The Cruel Sea is one of the best naval combat films ever made. Period. It follows the exploits of the crew of the Compass Rose, a British corvette tasked with convoy escort duty through the German infested waters of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Most of the film’s action takes place during that period of the Battle of the Atlantic referred to as “The Happy Time” by the crews of the German submarines — when they wrought havoc on the relatively undefended sea lanes and hastily thrown together convoys. Despite Britain’s reputation as a maritime superpower, it took more than half the war before they were able gain supremacy in the long struggle with the German navy’s “U”nderwater Boats.
The story launches with the ship’s commission, outfitting, and sea trials; and carries on through her eventual nighttime torpedoing at the hands of a German sub; and closes as her former Captain and First Officer take command of a destroyer in the final months of the war.
The Compass Rose’s beginnings are modest: Her command crew is formed with a single peacetime professional seaman, Lieutenant Commander Ericson (Jack Hawkins). The rest are cobbled together from Britain’s educated youth, those with experience in leisure sailboats thrown into first and second lieutenants’ uniforms. Like all sailors during wartime, however, they adapted quickly or were removed from service. Hawkins is fine as the Rose’s commanding officer — his personality undergoes a subtle but steady shift as the film progresses. He changes from a somewhat unsure leader, blustery at times and easygoing at others, into a dour and obsessed taskmaster, plagued by his conscience and the terror of war. At his right hand is first lieutenant Lockhart (Donald Sinden), an amateur sailor and reluctant officer who offers the crew of the Compass Rose its steadiest hand. He also serves as something of an Ishmael, our guide for the Rose’s many cruises.
The film is riveting without being overly melodramatic. The filmmakers had enough sense to realize the subject matter was dramatic enough to keep viewers invested in the film, so they didn’t feel the need to embellish the story with showy cinematic flourishes. From a filmmaking perspective, what comes through most is the understated nature of the production — including the performances in particular. The cast here is so unglamorous that the viewer’s attention is constantly focused on the circumstances of the Battle of the Atlantic and the cruel sea itself. In fact, there are passages when The Cruel Sea takes on a semi-documentary feel.
Two events in the life of the Compass Rose stand out. The first comes when the crew has their initial crack at a u-boat. Following the sinking of a merchant ship, the Rose’s sonar operator is able to get a fix on the culprit. Yet when Ericson steams in the direction of the submerged vessel, he and the crew find it hiding beneath the swimming survivors of its sunken victim — gambling the British captain is too civilized to depth charge his own countrymen. Knowing that relenting means the u-boat is certain to destroy more vital British shipping and take many more lives, Ericson destroys the sub — at the cost of the lives of the terrified men in the water, and to the shouts of “murderer!” hurled at him in the bridge by his own crew. Later, Ericson is practically undone when the Rose is torpedoed in the black of night, and at the cost of the majority of her crew. Unable to launch boats, the survivors cling to life in a pair of inflatable rafts — struggling to stay both awake and alive in the near arctic night.
Here’s a film that is widely available, yet not well remembered. It offers a gritty and vividly realistic picture of the lives of British sailors during the war years. Although The Cruel Sea is understated in typical British fashion, we discover the effect lends itself as well to a war picture as it does a witty one. A real gem, essential for anyone with an interest in the war.
The Cruel Sea (1953)
Directed by Charles Frend
Starring Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, John Stratton, and Denholm Elliot
Released by Ealing Studios
Running time: 125 minutes
Availability: DVD, Netflix