-waving reputation: this is a film that stiffens its upper lip with deathly-dull duty in the cold Atlantic air

The Cruel Sea has become one of the defining examples of postwar, stiff upper lip British heroism – check out the stirring Union Jack packaging on the new Blu-ray release – but the interesting question is: why? This isn’t the usual gung-ho triumph of pluck over adversity; it’s so more restrained that the likes of The Dambusters start to look tacky and indecent in their patriotic cheerleading.

Instead, its study of a warship protecting Allied merchant convoys from U-boat attack is a no-frills, get-on-with-the-job affair, whose sheer stolidity becomes a virtue. In its best passages, it bypasses the clichés of the Brit wartime drama and becomes a keenly observed study of why the genre’s trademark emotional reticence is essential.

The film concentrates on Lockhart, a civvie and amateur sailor who by accident and professionalism rises to be the second-in-command of Jack Hawkins’ commander, Ericson. Surprisingly, Lockhart is ably played by Donald Sinden, an actor who would become renowned playing smug slapstick with Windsor Davies, but here is the bashful matinee idol who learns to get the job done by shutting up and listening to the boss. The longer the film goes on, the more it becomes a bromance between Ericson, a career sailor aghast at the life-or-death choices the war has forced him to make, and Lockhart, the novice who helps him to hold it together.

No room for idlers or boasters here. This is a place where, as the script gloriously puts it, you “try to die without wasting anybody’s time.” The liveliest (and most atypical) character is Stanley Baker’s fast-talking used car salesman turned naval tyrant…but he’s a bullshit-artist and a comic-relief villain, almost a figure from a Police Academy film, who must be dispatched to pave the way for Lockhart’s promotion possible.

“Jack Hawkins and Donald Sinden’s crew is staffed by the gayest sailors to sail on The Cruel Sea until the Village People joined the Navy…”

And once Baker has gone, the Hawkins/Sinden crew gets staffed by surely the gayest team ever assembled on a boat until the Village People joined the Navy… amongst them a disconcertingly young looking Denholm Elliott, implausibly married to a West End bombshell. Tellingly, the crew’s tipple of choice is pink gin.

But this isn’t party central. Characters go through the motions of fear, grief, boredom and triumph, in an episodic narrative that feels like it accurately conveys the stop/start nature of convoy warfare. Frend shoots on a real Corvette, and the shafts of documentary-style footage of sailors at work offers far more of an insight into the nature of the work than a screenplay that is too often on-the-nose.

Better still, the action set-pieces are remarkably taut considering the special effects are a mix of modelwork and stock footage. Frend shoots the sea as a place of inky malice, and edits like Eisenstein, especially in the traumatic sequence where Ericson has to choose between saving floating survivors or attacking the U-boat beneath them. It’d make a great companion piece to Das Boot, Wolfgang Petersen’s classic about a German submarine; in fact, it’d make a great art project to edit the two together to portray the deadly chess game of torpedo and depth charge.

But there is one noticeable discrepancy: us Brits got a lot more shore leave than their German enemies, and ironically this film is sunk only when it’s on dry land. Frend portrays several ludicrously tragic romantic interludes, with the sole payoff that, when the boat gets sunk, it’s the men who are unlucky in love who give up the fight… while virile Lockhart, still in with a shout of shagging Virginia McKenna, survives.

The film almost visibly recoils from this insulting nonsense, because it avoids the natural climax, as the survivors make it back to London for one last gin. The real war didn’t obey neat dramatic structures, so nor does this film – which continues for another act, aboard another boat, with another crew, as Ericson and Lockhart play out their journey to the end of the war. The film ends neither with bang nor whimper; simply a modest doff of the cap to the ordinary heroes for whom victory meant doing their job and making it back alive.

Thanks to Optimum for the screener

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