Denholm Elliott and Donald Sinden in The Cruel Sea (1953)

Captain Jack and the Compass Rose

With the war going on veteran Commander Ericson (Jack Hawkins) is assigned to command the HMS Compass Rose, a brand new ship with a crew of inexperienced sailors and wet behind the ears officers straight out of training. As they set about the job of rescuing survivors and trying to destroy German U-Boats a bond forms between Ericson and his No. 1 Lockhart (Donald Sinden). But it is not only the U-Boats they have to fear as the stormy oceans cause just as many problems as does what waits them back on dry land as the Nazi's bomb Britain.

Post World War II there were many war movies being made and whilst the stories were often commendable it was also often the case they had similar stories with the same sorts of characters. An exception to the rule is "The Cruel Sea" because it's not your stereotypical war movie and to be honest not what you would expect from Ealing Studios either. Instead of being a story about the daring action which men went through in order to defeat the enemy "The Cruel Sea" is about the people who served and how war affected them. And as such whilst "The Cruel Sea" takes us aboard a military vessel which ventures into dangerous water and ends up fighting the Germans it is a movie built on the characters rather than the action.

Virginia McKenna and Donald Sinden in The Cruel Sea (1953)

Initially "The Cruel Sea" looks like it will be about the trials and tribulations which befall Cmdr. Ericson as he takes command of the HMS Compass Rose and a bunch of officers and sailors who have little experience. But it doesn't take long for you to realise that this war movie whilst embracing the troubles is not focussed on that alone but delivering a story based on characters. As such a big part of the movie revolves around the bond which forms between Ericson and his stand in No. 1 Lockhart, who becomes a loyal friend to his superior as he learns from him. It's both very real and fascinating as we watch Lockhart develop from this wet behind the ears young man into a solid leader of men.

But "The Cruel Sea" doesn't just focus on Ericson and Lockhart as we also learn how for Officer Morell war leads to marital issues between him as his show girl wife. And on top of this it also embraces the loss these men felt when they returned home to discover the terrible devastation due to the Nazi bombing campaign, which in turn led to some men to try and stay away from becoming romantically involved. All of this and much more makes "The Cruel Sea" a much more personal account of war, dealing with human emotions and friendships rather than the action which generally filled other war movies of the era.

Having said that "The Cruel Sea" is most definitely not devoid of action as not only do we see the men bombing German U-Boats but also picking up survivors of destroyed ships. But whilst the action is impressive especially with a U-Boat bombing scene which is drenched in stellar atmosphere the focus of the action is on the emotional impact. There is an amazingly powerful scene where the HMS Compass Rose is headed towards a group of survivors floating in the sea but the radar is showing that beneath them is a German submarine. The pain of the dilemma which Ericson goes through in deciding whether he should save a handful of men or try and blow up a German sub is amazing. But that is not the only scene and later on in the movie the impact which this war at sea has on both Ericson and Lockhart makes for another tense, action filled scene.

Being a movie which is more about the characters than the action it takes strong performances to get it right and in Jack Hawkins and Donald Sinden "The Cruel Sea" comes up trumps. Whilst there are plenty of impressive performances through out such as Denholm Elliott as Morell, Stanley Baker as Bennett and Virginia McKenna as Julie Hallam it is Hawkins and Sinden whose performances command the movie. Hawkins as Ericson is on stunning form especially towards the latter part of the movie as the strain of war starts to show itself, making him tense and agitated. And Donald Sinden throughout as Lockhart is his equal delivering that aspect of loyalty, respect and friendship which makes watching Ericson and Lockhart so fascinating.

What this all boils down to is that "The Cruel Sea" is a surprisingly good movie and stands out as something a bit special when it comes to the war movies which focus on World War II. It's the emotional and personal look at war which makes it so captivating as we follow the men aboard the HMS Compass Rose.