February 24, 2017


The Cruel Sea – 1953 | 126 mins | Drama, War | B&W


Plot Synopsis

The Cruel Sea

Nicholas Monsarrat’s book The Cruel Sea, describing corvette life in the Second World War, had been a monumental best-seller, and it was the author’s own wish that the film rights went to a British production company, an altruistic gesture that must have represented a considerable drop in his potential earnings, although wisely he settled for a percentage deal. Balcon arranged a meeting between Monsarrat and Charles Frend, who had directed San Demetrio, London and they got on well together. The casting of Jack Hawkins in the central role of Captain Ericson, the professional who leads a bunch of amateur navy sailors, was also popular; at the premiere of Mandy the rugged actor, who had been on the stage since the Twenties and in films from 1930, found himself besieged by autograph hunters, and realised that after years of slogging he had become a star.

The second major part, that of Lockhart, the second-in-command, went to Donald Sinden, who had not made a film before; The Cruel Sea made his name, as it did those of Denholm Elliott and Virginia McKenna, whose previous roles had been insignificant. Bryan Forbes likes to tell the story that he was turned down for a part because he was not officer material – it is a good joke against Ealing, and Balcon somewhat self-consciously denied its truth.

Adapting the novel was a formidable task. Its 416 succinctly-written pages were packed with incident, some of it horrifying, such as the vivid image of men from a torpedoed ship, roped together in the water and supported by their life jackets, grinning and bowing to each other because they are skeletons. Eric Ambler manfully prepared the script, discarding many sections and characters, telescoping scenes, and changing emphases. It was estimated that four million people in Britain alone had read the book and so the onus on Ambler was considerable. Finding a suitable corvette was another problem The Admiralty, while anxious to co-operate in the making of the film, had got rid of all its wartime corvettes, which were small escort ships that he been used to protect Atlantic convoys. Eventually one was located in Malta – the Coreopsis of the Flower Class – which had been loaned to the Greek navy and was now awaiting a tow back to England and the breaker’s yard. A naval captain with war service in such vessels, Captain Broome, was dispatched to inspect and report, and he arranged for some repairs before sailing it back to Plymouth under its own steam. Jack Hawkins recalled asking him about the condition of the ship. ‘We shall get her going all right,’ was the reply, ‘but God, what a state she’s in. I can only tell you that when those Greek sailors went to the heads they must have turned cartwheels!’

The ship was duly transformed into HMS Compass Rose and filming began. It was not without incident. On one occasion, during a run into Plymouth Sound which had been delayed longer than it should have been and was taking place on a fast rising tide, Broome was unable, in spite of his tremendous skill, to prevent the little ship from doing £10,000 worth of damage to HMS Camperdown, a destroyer that had just been refitted. An angry sailor, woken from his slumbers, leaned out of a porthole and yelled at Hawkins on the bridge: ‘Who’s driving your bloody wagon then? Errol Flynn?’ Jack Hawkins recalled another occasion when they were sailing past the huge American battleship, USS Missouri, then on a goodwill visit, who flashed them the message: ‘What ship are you?’ Broome delightedly replied, silencing the might of the US Navy: ‘We are Compass Rose sailing the cruel sea. What ship are you?’

The most traumatic scene in the film occurs after a submarine has caused havoc to the convoy and the ASDIC (sonar detector) reveals that it is beneath a group of British sailors who are struggling in the water, hoping to be rescued. Ericson, faced with an appalling choice, drops the depth charges that will destroy the enemy but will also kill his countrymen. Yet for all his professionalism he is a human being, and he later gets paralytically drunk and bares his feelings to Lockhart. Hawkins, personally moved by the situation, delivered a fitting emotional performance, and at the end of the scene tears were rolling down his face. Two days later, after seeing it cut together, Balcon asked Frend to reshoot it with Hawkins keeping a grip on himself. It was played that way and Balcon pronounced it absolutely perfect. Then two days later, after another viewing, it was, decided that a little emotion was needed after all, the scene was reshot with just an odd tear or two, and again the verdict was that it was now dead right. Hawkins was amused to note that the final version of the film used the first take.

Extract© George Perry: Forever Ealing.

Production Team

Charles Frend: Director
Jim Morahan: Art Direction
Gordon Dines: Cinematography
Anthony Mendleson: Costume Design
Peter Tanner: Editing
Sidney Turner: Make-Up Artist
Alan Rawsthorne: Music
Ernest Irving: Music Direction
Leslie Norman: Producer
Eric Ambler: Script
Stephen Dalby: Sound
Leo Wilkins: Sound


Jack Hawkins: Lieut-Cdr Ericson
Donald Sinden: Lieut Lockhart
Denholm Elliott: Lieut Morell
John Stratton: Ferraby
Stanley Baker: Bennett
Virginia McKenna: Julie Hallam
Moira Lister: Elaine Morell

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