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Souls at Sea Review

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by AVForums Oct 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    Souls at Sea Review
    In 1842 a ship called the William Brown struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank. That wasn't where the William Browns similarities ended with the rather more famous Titanic - she too didn't have enough lifeboats. In fact, by the time she went down, only one lifeboat remained - but there wasn't enough room for all the people onboard. The captain of the ship (Harry Carey) was injured and unable to carry out his tasks - so command passed to his first mate. The decision making of who lived and who died was put upon the first mate - and he managed to save about a dozen people due to not overloading the lifeboat.

    However, when they finally got to land, the first mate was tried for murder because there was space in the lifeboat - and was eventually convicted of manslaughter - even though he had saved a dozen souls...


    Souls At Sea bears a fair few similarities with the actual sinking of the William Brown. For starters, it involves a shipwreck where the first mate is made to decide who lives and who dies - and the ship that is sunk is called the William Brown. The film actually starts at the first mates trial (played by Gary Cooper) where he is tried and convicted of murder....

    We then flashback to a different ship. This one is a slave ship returning to America with it's cargo of Negro slaves from Africa - but at the time that this film is set in, the 1840's, slaving was classed as illegal by the governments of the United States and Great Britain. The slaves are playing up so the captain goes to dish out a whipping - only to be dragged into the cargo hold and beaten to death by the captives. Command of the ship passes to the first mate. The ship is later taken over by the Royal Navy - but it's minus it's cargo of slaves. The first mate and his second in command (played by George Raft) are accused of murdering the slaves by throwing them overboard before they were boarded - an accusation that is categorically denied by the first mate - however, he and the second in command are hung by their thumbs from the yardarm - but agree to talk and are let down.

    The hardest part of writing this review is to do my best not to give too much of the plot away - the whole story revolves around the first mates intentions and his co-operation with the 1840's version of the CIA to help bring about an end to the slave trade . I'll say no more about the story itself and concentrate on the film aspects from now on...


    Nominated for three academy awards at the time, Souls At Sea was the 1930's equivalent of Titanic. The shipwreck at the end of the movie is itself an enormous spectacle and is very graphic in it's detail. It's very overly dramatised as most of the films of the day were - but all the more charming for it.

    Of course there's the obligatory love story thrown in for good measure with our hero falling for the sister of the only officer in the Royal Navy that doesn't object to slaving.

    George Rafts character, being a kind of second class citizen, ends up falling for the sister's lady in waiting - and the scene in her cabin as the ship sinks and chaos reigns supreme is the most poignant in the film - and maybe the pinnacle of Rafts career. It certainly brought a lump to this macho reviewer's throat...


    It's not a faithful telling of the William Browns story that I mentioned at the beginning of this review - but at no time does it claim to be. I believe that the film makers are paying homage to those that perished aboard that ship in the North Atlantic. The depiction of life at sea aboard the sailing ships of the time is well told - we have first class passengers enjoying lavish entertainment in a big ballroom whilst the steerage and lower class make do with their own entertainment. Personally, the latter looks a lot more fun to me and I know where I'd rather be...


    Brilliantly photographed, lavishly scored, wonderfully over acted, Souls At Sea is another timeless piece of cinema history lovingly restored and put onto disc for us to own forever by Eureka- it's classic Sunday afternoon fodder and I can thoroughly recommend it to lovers of action, adventure and romance films. Get the family round the telly after Sunday dinner and show the kids what real films used to be like.