The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Cruel Sea

Considering the epic scale of war, I think it's interesting that the stories that seem to resonate are the ones that are the most personal. They may focus on the bigger picture -- a battle, a mission, the home front -- but the success rides on the individual and their efforts at survival. Focusing on the personal but maintaining that picture of the bigger events at hand is a sub-genre of WWII films, the cat and mouse game of ships vs. submarines. The ships on the surface hunt while the subs sneak in for their attacks, like 1953's The Cruel Sea.

An experienced sailor in the Merchant Navy, Lt. Commander Ericson (Jack Hawkins) is called to active duty at the outbreak of WWII and given command of an escort ship assigned duty in the Atlantic. His ship -- the Compass Rose -- is given a relatively inexperienced crew with only a few veteran officers who've even been to sea. After a quick but mostly successful training period, the Compass Rose heads out for its duty, helping escort convoys all over the Atlantic, doing their best to stop the German U-boats that are wreaking havoc on Allied shipping. They find that war isn't an action-packed adventure, but instead long stretches of clear sailing broken up by the constant threat of attack from the German subs. It doesn't take long, and that fear begins to wear on even the strongest men.

Not a hugely well known WWII flick, this British-made production is nonetheless quite worthwhile. It has its flaws like any movie, but as I mentioned earlier, it works because it is an intensely personal story. This will sound obvious, but think about how big the ocean is. Actually think about it. Then place a relatively "large" ship on that water with a mission to protect other ships from raiding subs that have thousands of miles of open water to hide out in. A torpedo can tear your ship to shreds any second and from any direction. I don't even want to think about that feeling, knowing that death hangs in the air just waiting to strike. Director Charles Frend gets credit for creating that unbearable feeling of dread as the Compass Rose sails through the Atlantic.

A name synonymous with big epic films, Jack Hawkins was one of Britain's great actors. It's great to see him in a still-big film, but not quite the epics of Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai and Zulu. He had a knack for playing the stiff upper-lip Brit, a man of honor and duty who doesn't let much rattle him, but this part is different. As he takes command of the Compass Rose, he finds out -- along with every member of his crew -- that the war is nothing like he imagined. There's no glory or heroes. You kill your enemy before he kills you. That's all. It's a dirty, filthy business. He wants to aid the war effort but also to get his crew through the war unscathed, knowing that one doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with the other. A father-son/maybe brotherly relationship develops with his first officer, Sub Lieutenant Lockhart (Donald Sinden), an inexperienced officer who picks things up quickly as the war escalates. They look to each for support in the most tense of situations, knowing that they can trust the other one.

If I could do anything to improve on the story even a little, it would have been to develop the other officers and crew a little more. We get to know a handful of other officers but never learn much about them other than a fairly vague "personality." The group includes Denholm Elliott as Lt. Morrell, the officer who's wife is a famous actress. The rest of the crew envies him, but Morrell's home life isn't as idyllic as they think, along with John Stratton, John Warner and Stanley Baker in a part that forces him to leave the story far too soon. One interesting -- if somewhat cliched -- storyline has one officer, Tallow (Bruce Seton), introducing one of the crew, Chief Watts (Liam Redmond), to his almost-spinster of a sister (Megs Jenkins). The background is kept to a minimum, holding us as a viewer at arm's length.

The best parts of 'Cruel' show the horrors of war, much of it happening off-screen. Several set pieces bring the movie up a notch, the best coming when Hawkins' Ericson must make a decision to go after a possibly fleeing submarine at the expense of sacrificing Allied sailors in the water from a nearby sunken ship. Seeing what happens wouldn't have been as effective as hearing the explosions in the water and seeing the facial reactions of the men on-board the Compass Rose. Hawkins does an amazing job at that scene, weighing the lives of a few versus the lives of hundreds and maybe thousands. Frend makes a wise choice in his story; we don't see the Germans in any form -- their ships, their planes, their men -- until the end of the movie. He isn't condemning them as savage foes, just an enemy that must be beaten, and I think that took some courage, especially in 1953 when WWII was still fresh in people's minds. The hunts for the German subs highlight the movie, showing the crew come to life at a chance to get into the action.

Because a war story wouldn't have been complete without some sort of forced, hammy love story, we do get a sub-plot with Sinden's Lockhart and Virginia McKenna's 2nd Officer Julie Hallam. I don't hate any and all love stories, just ones like these that do nothing to advance the story and are there for the purpose of being there. Lt. Morrell's wife and their story helps develop that character, but this relationship doesn't work. They can't all be winners, right? Other than that and some early pacing problems, I really enjoyed this movie. There is some great footage of these ships at sea -- calm water and pitching, violent water -- as well as some impressive stock footage from WWII. Hawkins leads a decent cast, his performance carrying the movie.

The Cruel Sea <---TCM trailer (1953): ***/****

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