I happened to watch THE SEA CHASE (1955) when it was cablecast on TCM on Sunday, May 26 (John Wayne’s 106th birthday) as part of the station’s Memorial Day weekend war film marathon. This was a John Wayne film I’d never seen before and one that was a little off of his usual routine, which is probably why I’d never given it high priority before. But it turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise.
In the film, Wayne plays a German ship captain, Karl Ehrlich, at the helm of a freighter that’s docked in Sydney, Australia when war is declared between Germany and Great Britain in 1939. He manages to get his ship out on the open sea and endeavors to sail it halfway across the world back to Germany, after a stop in Chile, despite pursuit by a British ship piloted by an officer who’s a friend of his. It’s a seagoing adventure shot largely on location in color and widescreen and offers a full measure of the hardships a ship would experience on such a journey. Furthermore, it focuses on the conflict between duty and justice and raises questions about loyalty to one’s command versus loyalty to one’s principles.
The film was adapted from a novel that was based on a true story. I’m not sure how close the film is to the facts of what happened, but some elements have the ring of screenwriters’ inventions designed to enhance the dramatic appeal of the story and make it more palatable to the Warner Bros. marketing division. For instance, Ehrlich’s Chief Officer, Kirchner (Lyle Bettger), is revealed to the audience early on to be an undercover Nazi agent and he is seen secretly committing an act of unprovoked, cold-blooded murder when the crew stops at an island shipwreck station to secure provisions for the long voyage and encounters three shipwrecked fishermen waiting for relief. News of this murder reaches the British, who step up their efforts to catch up and apprehend the captain and crew of the ship, who are now guilty of a hanging offense. Ehrlich doesn’t find out about the murder until halfway through the film and is furious when he does. He orders Kirchner to write up a truthful account of his actions in the ship’s log, which will provide evidence at any eventual trial. Ehrlich is put in an untenable situation. He wants to get his men and ship safely home to Germany, yet he wants Kirchner to be punished for his crime. Another element added to strengthen the boxoffice appeal is the addition of a female character to the cast, Elsa Keller, a German spy in Australia who is ordered onto the ship by the Consul General after her cover is blown. She is played in full glamour girl mode by Lana Turner, who, despite the depredations of the journey, is always immaculately dressed, made up and coiffed. It’s the one glaring Hollywood element in an otherwise realistically filmed shipboard adventure.
This isn’t a classic or a work of art like many of Wayne’s other productions (e.g. THE SEARCHERS, RIO BRAVO, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, etc.), nor will it ignite new interest in director John Farrow as an unsung auteur, yet it’s still a very respectable piece of work for both men, especially Wayne. He’s quite good here as a man who has to make some tough decisions and push his men to their limit. Wayne is in full movie star mode here, commanding his men, romancing Turner, and calling the shots every step of the way, yet he carries the burden of his dilemma in every scene. He’s avowedly anti-Nazi, yet torn by his duty to his men and his country. He doesn’t always do what an American audience would want him to do. When the ship arrives in Chile, a neutral country, Ehrlich is appalled to learn that Nazi propagandists have made him a hero and played up the murders of the fishermen as a pitched battle against enemy forces. But he keeps quiet about it at the behest of the German consul assigned to Valparaiso and allows his men to be feted at a banquet in their honor while he quietly slips away to see Elsa. Wayne played tortured characters in more than a few movies and always met the demands of the character, proving what a good actor he was in addition to being a great star. He was nominated for Best Actor for another of his tortured roles, that of Sergeant Stryker in SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949).
Lana Turner may simply be a movie star along for the ride, but her character provides some useful tension for Wayne’s character. She constantly sticks up for the men, frets over their tribulations and nurses them during their injuries, one of which is quite severe. (A man gets bitten by a shark and loses a leg in the process.) She also develops feelings for Captain Ehrlich and gradually becomes more and more supportive, turning against Kirchner, who had assumed Elsa would be his natural ally. The ending has tragic elements although a closing voiceover line by the British officer, Commander Napier (David Farrar), who narrates the whole film, makes it more ambiguous than it needed to be.
The strong supporting cast included, as members of Wayne’s crew, James Arness (the same year he began his long TV run as Marshal Matt Dillon), Tab Hunter, Dick Davalos, Claude Akins, Alan Hale Jr., Paul Fix, John Doucette, and John Qualen. None of whom attempts an accent, which is arguably for the better. Lyle Bettger made a career out of playing smooth, high-powered but extremely oily villains and he’s no less effective here than in a dozen other movies he made in the 1950s. (He played Ike Clanton in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL.)
What struck me after I watched this is that this was just one of 22 productions made and released by Warner Bros. in 1955 and was not even as high profile as some of the others. The studio was devoting its marketing efforts that year to such films as LAND OF THE PHARAOHS, BATTLE CRY, EAST OF EDEN and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, with GIANT and HELEN OF TROY in production for 1956. Wayne also made BLOOD ALLEY for Warners that same year (and THE SEARCHERS the next). Yet THE SEA CHASE is given first-class production values throughout, complete with assistance from the Royal Canadian Navy and location filming in Hawaii. I suspect that moviegoers who went to see THE SEA CHASE came out satisfied. They may not have found the film particularly uplifting, but were certainly challenged to do a lot of thinking during the two hours they watched it. What would THEY have done in Ehrlich’s position? And if they took their children, aged eight and above, I imagine that the kids’ interest was held throughout also. There were lots of exciting elements in the film, which includes a long stretch on an uninhabited island where the men cut trees to provide wood to fuel the freighter, but nothing felt particularly contrived. There were no action scenes that didn’t belong in a film about a long sea voyage under difficult conditions. It’s the kind of film that was common once upon a time in Hollywood that didn’t require massive suspension of disbelief and didn’t insult the audience’s intelligence.
I went to look up information about this film in the book, John Wayne and the Movies, by Allen Eyles (A.S. Barnes and Co., 1976) and was rather dismayed to read the opening paragraph in the section on this film:
“Even Wayne’s most stalwart fans must have found it hard to sit through The Sea Chase without a sinking sense of disappointment. After Hondo, it was a dismal second association of Wayne with director John Farrow (who was something of a specialist in sea pictures, having made Two Years Before the Mast and Botany Bay and been a sailor in real life.) The film makes little headway against a poor script and the foolish central casting of Wayne as a German (without resolving the problem of accent).”
I imagine that Mr. Eyles had been watching many Wayne films back-to-back for the book and found this one unfavorable in comparison to the likes of RED RIVER, SANDS OF IWO JIMA, THE SEARCHERS, and RIO BRAVO, to name a few. Or perhaps it simply came off as too conventional a Hollywood product to take as seriously as some of its esteemed company. Either way, it strikes me as an unfair assessment of a film that stands today as a sterling example of a well-made studio product that dared to tell a story that was markedly different from the typical war movie of the era and treated its subject and characters with a respect that wouldn’t have been allowed ten or even five years earlier. It’s also a film that wouldn’t stand a chance of being made today, nor would it have been in the last 30 years, unless someone like Wolfgang Petersen had made it in Germany during his DAS BOOT phase. Also, as a longtime Wayne fan who has seen his classics multiple times over the years, I found it quite refreshing to see him in a quieter, more low-key role that doesn’t draw on his more successful western persona, but is allowed to challenge audience expectations a bit. Who knew Wayne could still surprise me?
Today, when a typical studio production is likely to be an action film starring The Rock, a superhero CGI fest filled with comic book characters, a slapstick comedy starring Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler, or a computer animated children’s film, it’s nice to recall an era when movies were made by grown-ups for grown-ups yet could be appreciated as well by children with a healthy curiosity about the adult world.