|The Cruel Sea|
|Directed by||Charles Frend|
|Written by||Eric Ambler|
|Based on|| The Cruel Sea |
by Nicholas Monsarrat
|Produced by||Leslie Norman, Norman Priggen & Michael Balcon (executive producer)|
|Edited by||Peter Tanner|
|Music by||Alan Rawsthorne|
The Cruel Sea is a 1953 British war film starring Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliott, Stanley Baker, Liam Redmond, Virginia McKenna and Moira Lister. Made by Ealing Studios seven years after the end of the Second World War, it was directed by Charles Frend and produced by Leslie Norman.
The film portrays the conditions in which the Battle of the Atlantic was fought between the Royal Navy and Germany's U-boats, seen from the viewpoint of the British naval officers and seamen who served in convoy escorts. It is based on the best-selling 1951 novel of the same name by former naval officer Nicholas Monsarrat, though the screenplay by Eric Ambler omits some of the novel's grimmest moments.
A voice-over by Lieutenant-Commander George Ericson (Jack Hawkins), a British Merchant Navy officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, declares:
This is a story of the Battle of the Atlantic, the story of an ocean, two ships, and a handful of men. The men are the heroes; the heroines are the ships. The only villain is the sea, the cruel sea, that man has made more cruel...
In late 1939, just as war breaks out, Ericson is recalled to the Royal Navy and given command of HMS Compass Rose, a newly built Flower-class corvette intended for convoy escort duties. His sub-lieutenants, Lockhart and Ferraby, are both newly commissioned and without experience at sea. The new first lieutenant, James Bennett (Stanley Baker), is an abusive martinet.
Despite these initial disadvantages, the ship's company gains hard experience and becomes an effective fighting unit. At first their worst enemy is the weather, since German submarines lack the range to attack shipping far into the Atlantic. With the Fall of France, French ports become available to the Germans and U-boats can attack convoys anywhere in the Atlantic – making bad weather the convoys' greatest advantage. Germany is joined in the war by Italy, while the Spanish dictator Franco allows Axis U-boats to use Spanish harbours. The first lieutenant is put ashore due to illness, the junior officers mature and the ship crosses the Atlantic many times escorting convoys, often in brutal weather. They witness the sinking of many merchant vessels they are charged with protecting and the tragic deaths of merchant navy crewmen. A key scene involves Ericson's decision to carry out a depth charge attack even though the blast will kill merchant seamen floating in the water. After close to three years of service, including one U-boat sunk, Compass Rose is herself torpedoed and her crew forced to abandon ship. Most of the crew are lost. Taking to a couple of liferafts, Ericson survives this ordeal along with his first lieutenant, Lockhart (Donald Sinden), and with the few crew left (including Ferraby) they are picked up the next day.
Ericson is promoted commander, and together with Lockhart, his now-promoted "Number One", takes command of a new Castle-class frigate, HMS Saltash Castle. With Ericson leading an anti-submarine escort group they continue the monotonous but vital duty of convoy escort. Late in the war, while serving with the Arctic convoys, they doggedly pursue and sink another U-boat, marked as U-53, Saltash Castle's only "kill". As the war ends the ship is shown returning to port, as guard to a number of German submarines that have surrendered.
(in credits order)
Although the role of the cowardly officer Bennett was an Australian in the book, the Englishman Donald Sinden was originally screen-tested for the part and the Welshman Stanley Baker was screen-tested for the part of Lockhart.Subsequently, at Jack Hawkins' suggestion and after further screen-tests, the roles were swapped.
Future director Don Sharp had a small role.Virginia McKenna launched her career with her small role and met her first husband, Denholm Elliott, on the set.
The film was shot on location in Plymouth Naval Dockyard and the English Channel. Scenes showing the sailors in the water were shot in the open-air water-tank at Denham Studios. Other work was completed at Ealing studios. The brief scenes showing Petty Officer Tallow coming home on leave were filmed in Stepney, London. The crane jibs above the houses in the background were edited in as in reality, the docks were over a mile away.
