Director: Charles Frend
Producer: Leslie Norman
Script: Eric Ambler
From a novel by Nicholas Monsarrat
Cinematography: Gordon Dine
Nicholas Monsarrat's novel is an unflinching, realistic and emotionally involving account of naval life during the Second World War in which the ‘heroes’ are the men, the ‘heroines’ the ships and the ‘villain’ is not so much the German U-Boats lurking below as ‘the cruel sea’ itself.
This 1953 docu-drama has become a classic of British cinema largely because it is a straightforward, no frills adaptation of the book and retains much of the original's compelling yet almost understated dramatic focus. On convoy duty in the North Atlantic, the crew of HMS Compass Rose face as a matter of routine the threat of destruction from U-Boats as well as a constant struggle against the elements. The convoys themselves are Britain's only lifeline and their loss would lead to certain defeat, but in the early years of the war the ships sent to protect them can do almost nothing to prevent the U-Boat attacks.
Jack Hawkins gives one of his finest performances as Captain Ericson, the commander who has to balance destroying the enemy against saving the lives of the men under his care. In one unforgettable scene, a crucial turning point for all the characters, he must decide whether to depth charge a suspected submarine despite the presence of British sailors in the water. As with the book, the individual officers and their lives are carefully delineated, helped by the strength of a cast of (then) young actors. Three stands out notably Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliot and Virginia McKenna (who Denholm would go onto marry. These supporting performances assist the main lead of Hawkins and help you engage with what these young sailors had to go through.
Ultimately what makes this film such an undeniable classic is that it has neither the overt jingoism nor the war-is-hell melodrama so common to most war movies: instead it relates in an almost matter-of-fact way the bitterness of the conflict at sea fought by ordinary men placed in the most extraordinary of circumstances
One of the harshest campaigns of World War II was the Battle for the Atlantic, where the sailors of merchant convoys braved foul weather and U-Boat wolf packs to keep supply lines open for a beleaguered Britain.
Without the arrival of convoys Britain could have been starved into submission by Hitler's Germany and the very bad guys would have had an excellent chance of winning the war. Fortunately they didn't and in 1953
The Cruel Sea splashes the salt spray in your face and has you biting your nails in the expectation of a torpedo amidships. Its power comes from the tension of fighting an unseen enemy and the psychological effects that had on officers and men.
Also interesting was for scenes like the lift raft they really were bobbing up and won in a large tank full of freezing oil and water at the studio, I’m not sure you’d get many stars these days enduring such conditions.