The oceans of the world have always been dangerous places even for the most experienced of sailors, but what happened during World War II when the Allies were trying to get their convoys across the Atlantic while the Nazi U-boats were lurking beneath the waves? That was what Commander Ericson (Jack Hawkins) had to contemplate as he took a Royal Navy corvette out to protect the ships helping the war efforts against the Germans. Today he welcomed two new recruits, drafted from civilian life, but he would find actual battle experience was thin on the ground with his crew...
The Cruel Sea was a bestselling novel by Nicholas Monsarrat before it was a film, but with the British movie industry of the fifties finding war pictures were big business, it was a natural to bring to the screen, and Ealing were the studio picked to do so. They may be better known for their comedies now, but in their heyday they produced just as many dramas and many of those were successes, with this one of the most lucrative of their output, not to mention one of the most respected. This was undoubtedly down to the filmmakers' own respect for the story they were telling, which showed through in every frame.
There may have been the odd lighter moment here, but for most of the time it was a serious business they were portraying and that was what informed the tone. The two new recruits were Lockhart (Donald Sinden in a star-making role) and Theraby (John Stratton), and though Ericson makes it clear they have a lot to learn, he is pleased to have them aboard which is more than could be said for Stanley Baker's Bennett, their superior and Ericson's Number One who is a hard taskmaster and much hated by his men. He actually exits the tale after about half an hour, thanks to being so unpopular it backfires on him, leading Lockhart to replace him in his post.
Thus the Compass Rose, the ship most of the film takes place on, sets out to escort supply ships and with more hope than accuracy sink a few U-boats into the bargain. This proves easier said than done as the Nazis are darned elusive, but manage to put holes in too many of the Allied craft, and Ericson's vessel's first voyage is something of a disaster. Not least because he has to chase after one of the submarines in a desperate attempt to stop it destroying more ships and in one of the most famous sequences, runs over and blows up a number of British sailors floating in the sea, leading him to be accused of murder by his unimpressed crew.
As Ericson, you could not have hoped for a better actor than Hawkins, as he was born to play firm but fair military men and The Cruel Sea was rightly proclaimed as one of his finest performances as he balanced the no-nonsense attitude with a kindliness that hardens into a bitter need to win against the odds. As the trauma of what he is living through starts to get to him, Hawkins has stellar moments as he conveys the feelings of a man who would far rather have avoided all this slaughter, but acknowledges that he must do as much as he can to stop it, even to the point of putting his own life on the line. He was ably backed up with a cast who knew what was expected of them, and Sinden's Lockhart works out to be the kind of rock that Ericson needs in those uncertain times, in spite of his own unsteady moments. The realisation that what had begun as a noble exercise had dwindled into kill as many of them before they kill you is keenly felt, and if variety of incident is not the plot's strong point, its intelligent realism was to its benefit. Music by Alan Rawsthorne.
[Optimum's Blu-ray is the best the film has ever looked for home viewing, clear and crisp with only a few speckles and scratches considering its age. As extras there are an interview with Sinden, a trailer and a behind the scenes gallery.]