"This is the story - the long and true story - of one ocean, two ships, and about a hundred and fifty men. It is a long story because it deals with a long and brutal battle, the worst of any war. It has two ships because one was sunk, and had to be replaced. It has a hundred and fifty men because that is a manageable number to tell a story about. Above all, it is a true story because that is the only kind worth telling."
Nicolas Monsarrat's prelude to his novel The Cruel Sea
During its grimmest phase, the Second World War was won - not on the fields of Normandy, or in the skies of the Battle of Britain, or even the pivotal Siege of Stalingrad - but on the North Atlantic, where the supply lines had to be kept going. Without them, none of those victorious battles would have taken place. It is this period of grim observance of duty that covers this classic Ealing war drama, a big success in its day, perhaps because it came at just about the right time to be able to look back at WWII with a certain amount of perspective.
The studio was perhaps the ideal choice for this kind of material. Ever since the war itself, Ealing had presented earnest, well-crafted war films with a sentimental thought for the honest, hard-working average soldier, sailor or airman. Eric Ambler's brilliant screenplay turned Nicolas Monsarrat's sometimes bleak but honest and entertaining bestseller into a carefully downplayed expressionist drama about facing the horrors of war and its occasional mixed blessings, and trying to treat it all like routine hard work.
At its centre was a towering performance by Jack Hawkins as Captain Ericson, containing all of his best attributes. Providing excellent support was a young Donald Sinden as Lockhart (the novel's narrator), a former freelance journalist and something of a free, aimless individual, until the war and his shared experiences with Ericson quickly harden his resolve. After surviving the uncomfortable early stages of Navy life with loudmouth bully Bennett (Stanley Baker) whom luckily Lockhart replaces as First Lieutenant, there is the greater challenge of the unseen enemy underwater, and the daily toil of seeing ships sunk, and having to cope with death, and/or the survivors to be brought in to safety - whilst also at the same trying to sink U-Boats, when they find them.
Helping them along in this case are the likes of Lockhart's nervous friend Ferraby (John Stratton) whose pretty wife (June Thorburn) and Lockhart are his two main sources of strength (especially against the brutal Bennett), and smooth-talking ex-barrister Morell - a young Denholm Elliott, showing early signs of his palatable talent for scene stealing.
Other members of the crew of HMS Compass Rose (some of them Ealing regulars) were splendid examples of the British carrying on in the face of adversity, such as Chief Engineer Watts (Liam Redmond) and his friend Coxswain Tallow (Bruce Seton), whose widowed sister (Megs Jenkins) provides welcome relief from the toil of long Atlantic convoys.
Lockhart finds that war brings its comforts in the shape of delectable WREN Julie Hallam (Virginia Mckenna).
Charles Frend's understated direction tones down some of the grimness of the original novel but still plays up the drama to the full, especially in scenes such as the tragic killing of survivors when a submarine is underneath them in the water, or when the crew of Compass Rose have to fend for themselves in lifeboats to survive the harsh Atlantic weather. In some perversely comic moments that are as dark as anything Ealing ever dared, Lockhart bullies his surviving crew into singing silly nursery rhymes in order to keep themselves alive.
The Cruel Sea was the first war film I'd seen which stripped away the jingoism of war, and told the truth in a very simple, honest, low-key manner, only shoving home the anti-war message when necessary. It had enough small traces of Ealing humour to entertain audiences whilst at the same time being able to mix in the darker elements, and its authenticity for depicting the war at sea was probably the decisive factor in its success - and in Jack Hawkins it found the ideal officer for all seasons (with dimensions too) who, like John Mills, could easily have gone into service as an officer of distinction and no-one would question his suitability. In a better world, Hawkins would have won an Oscar for the performance.