The Cruel Sea (1953)

March 8, 2009


I knew I was going to like this.  I didn’t have a doubt in my mind.  Even the opening Jack Hawkins voice-over “The men are the heroes.  The heroines are the ships.  The only villain is the sea, the cruel sea” didn’t piss me off the way that it normally would.  Of course that kind of expectation usually sets me up to be disappointed as my hopes are too high, but not in this case.

The great thing about The Cruel Sea is that it doesn’t pull any punches.  Films made pretty soon after the close of the second world war often gave a very airbrushed account of the war but in The Cruel Sea, we see the people left behind die or desert or cheat or grow apart.  We also see the heroes as real people they die, have breakdowns, fake illness, squabble and have doubts and concerns about the rights and wrongs of the war.  Tremendously realistic stuff this.  I haven’t checked, but I’d guess that this was based on a someone’s non-fiction account of their wartime experiences.  It features first-person narration from the main character and follows a pretty episodic structure.  That said, this style of narrative works well and allows the film to draw the viewer in to a series of extremely tense moments.  The intelligent use of silence and periods of intense concentration really crank up the tension which director Charles Frend stretches out for long periods of time.  Very controlled film-making that.

And so what we have here is the war through the eyes of a Navy captain who guides ships which escort cargo convoys through the u-boat ridden waters of the Atlantic.  It was made by Ealing and features a great cast who all do a great job.  Hawkins in the lead role is the star but Donald Sinden comes awfully close to stealing some of his scenes, he just doesn’t have the kind of material is given.  The contrast between the grim stoicism with which Hawkins issues the instruction to drop munitions amongst the survivors of a wrecked freighter in the hope of destroying the u-boat he believes is beneath them and the hollow, broken remorse he shows in the scenes from that evening are the key to the whole thing.  Horrible things were done and had to be done.  Regrettable things, things that will live on your conscience until your dying breath.  But they were done for the greater good and the sacrifice and loss and pain and regret that everyone endured was necessary to prevent Nazi success (though the film takes the last bit as read rather and barely considers it).

There are sequences in this film which are almost unbearably tense.  As the ship lies still in the presumed presence of a u-boat under repair, the men are shown inside listening for the slightest sound, dipping with sweat, crossing themselves, lookin anxiously at one another. All of the time there is almost total silence on screen.  The release of the tension when they move on again is enormous and the extent of that shows the strength of the film as a means of bringing the reality of the war at sea home.

And that is what there is to take away from The Cruel Sea, its very real depiction of the awful conditions that the war really entailed.  Harrowing and memorable.  9/10



The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)

February 3, 2009

When I watched Whisky Galore! last week I commented on the way that Ealing comedies pit small groups of determined individuals against corrupt or small-minded or bureaucratic opposition and see them come out on top without resorting to foul play.  Here the residents of a small village want to buy up and save a small railway branch line and are up against stuffy Whitehall officials, pernickity lawyers, corrupt business men and paid-off saboteurs but by pitching together, showing ingenuity and good old British pluck they win out against all the odds.

It’s nonsense obviously, but good-hearted and entertaining and morally-sound nonsense.  I mentioned the word British earlier and this is a typically British kind of film.  The film is packed with British stereotypes- the scoundrel poacher, the fussy old maid, the drunken Lord of the Manor, the police sergeant who isn’t afraid to turn a blind eye, the eccentric vicar and so on- and a kind of gentle, pastoral humour which appeals more now, perhaps, with the added lustre of nostalgia.  At a Town Hall meeting to decide the fate of the branch line, a heartfelt appeal is made:

“Don’t you realise you are condemning our village to death? Open it up to buses and lorries and what’s it going to be like in five years time? Our lanes will be concrete roads, our houses will have numbers instead of names, there will be traffic lights and Zebra crossings … [the railway] means everything to our village.”

It sums the film up beautifully.  The locals know best that progress will be the ruination of their idyllic lifestyle and they pull together (or, indeed, push together) to do the right thing.

The Titfield Thunderbolt

The film is technically well-made without being spectacular- filmed in colour (the only other colour Ealing I can think of is The Ladykillers) it looks wonderful and has a delightful attention to detail in the witty sight-gags throughout: the Fragile parcel tossed carelessly from the train; the Transport Minister arriving on a folding motorcycle, the antique train smashing through a ‘Guinness For Strength’ poster,  a cowboy film showing in one room of a bar reflects the railway saboteurs plotting in the other bar. 

Hugh Griffith and Stanley Holloway battle it out for the standout performance and it’s just about honours even- they’re both smashing and make the most of the film’s best lines.  The direction is tight- the whole thing wraps in about 80 minutes- making the most of the charming script, resulting in a delightful gem of a film.  7/10

Whisky Galore! (1949)

January 22, 2009

I’ve always felt that ‘Whisky Galore!’ gets a little unfairly overshadowed by ‘Kind Hearts And Coronets’ and ‘The Ladykillers’ in the Ealing canon.  They’re both marvellous movies but without the lightness of tone that makes this film- and ‘Passport To Pimlico’ to be fair- such perfect entertainment.  Alexander Mackendrick- who I lauded recently for his ‘Sweet Smell of Success‘- directs and the cast are on great form.  Especially Basil Radford as the uptight Englishman Captain Waggett who has great fun with lines like “They don’t do things for the sake of doing them like the English”. And where else will you see the wonderful James Robertson Justice as a Doctor who not only recommends that his bedridden patient smokes, but furnishes him with a pipe to do so when he learns that the patient has none?

One of the things that I really love about Ealing comedies, which this film demonstrates perfectly, is the way that they pit a small group of like-minded individuals against intransigent bureaucratic obstacles and see them come out on top.  The film generates a real sense of them and us with Captain Waggett as the pompous, blustering stuffed-shirt who follows a legally right, morally wrong path that leads him into conflict with the islanders with genuinely hilarious results.

And there’s that word- hilarious.  This film is at times laugh out loud funny- most famously in the narrated introduction where a description of the Island of Todday (where the film is set) recounts how there is no cinema and no music hall but describes the islanders as “A happy people, with few and simple pleasures” just as a family of about thirteen small children come running out of the house.

Charming, funny and genuinely heartwarming with interesting characters and great comic performances.  In many ways this is a perfect comedy movie, I absolutely adore it- 10/10.