The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Action in the North Atlantic

Early in World War II, one of the biggest issues facing United States involvement in the war was getting our troops, equipment and materiel across the Atlantic Ocean to the European mainland.  The problem wasn't the ships, there were plenty of those, but the German navy -- especially the U-boats -- which wreaked havoc on those ships, sending thousands of ships and even more men to the bottom of the ocean. But even as the sunk tonnage went up, the ships kept making the dangerous journey.  That's the story of 1943's Action in the North Atlantic.

Now for all you non-history buffs out there, 1943 was right in the midst of World War II when the war was still very much in the balance.  Hollywood did its best to turn out stories that would inspire on the home front and convince Americans that this was a war that needed to be won.  In other words, we're not talking a whole lot of subtlety here, just straight propaganda.  It would be interesting had this movie been made in the 1960s or even now in the 21st Century just to get a different perspective on the story.  But it didn't happen that way, and we get a movie that is very much a prisoner of the time it was made in.  Not always a bad thing.

Sailing to deliver a dangerous shipment of thousands of gallons of fuel, a ship of Merchant Marines commanded by Capt. Steve Jarvis (Raymond Massey) and first officer Joe Rossi (Humphrey Bogart) is attacked and sunk by a German U-boat.  Jarvis, Rossi and some of the crew survive and are picked up, welcomed home as conquering heroes.  It's not long before Jarvis gets a new ship with much of the same crew as they hope to help the war effort aboard the USS Seawitch.  Their first mission is an important one as they will sail as part of an immense convoy traveling from the US all the way to Russia with badly-needed supplies and materiel.  A convoy this big can't help but attract attention, and it seems like it will only be a matter of time before the Germans come around.

Dripping with propaganda and messages of hope, 'Atlantic' is a good example of the movies Hollywood churned out during the war.  The story itself is an interesting one that deserves to be told in an honest, straightforward manner.  Unfortunately, we get the portrayals of these American sailors as angelic men who could do no wrong, and their German counterparts as evil, sadistic bastards who laugh as they ram doomed Americans.  On the positive side, director Lloyd Bacon (Raoul Walsh is an uncredited director here) commits to this garbage all the way. It doesn't hit you over the head the way some early 1940s movies do in getting its message across.  Bogie's final monologue could have been too sappy, but in his hands it is the ideal capper to a solid story.

Now at 126 minutes final running time, 'Atlantic' could use some trimming.  With much of the story taking place at sea, we get some pretty seamless shots of actual ships sailing on the ocean with some well-handled miniature shots.  Of course, that only goes so far.  Stock footage is overused to the point where you can fast forward through large chunks of the story without missing a beat.  The movie is obsessed with showing you what life on a ship is like, but it gets tedious, and it does so quickly.  There's also the portrayal of the German U-boat chasing the Seawitch.  I'm guessing all-told, there is probably about 20-30 minutes of the Germans in the 2-hour movie.  They even speak German...but with no subtitles!  Do you know how boring a movie gets when you can't understand a thing anyone is saying? It's a 2-hour movie, and I watched it in about 90 minutes because the fast forward got a workout.

The saving grace is the cast, including one of my favorites in Bogart.  The man was a chameleon when it came to the roles he could play, and he shows it off here.  This isn't a part that requires a ton of heavy lifting, but Bogart handles it as smoothly as possible. He gets a love interest (easy on the eyes Julie Bishop) that feels tacked on and doesn't serve a real purpose, but Bogart also gets to play the up-and-up hero for a change too.  No concerns if he's the anti-hero just waiting to reveal himself, Bogie is the all-American hero here.  Massey is all right as Capt. Jarvis, but he doesn't have to do much other than growl and talk about how badly he wants to get revenge on the Germans.  I'm sure 1943 audiences ate it all up.

Working from a John Howard Lawson screenplay, 'Atlantic' at its best is when it is dealing with the daily lives of the crew, merchant marines who weren't officially part of the Navy but nonetheless did their best to aid the war effort. The interactions among the crew and the relationships, the friendships, the arguing that develop feel authentic from the start, and you like this motley group of sailors who include Alan Hale, Dane Clark, Sam Levene, Peter Whitney, and Dick Hogan. I don't know what it's like to work and live on a ship for days, weeks and months at a time, but this felt real to me, and not forced.  So in spite of its flaws, I'll still recommend this WWII flick.

Action in the North Atlantic <---trailer (1943): ***/****   

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