Donald Sinden (playing Lockhart) suffered in real life from negative buoyancy, meaning that he was unable to float or swim in water, which was discovered while filming the sequence when the ship Compass Rose is sinking. Co-star Jack Hawkins (playing Ericson) saved him from drowning in Denham's open-air water-tank.
"The evacuation of the ship was the first scene to be shot in the tank, which was about an acre in size, 10 feet deep and contained two giant wave-making machines and an aeroplane propeller which had a fire-hose aimed at it to create the spray. The whole crew were to jump over the side – the great stuntman Frankie Howard from the top of the superstructure. The First Assistant Director, Norman Priggen, came to me and asked 'Can you swim?' 'No' I said. 'OK, you jump from there' and he showed me a position furthest from the bank. I reasoned that it was possibly the shallow end. The night was cold and cast and crew shivered as we waited for the 'sea' to become rough enough: and then 'ACTION!' I ran to the side, climbed up and as I jumped flexed my knees expecting to land in about three feet of water. Down I went... All the others arrived safely at the bank and thank God, Jack heard someone ask 'Where's Donald?' He dived in again and pulled me out just in time. It transpired that the First thought that I had been joking when I said I couldn't swim! But we had to do it another five times, with me in a different position now. For another shot, the leading players were required to swim past the camera in close-up. 'ACTION!' Jack Hawkins swam past – then a long gap – and then Denholm Elliott... 'Donald we didn't see you, lets do it again' said the Director. Jack – a gap – Denholm... I was certainly swimming past but, as the camera operator Chic Waterson spotted – underwater. The only answer was for Frankie Howard (the stuntman) to take an enormous breath and swim breaststroke under the surface, with me lying on his back simulating the crawl. If you look carefully you will see – compared with the others – I am completely out of the water!"
The most traumatic scene in the film occurs after a submarine has caused havoc to the convoy and the ASDIC (sonar detector) reveals that it is beneath a group of British sailors who are struggling in the water, hoping to be rescued. Ericson, faced with an appalling choice, drops the depth charges that will destroy the enemy but will also kill his countrymen. Yet for all his professionalism he is a human being and he later gets paralytically drunk and bares his feelings to Lockhart. Jack Hawkins, personally moved by the situation, delivered a fitting emotional performance and at the end of the scene tears were rolling down his face. Two days later, after seeing it cut together, Michael Balcon asked Charles Frend to re-shoot it with Hawkins keeping a grip on himself. It was played that way and Balcon pronounced it absolutely perfect. Then two days later, after another viewing, it was decided that a little emotion was needed after all; the scene was re-shot with just an odd tear or two and again the verdict was that it was now dead right. Hawkins was amused to note that in the final version of the film, the original first take was used.
In his second autobiography, Donald Sinden wrote:
"The editor, Peter Tanner, showed me a clip of film in which the Compass Rose was sailing from left to right across the screen. 'Now, that is exactly the shot I need to show the ship returning to Liverpool – but the ship is going the wrong way.' I asked him what he meant and he said 'The eye of the viewer accepts anything travelling from left to right as going away from home, anything going from right to left is returning home. What I shall do is just reverse this piece of film and the ship will be going in the required direction'."
Compass Rose was portrayed by the Flower-classcorvette HMS Coreopsis (K32). The Admiralty had disposed of all its wartime corvettes, but Coreopsis was located in Malta by one of the film's technical advisers, Capt. Jack Broome DSC RN (who had been escort commander of the ill-fated Convoy PQ 17). Coreopsis had been loaned to the Hellenic Navy and renamed Kriezis, and was awaiting a tow back to England and the breaker's yard.Compass Rose carries the pennant number "K49", which was in reality the number of HMS Crocus.
Saltash Castle was portrayed by Castle-classcorvette HMS Portchester Castle, pennant F362, as in the film. Although she had been paid off in 1947, she was held in reserve until broken up in 1958, and so could be made available for use in the film.
