The Cruel Sea-Review

A 1952  British film made at the time of the Korean War about World War 2 (WW2) convoy naval duty purely from the allied side.

The film is focused on the individual crew and their stories. Day to day insights of life aboard (and ashore), the dullness of the task and the frustrations of watching ships being sunk around them. Jack Hawkins as Ericson, the captain, narrates at the opening:

“the men are the heroes and the ships the heroines.”

In monochrome, the film uses high contrast lighting  (across faces) and camera angles (using the three dimensions of the ship) and sound (such as banging as the vulnerable ship is repaired at sea) to create tension. The script is realistic dealing with the actual effects of war such as mental illness and futile deaths. The acting  effortless and utterly convincing with actors expressing believable if not real emotion . Following the depth charging scene where survivors are blown up,  Ericson has tears rolling down his cheeks as he expresses his remorse. Neither, Hawkins (Army) , Sinden or Elliot (RAF) were mariners during the WW2 but you wouldn’t know it.

The film is based on the Nicholas Monserrat eponymous and semi-biographical novel  but missing some of the more extreme parts but is, otherwise, true to it.

The scenes filmed in the enormous water tank at Denham studios  are stunningly realistic and mixed with shipborne location shots in the Portland race    (a very nasty choppy piece of water used to simulate mid-Atlantic ) making for a very believable experience. The mis-en-scene extending into the war-torn land based shots.

Interest in the subject would still have been high, seven years post war  because so many of its audience served or were related to those who served. The film is an interesting companion to Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve propaganda film of ten years earlier. Again the human stories of courage, frailty and tragedy engage our empathy rather than more than simple tales of daring do.

Equally Britain was again participating in hostilities and patriotic films where in need again to bolster morale.  The Royal Navy would have been very happy to collaborate to raise its profile during a less easy to understand conflict happening on the other side of the world. However, there is message of the  futility of war within the screenplay   and especially in the final scene where the ship sails past the surrendered, but still numerous,  u-boat fleet.

Both the film and Hawkins were a success financially and personally being voted for in a contemporary poll of 5000 cinemas (From London, 1954) and a box office success in the US (Sunday Times, 1954)

Having served myself this resonates strongly, recalling feelings of   camaraderie, terror and sometimes horror.

In conclusion this is one of my all time films of the genre. As Ericsson continues in the opening but to conclude this review:

“The only villain is the sea, the cruel sea, that man has made more cruel.”



“From London.”. The Mail (Adelaide: National Library of Australia).   9 January 1954. p. 50. Retrieved 25.12.2015.

“WHAT’S NEWS IN THE MOVIE WORLD.”. Sunday Times (Perth: National Library of Australia). 28 November 1954. p. 39. Retrieved 25.12.2015.




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