The Cruel Sea

When I was writing my post ‘The Book of the Film or the Film of the Book’ a while ago, I did consider including ‘The Cruel Sea’ as not only is it one of my favourite films, it is a pretty good book too. I didn’t include it because I couldn’t find my copy of the book, which I hadn’t read for years and also I hadn’t seen the film for years either.

In one of those odd coincidences that always happen when I set my mind on a subject and leave ideas churning over in the upstairs room in my head, I was scouring through a charity shop in St Annes when I came across the DVD of the film. It was one of those free newspaper DVDs that seem to cost anything from a pound upwards at a car boot sale but was happily on sale here for a paltry 30 pence.

After a busy late shift at work I settled down with a glass of red in one hand and a ham sandwich in the other, compulsory on these occasions of course, and began watching.

The film starts off at the beginning of World War 2 when the Jack Hawkins character is at the builder’s yard helping with the fixing up of his new escort ship, Compass Rose. His officers begin to arrive, many of whom are easily recognisable as stalwarts of the 40’s and 50’s British film industry: Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliot, and Stanley Baker and later in the film Virginia McKenna appears as an officer in the WRNS.

The cast and characters are therefore introduced and then the ship goes off for its sea trials and crew training and soon the Compass Rose is escorting its first convoy. Nothing much happens at first as this is the early part of the war but when the Nazis over run France and the ports of northern France come available to the enemy, many U-Boats converge on the convoys and a great deal of merchant ships, along with the supplies so desperately needed by Britain, are lost.

The boredom of those early dull convoys contrasts sharply with the terror and mayhem waged by the U-boats later on. The film reveals the desperate tragedy of abandoning ship in the middle of the Atlantic, the oil and grease, not to mention the cold, are terrible. Many escort vessels could not stop for survivors as they would become easy prey to the unseen U-Boats, though some did, others returning later in the light of day as the attacks usually came at night.

Leave was a great relief for the naval crews. On one trip back to England the film shows the crew at home, some enjoying some home comforts, others struggling with failing marriages, a situation made worse by the war. One crewmate takes his friend the engineer home to meet his sister. On a later voyage the engineer tells his mate how he has fallen for the sister and plans to ask her to marry him. Later, the Compass Rose is sunk by a torpedo and as the survivors struggle to stay alive in the cold Atlantic many succumb to their injuries. As they drift in the oily water the soundtrack replays echos of their recent dialogue, a marriage proposals hangs in the air over the groom who will never wed and a petty argument haunts the body of the unhappily married officer. Happily, some survive till daylight when a destroyer returns to rescue them.

It must have been difficult living during the war, trying to get on with your own personal life when everything was wrapped up in the war effort. Manchester was a target for enemy bombers because of its industrial strength and also because of its airport at Ringway, now Manchester International Airport. My mother used to tell me stories of air raid shelters and late night cocoa when the air raid warnings were on and everyone trooped into the shelter. Everyone except my granddad who always said ‘If I’m going to die, I’ll die in my bed!’ She told and still tells stories of gas masks, bomb craters and how you could tell the differing sounds of German and British aircraft.

I’ve often wondered what happened if your house was bombed? Were you given new housing? What happened to your mortgage? Did you still have to pay it? Imagine being stuck with a 25 year mortgage and a house that was just a pile of rubble.

One other observation about films in the 40’s and 50’s: People seemed to have a different pattern of speech back then, a different and faster rhythm than today with clearer and more precise diction. Is that the case or is that just the way the actors and actresses of the time were taught to speak. Speech today seems slower and less precise and sprinkled with regular use of words like ‘awesome’!

Back to the Cruel Sea and Captain Ericson alias Jack Hawkins is given another ship which he captains until the end of the war. The producer, Sir Michael Balcon said that Hawkins was always the first choice for the Cruel Sea, even going so far as to say that without Hawkins he wouldn’t have made the film. The finished picture was the hit British film of 1953.

Hawkins was the epitome of the trustworthy British authority figure. In his obituary one writer wrote that Hawkins ‘exemplified for many cinemagoers the stiff upper lip tradition prevalent in post war British films. His craggy looks and authoritative bearing were used to good effect whatever branch of the services he represented.’

Hawkins himself was a three pack a day smoker and later became ill with throat cancer. In 1966 his entire larynx was removed however he still appeared in films with his dialogue dubbed by either Charles Gray or Robert Rietti. He died in 1973.

Just as I was writing this post, one thought came back to me about the book of the Cruel Sea. It was written by Nicholas Montsarrat and on the last page, when the war is over, the captain who has always hated his safety vest, hurls it into the sea. The vest sank like a stone!


Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space, a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information!

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