(In the book, the new ship which replaced Compass Rose was a fictional River-classfrigate HMS Saltash. These ships were significantly larger than the Castle-class corvettes, but had been paid off or sold abroad when the film was made. However, in 1954 a recommissioned Royal Canadian Navy River-class frigate HMCS New Glasgow was made available to play the fictional HMS Rockhampton in the John Wayne film The Sea Chase .) In the film, when boarding their new ship, the characters of Ericson and Lockhart remark that neither of them have heard of a castle in Saltash – in reality there is no such thing, although there are a number of fortifications in the local area.
Both ships were based in Plymouth, with Plymouth Sound standing in for the River Mersey. The scenes of the ships at sea were filmed in the English Channel just out of sight of land. These coastal waters and a summer shooting schedule meant that the sea was generally too calm to effectively portray conditions on the Atlantic in winter, so the ships were taken to the Portland Race. Although only a couple of miles offshore, a number of conflicting tidal streams and a sandbank provide predictable, albeit often dangerous, large waves and a disturbed sea. Ships usually deliberately avoid the Portland Race but Compass Rose was taken straight through during the peak of the tide to get the required shots.
It was the most successful film at the British box office in 1953 and caused Jack Hawkins to be voted the most popular star with British audiences.
Most British war films of this era performed poorly at the US box office; however, the film was one of the few to buck this trend.It earned £215,000 (approximately £4.9million by 2013 standards) in the United States, a high figure for British films at the time. (Variety reported this figure at US $600,000. ).
In 1956, according to the documentary Fifties British War Films: Days of Glory, when Elstree Studios was being sold to the BBC, Sir Michael Balcon was asked what had been his greatest achievement during his tenure. He replied "I think perhaps The Cruel Sea because when we saw that for the first time, we realised that we really had brought it off. It seemed to just gel and be absolutely right. Sometimes you don't get that feeling, but with that one we all did."
It is ranked number 75 on the British Film Institute's list of the top 100 British films.
The film has cult like status within the Royal Navy, with the mess deck tradition of “Cruel Sea Night” in which new mess joiners will watch the film whilst wearing life jackets and sprayed with water whenever HMS Compass Rose hits heavy weather or certain lines such as “Snorkers!” is said. This is a rite of passage for many members of the Royal Navy and is held with as high regard as crossing the line.
Halliwell's Film Guide described the film as a "competent transcription of a bestselling book, cleanly produced and acted".
PQ 17 was the code name for an Allied Arctic convoy during the Second World War. On 27 June 1942, the ships sailed from Hvalfjörður, Iceland, for the port of Arkhangelsk in the Soviet Union. The convoy was located by German forces on 1 July, after which it was shadowed continuously and attacked. The First Sea Lord Admiral Dudley Pound, acting on information that German surface units, including the German battleship Tirpitz, were moving to intercept, ordered the covering force built around the Allied battleships HMS Duke of York and the USS Washington away from the convoy and told the convoy to scatter. Because of vacillation by Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the Tirpitz raid never materialised. The convoy was the first large joint Anglo-American naval operation under British command; in Churchill's view this encouraged a more careful approach to fleet movements.
The Royal Naval Reserve (RNR) is one of the two volunteer reserve forces of the Royal Navy in the United Kingdom. Together with the Royal Marines Reserve, they form the Maritime Reserve. The present RNR was formed by merging the original Royal Naval Reserve, created in 1859, and the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR), created in 1903. The Royal Naval Reserve has seen action in World War I, World War II, the Iraq War, and War in Afghanistan.
Lieutenant Commander Nicholas John Turney Monsarrat FRSL RNVR was a British novelist known for his sea stories, particularly The Cruel Sea (1951) and Three Corvettes (1942–45), but perhaps known best internationally for his novels, The Tribe That Lost Its Head and its sequel, Richer Than All His Tribe.
The Flower-class corvette was a British class of 294 corvettes used during World War II by the Allied navies particularly as anti-submarine convoy escorts in the Battle of the Atlantic. Royal Navy ships of this class were named after flowers.
