Don't bother trying to find other films made by the cast of this film. They were all non-professionals, genuine merchant seaman selected by Pat Jackson to appear in a documentary-style drama set in the Battle of the Atlantic.
The part played by the Merchant Navy in the Allied victory in World War Two is one of the most unappreciated in history. Sailors who took part in the Arctic convoys to Russia had to wait until 2013 (sixty-eight years after the end of the war) before being given any kind of award or medal – the Arctic Star.
Pat Jackson's film goes some way towards illustrating the conditions and dangers faced by ordinary sailors on convoy duty. It was very well made, under difficult conditions, and can easily stand alongside The Cruel Sea, San Demetrio London, and other wartime naval dramas.
The story centres on the crew of the merchant ship 'Jason' which has been torpedoed in mid-Atlantic. Twenty-two men (including the captain) have found refuge in a lifeboat. They plot a course for the west coast of Ireland, three weeks' sailing distance away, measure out the rations, and set the sail.
In parallel to this we see a convoy being prepared in New York and given its sailing orders. These are some of the weakest scenes, full of exposition so we know how the convoy system works, and with very awkward 'performances' from the US Navy officers. Once at sea things liven up considerably, as the British convoy leader tries to communicate with a French ship making too much smoke - “Defornce de fumay, see voo play!” (The comedy is intentional.)
The weather takes a turn for the worse, forcing a ship to detach from the convoy and speed up in order to be able to keep under control. All the while, the men in the lifeboat are increasingly desperate, calculating their chances of survival and hoping the radio operator can somehow raise a friendly ship with their small transmitter before the battery dies. The detached ship does catch the last dying signal and sets out to the rescue.
In a twist, however, a U-Boat is shadowing the lifeboat just hoping for another kill when rescue arrives. When it is spotted by the survivors they have to decide to sail away from the rescue ship in order to prevent her falling victim to a torpedo. Of course, all turns out well in the end, but not without some sacrifice.
The film was made by two units. One filmed the convoy scenes, the other the lifeboat. Different qualities of film stock made for a very hard job of editing, and the joins do show, but they are not obtrusive. The lifeboat was actually filmed off the coast of Anglesey, north Wales, and made for a very uncomfortable shoot with the huge Technicolor camera and lighting rigs.
Yes, this film is in colour, and shot by a master of the medium, Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus). Cardiff makes the endless grey of the sea an almost living thing, especially when the tiny red sail of the lifeboat is set against it. He also does an outstanding job of capturing the craggy, weathered faces of men who have spent their lives at sea.
The performances of the cast are, indeed, non-professional, but they are heartfelt and can be genuinely moving. The lone watchman's first glimpse of the rescue ship is a case in point and is emphasised by Clifton Parker's excellent score (is it being an island race that makes British sea music so good?).
This film is now available from the Imperial War Museum (with an excellent commentary by Pat Jackson) and is probably the best film about the war at sea made during the war itself.