What’s immediately striking about the film is its tone. Sombre. Grim and unforgiving. This is a film where – appropriately – the shadow of death constantly hangs above the ship and its crew, and forever are questions being asked. There’s a particularly brutal scene where the ship, in furious pursuit of a U-Boat, comes across a group of British survivors in the water near the enemy vessel’s location. Ericson passes the survivors and aims for the ship, but misses, at the cost of the lives of the men overboard. Ericson is lambasted as a murderer by some of the crew, but the film doesn’t judge him, instead allowing him to judge himself. He initially does so, mercilessly, but then adds something the film consistently picks up on, summed up in his words to Lockhart:
“No one murdered them - it's the war, the whole bloody war! We've just got to do these things and say our prayers at the end.”
But it’s a surprisingly sympathetic and understanding view that the film affords Ericson, as he eventually develops what can only be described as post-traumatic stress disorder. Obviously, films like ‘The Deer Hunter’ and ‘First Blood’ were famous examples of looking at PTSD in Vietnam veterans, but I’m not aware of many films doing it as early as ‘The Cruel Sea’ did. Hawkins’ performance after some of the horrors that he and his crew have witnessed is poignant and realistic, and deserves to be highlighted. Lockhart experiences it as well, not as explicitly as Ericson, but he tells Navy Wren and love interest Julie (Virginia McKenna) that after his experiences on the Compass Rose, he broke down in public.
The scenes with Julie, and others as the ship stops off for refits and leave, allow for a breather amongst all the tension, but also demonstrate the effect of the war at home. One particular subplot involves chief engineer Watts, who goes home with Coxswain Tallow to his home, which is tended to by Tallow’s sister. There’s a shot of the pair walking across a busy street, with houses everywhere, a big billboard for war bonds, and a dog trotting down the road, as they arrive, which seems just a scene setter but is later mirrored when the pair learn that the area was bombed. The street is empty, smoky, and the billboard is ripped in half, with the house in ruins. As is Watts’ dream of marrying Tallow’s sister, who had taken a liking to him, and settling down after the war.
It’s moments like this that really back the grim reality of war that the film suggests. Stock footage scenes of wartime footage also help bring that message home, with war being treated as the villain, and no scenes of stereotypical cackling Nazi figureheads. There is only one scene actually showing the enemy, where they are brought aboard the ship after their U-Boat is downed. Lockhart’s conclusion: they don’t seem any different to us.
Thankfully, for such a brilliant film, Optimum have done a brilliant job of restoring the film with this new Blu-Ray. Outside of a few vertical scratches that were undoubtedly a part of the source material, the 1080p transfer is impeccable, adding to the documentary look of the film with deep blacks and fine detail, and a light layer of grain. The 2.0 soundtrack is perfect, allowing for clear dialogue and sharp sound effects, with Alan Rawsthorne’s fine music score in the background.
The disc is not heavy on extras, but what it has are very good. The film’s trailer is included, along with a selection of black and white stills showing behind the scenes of the film, but the strong point is an informative half-hour long interview with Donald Sinden on the film.
‘The Cruel Sea’ is a classic. Harrowing and bleak, it is not an easy film to watch. But it is certainly a rewarding film, with a tone and an attitude towards war and the people trapped inside it that demands recognition, especially in the light of films that have come after it. Perhaps with Optimum’s superb restoration, it may get that recognition.