The Cruel Sea is a 1951 novel by Nicholas Monsarrat. It follows the lives of a group of Royal Navy sailors fighting the Battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War. It contains seven chapters, each describing a year during the war.
The Castle-class corvette was an ocean going convoy escort developed by the United Kingdom during the Second World War. It was the follow-on to the Flower-class corvette, and designed to be built in shipyards that were producing the Flowers. The Castle-class was a general improvement over the smaller Flowers which were designed for coastal rather than open ocean use.
HMS Denbigh Castle (K696) was one of 44 Castle-class corvettes built for the Royal Navy during World War II. The ship was completed at the end of 1944 and was assigned to the 7th Escort Group at the beginning of 1945. While escorting her first and only Arctic convoy to Russia, she claimed to have shot down a German torpedo bomber. Denbigh Castle was torpedoed in early 1945 by the German submarine U-992, with the loss of 11 men, near the Soviet coast. The ship was beached in an effort to save her, but she was pulled off by the ebbing tide and capsized. Her wreck was declared a total loss.
HMS Launceston Castle (K397) was a Castle-class corvette of the United Kingdom's Royal Navy, named after Launceston Castle in Cornwall. The ship was constructed during the Second World War and saw service primarily as a convoy escort.
HMS Portchester Castle was a Castle-class corvette built in 1943 and scrapped in 1958. She was the only ship of the Royal Navy to be named after Portchester Castle in Hampshire, and was used for the 1952 film The Cruel Sea, in which she played Saltash Castle.
The River class was a class of 151 frigates launched between 1941 and 1944 for use as anti-submarine convoy escorts in the North Atlantic. The majority served with the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy (RCN), with some serving in the other Allied navies: the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the Free French Naval Forces, the Royal Netherlands Navy and, post-war, the South African Navy.
Aconit was one of the nine Flower-class corvettes lent by the Royal Navy to the Free French Naval Forces. During World War II, she escorted 116 convoys, spending 728 days at sea. She was awarded the Croix de la Libération and the Croix de Guerre 1939–1945, and was cited by the British Admiralty. Following the war she was used as whaling ship for three different companies from 1947 to 1964.
Denys Arthur Rayner DSC & Bar, VRD, RNVR was a Royal Navy officer who fought throughout the Battle of the Atlantic. After intensive war service at sea, Rayner became a writer, a farmer, and a successful designer and builder of small sailing craft - his first being the Westcoaster; his most successful being the glass fibre gunter or Bermudian rigged twin keel Westerly 22 from which evolved similar "small ships" able to cross oceans while respecting the expectations, in terms of comfort, safety and cost, of a burgeoning family market keen to get to sea. Before his death in 1967, Rayner had founded, and via his pioneering GRP designs, secured the future expansion of Westerly Marine Construction Ltd - up until the late 1980s, one of Britain's most successful yacht builders.
HMS Lotus was a Flower-class corvette that served in the Royal Navy.
HMS Ekins (K552) was a British Captain-class frigate of the Royal Navy that served during World War II. Originally constructed as a United States Navy Buckley class destroyer escort, she served in the Royal Navy from 1943 to 1945.
HMS Goodall (K479) was a British Captain-class frigate of the Royal Navy in commission during World War II. Originally constructed as the United States Navy Evarts-class destroyer escort USS Reybold (DE-275), she served in the Royal Navy from 1943 until her sinking in 1945.
HMS Coreopsis was a Flower-class corvette, built for the Royal Navy during the Second World War which served in the Battle of the Atlantic. In 1943, she was transferred to the Royal Hellenic Navy as RHNS Kriezis and participated in the 1944 Invasion of Normandy. Shortly before she was scrapped, she took part in the British war film, The Cruel Sea.
HMS Alisma was a Flower-class corvette that served in the Royal Navy.
HMS Sunflower was a Flower-class corvette of the Royal Navy. She served during the Second World War.
HMS Dunvegan Castle was a UK ocean liner that was converted into an armed merchant cruiser (AMC) in the Second World War. Harland and Wolff built her and her sister ship Dunnottar Castle in Belfast in 1936.