Twitter Plot Summary: The adventures of a World War 2 convoy ship, with particular focus on Captain Ericson and the concerns of command.
Five Point Summary:
2. A weighty decision.
3. Relationship woes.
4. Abandon ship!
5. Stiff upper lips, what what.
Coming less than a decade after the end of the war, The Cruel Sea accurately represents the harsh realities of naval warfare as seen by a number of the crew, albeit mostly the perspective of officers rather than those lower down the chain of command. Much of the emphasis is placed on a frankly terrific Jack Hawkins as the captain, with some strong supporting turns from the likes of Stanley Baxter, Donald Sinden and Denholm Elliott.
It could easily be seen as a companion piece to Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, which considered the Atlantic conflict from the other side’s perspective. Surprisingly (or not) there is little difference between the two crews. It’s not a flag waving exercise, but is instead a heady mixture of stiff upper lipped Britishness and military discipline. As time progresses and the war drags on, the sense of weariness and despondency starts to kick in. The true perils of sea warfare are explored in great detail, although not in any graphic sense – this was 1953 after all. The tension is palpable during any scene of conflict, none more so than when Hawkins’ Captain Ericson must make the decision to drop depth charges despite some of his crew being in the water and certain to meet their doom if he presses ahead. Whilst we see nothing graphic, the weight of this decision is reflected superbly solely through Hawkins’ immediate reaction and his ensuing mini-breakdown following his decision to destroy the U-Boat at the expense of his own stranded crew.
You’d be hard pressed to find many contemporary war films that explore similar territory, in particular the grittiness and weariness that the characters exhibit. No wonder given that thematically the story is all about being exposed to a war seemingly without end, fighting an enemy that can’t be defeated without massive losses occurring on both sides. The potential horrors of your ship being sunk in combat also rears its head, leaving two small boats adrift and awaiting rescue after a U-Boat attack. When the captain gains a new ship some time later, his every decision thereafter is a direct result of that fateful event – cautious and determined to not let history repeat itself.
There’s even moments available for the crew to explore their personal relationships. Denholm Elliott has perhaps the most heartbreaking subplot which explores the futility of facing off against the Germans whilst unveiling the effect the war has had on his relationship with his wife.
There are moments of levity amongst the drama, which is much needed otherwise it threatens to become an all too grim portrayal of the war, which would undoubtedly cause the audience a few problems. Those odd moments such as laughing at the marine service’s description of sausages (“snorkers”) help alleviate the heavy sense of gloom that threatens to descend at a moment’s notice. War is hell, clearly, but the bond formed between the sailors is clearly demonstrated and indicative to audiences both then and now that fighting for what is right always worthwhile.