The Cruel Sea Review
War movies come in many different flavours – there are those which paint a poetic, almost hallucinogenic portrait of combat stress, portraying the madness more acutely in this fashion (Apocalypse Now); there are those which over-dramatise the proceedings in order to get the point across (Oliver Stone’s passionate Vietnam trilogy took steps in this direction); those which attempt to just hit you hard with brutal realism (Saving Private Ryan); and then there are those which just seek to give you ‘a week in the life of’ these souls in battle. Neither glorifying war, nor going for the overtly patriotic angle, their intention is simple – make you feel like you’re really there, in the thick of things, forced to make the same hard decisions just to survive. The German Das Boot production sought to do just that, aboard a German U-Boat during the Second World War; but a couple of decades earlier – in a film made less than ten years after the end of the War itself – the British looked at the flip-side to that particular coin: life on a battleship sent to escort a transport fleet through dangerous territory; waters which are being ravaged by enemy U-Boats.
“This is a story of the Battle of the Atlantic, the story of an ocean, two ships, and a handful of men. The men are the heroes; the heroines the ships. The only villain is the sea, the cruel sea, that man has made more cruel...”
The story follows life aboard HMS Compass Rose, a Royal Navy Flower-Class Corvette; a relatively small and manoeuvrable warship intended primarily for escort duties. Lieutenant Commander Ericson, fresh from service as a Captain in the Merchant Navy, is tasked with taking his newly-commissioned crew into dangerous waters, escorting primarily cargo vessels (from the Merchant Navy) across the Atlantic. Initially the crew are eager to impress in their new roles, oblivious to just how bad things can get at sea – in a War – and, in fact, their only real concern is with the overbearing First Officer, who barks orders and treats the men quite disdainfully. But when they find a way of using his own oppression against him, forcing a new First Officer to be appointed, they soon realise that they have much bigger problems to contend with. As the vessels in their convoys get plucked off one by one, the crew find themselves increasingly helpless against a silent, hidden enemy – even their new early form of Sonar not helping them secure a kill. And as the War itself goes on, German domination spreads across the ports, as they capture them in a race to occupy the coastal countries. With almost no air-cover, this leaves the waters even more shark-infested with the hunting U-Boats. Forced to make some horrific decisions just to survive the long, arduous trips; and with the odds stacked against them, it only seems like a matter of time before the Compass Rose will go down along with the rest of the vessels desperately trying to cross the Atlantic.
Based on the acclaimed novel of the same name by Nicholas Monserrat, The Cruel Sea is a first-hand recounting of life in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. Taking an almost documentary-style approach to retelling the ship-board experiences; using authentic ships (actually Corvette warships) and basically a diary-style story to fuel the script, the movie practically transports you back to the thick of things during the conflict. The narrow story – which basically follows this one boat – still works well to symbolise the Naval battle in the Atlantic in its entirety; how hard it was to live in those close quarters, ever vigilant as to torpedo attacks, perpetually looking to the bleeping sonar to pick up what could easily be a shoal of fish, and constantly contending with the tragedy of fallen comrades. Initially focussing on the more trivial aspects of Navy life, it comes as a real shock when the first ship gets taken down; the few survivors reeled in choking on oil and water. You can feel the veritable change in sentiment throughout the entire crew, the sobering effect of this, the first of a succession of incidents – and the comparative frustration at chasing an enemy that you can’t even see.
Veteran Brit actor Jack Hawkins fares well here as the ship’s captain, resolute and experienced, but not without heart – you can see the respect he earns from his crew, without any requirement for the same bullying tactics as his First Officer utilises; and you can also see the torture he goes through when he has to make some unquestionably difficult decisions in battle. There are several other recognisable names in the cast – including Denholm Elliott, Stanley Clarke and Donald Sinden – and they’re all good in their roles, even if all that is really required of them is to become naive, inexperienced young sailors, who have to follow a pretty steep learning curve just to survive.
What makes this a classic British war movie, however, is definitely still its authenticity. There is no desire here to aggrandise the events – which was the approach taken with the movie adaptation of a similar novel about British warships tackling submarines in the Atlantic, The Enemy Below, that jettisoned the stiff-upper-lip approach in favour of Robert Mitchum’s good old American hero, and plenty of entertaining bombast. No, The Cruel Sea takes its time, forcing you to let your guard down – just as the ship’s inexperienced crew does – before hitting you hard with the true horrors of war, whilst simultaneously painting a familiar portrait of the strong bonds formed through times of adversity. There’s nothing glamorous here, nothing explosive, just death – both from the war and the very weather itself (particularly on the frozen trek to Murmansk) – waiting for you and your comrades, ready to strike any second. The movie has become a part of our film history, almost a part of history itself in its depiction of events so close to the time, with such realism.
In a modern generation of fast-food-style movie events, the experience has become as much, if not more important than the content, and The Cruel Sea is very slow-burning – undeniably a product of its time; making it understandably harder for younger audiences to warm to. It’s a comparatively boring meal for many – shot in black and white, and peppered with antiquated dialogue and indirect (miniature-model) action. It also tentatively skips over some of the more grisly (and, frankly, more interesting) events depicted in the original source novel, and spends too much time in hum-drum romantic interludes whilst the crew is enjoying shore leave, even if that particular detour is, thankfully, eventually bombed into oblivion. And if you’re open to a broader spectrum of movies, you’ll still find plenty of worth here – after all, this isn’t just another old war classic, this is likely what some of those in our grandparents’ generation would have actually lived through.