The Sea Wolf never amounts to anything better than a decent story, we've seen it before and will see it again.
Starting a movie based off a novel by famed novelist Jack London is usually about as solid a footing as a studio can pick. I grew up reading Call of the Wild and White Fang and loved them, but I'll admit I've never read London's The Sea Wolf, one of over 20-plus novels he wrote in his short career. Not having read the book, I can't fairly compare the novel to the movie, but with a little Wikipedia investigating it didn't take long to find out how much was changed from one medium to the next. Hollywood studios at work turning a solid, respected story into a dumbed down version that they believe audiences will love. Nice work all around.
In 1900 in the Pacific Ocean, there is one ship -- named The Ghost -- that no sailor willingly wants to work on. The ship's captain, Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson), is a rabid tyrant, treating his men cruelly with little regard for anything but their job at hand, hunting seal. But on this trip, Larsen doesn't have a particular objective, he's running from something. On board are three new passengers including George Leach (John Garfield), a man similarly hiding from his past, and two passengers rescued at sea following a collision, Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino), an escaped convict from a women's prison, and Humphrey Van Weyden (Alexander Knox), a writer. All three want off the ship for one reason or another, but Larsen has no intention of changing his plans for everyone else regardless of the cost.
I will say before I rip into the movie that I liked the style of the film overall with director Michael Curtiz turning in a typically polished finished product. 'Wolf' plays like a film noir on the high seas where each character is flawed from their past and are thrown together to piece everything into place. There are no real good guys -- although Knox's Van Weyden is pretty close -- and everyone else is in shades of gray. For a movie from Warner Bros. in the early 1940s, it has a dark, shadowy look that ends up playing well because the Ghost is clearly a stage, a set built. No real-life adventures on the high seas here, too pricey. Money was spent on the film though, and it's enjoyable enough to watch.
Molding London's novel though from a book to a movie, some major changes were made, and even I didn't need to look this one up. As a writer, London doesn't seem the type to waste a lot of pages developing a hackneyed relationship between two characters who fall madly in love with each other almost at first glance. It's just not his style if you ask me. Well, the studios thought that would be a good route to take with the story. Lupino and Garfield were some of the best and most recognizable stars from the 1940s with talent to spare, but they're wasted here. Neither character was even in the book so the script adds them to apparently bring in a wider audience. Instead, this "relationship" falls flat and drags the movie downhill quickly.
Where the movie gets it right working off of London's novel was the odd bond that develops between Robinson's Wolf Larsen -- a smaller Capt. Bligh with more of a cruel streak -- and Knox's Van Weyden. As individual characters, you feel you actually get to know them through this high seas cruise. Robinson plays Larsen as a ball of contradictions, one second an intelligent, rational individual and the next, a raving lunatic pitting his men against each other. Knox makes Humphrey the most sympathetic character, a man forcefully enlisted to work with the crew even though he knows nothing of being a sailor. His writing talents come out, and when Larsen finds out about his honest analysis of this captain, he's not angry or disappointed. Maybe it's his pride, his ego, but he's intrigued and encourages Van Weyden to continue writing.
Too bad more of the movie couldn't have been devoted to that portion of the story. Robinson has that intensity in his parts that so few actors can pull off and not make it feel forced. His performance carries the movie as he drips with anger and even a little lunacy. Knox in the quieter part doesn't get lost along the way, managing to keep up with Robinson. Other strong supporting parts include Gene Lockhart as Dr. Louie, a drunk doctor who yearns for his glory days of the past, and Barry Fitzgerald playing against type in a particularly nasty part as Cookie, the ship's cook and an informant for Larsen about the goings on with the crew. The movie is all right overall, but it could have been better.
The Sea Wolf <---trailer (1941): ** 1/2 /****