“This is a story of the battle of the Atlantic. The story of an ocean, two ships and a handful of men. The men are the heroes. The heroines are the ships. The only villain is the sea, the cruel sea that man has made more cruel.”

So begins Charles Frend’s film of the best selling novel of the same name by Nicholas Monsarrat. This opening statement, delivered in voiceover, tells us so much about the film we are about to watch and the film lives up to what promises are inherent in this opening so well.

The Cruel Sea is not a simple good vs. evil gung-ho war film featuring ‘our boys’ taking out Nazis in the middle of the Atlantic but a rich character piece made only eight years after the war it depicts and all the more powerful and reflective because of it. Interestingly, for instance, the U-boats and the men that serve on them are not seen while Lieutenant-Commander Ericson (Jack Hawkins) and his men attempt to sink them. The struggle Hawkins and his men face isn’t so much about a defeating an enemy as it about doing what they must and trying to stay alive.

There is a real sense of duty to the proceedings too and a feeling that things must be done regardless of the cost because there is a higher purpose to the events. Perhaps the most dramatic and heartbreaking moment in the whole film comes when Ericson must try and destroy one of these unseen German U-boats but risk killing British seamen in the process. The scene plays out masterfully with the tension all the greater as one sees the gravity of the situation written across Hawkins’ weary face.

Hawkins is one of many British actors turning in excellent performances in The Cruel Sea and performances by the likes of Donald Sinden as Lockhart, John Stratton as Ferraby and Denholm Elliot as Morell help make this a character drama that feels all the more substantial because of the stakes of each character. These stakes are high too as the sea battles are punctuated multiple times by shore leave scenes that add pathos to the more dramatic action happening at sea.

The Cruel Sea is an solid war film with spectacularly gripping battle sequences, shot almost entirely at sea, but it is the importance of the lives of the individual characters that makes it such a compelling and dramatic film.

The new Blu-ray from Optimum is, in keeping with their other ‘Classic’ releases, absolutely superb, with a respectful but polished print. Little damage is evident throughout but the stock footage used in certain scenes is poor quality and stands out when sitting next to the almost pristine original footage. The audio, provided as an LPCM 2.o track, is clear and as dynamic as a track from this period can probably be expected to be. The only extra feature of any substance is the interview with Donald Sinden but this is excellent and Sinden is a pleasure to listen to. Whilst it is almost certainly due to budgetary considerations it is certainly a shame that none of these Optimum Classics Blu-rays have commentary tracks, perhaps from an academic viewpoint that highlights their place as classics, but this is an excellent edition of the film nonetheless.

The Cruel Sea is available to buy or rent on Blu-ray now. A full list of the special features can be found below.

Film [Rating:4/5]
Blu-ray [Rating:3/5]

Interview with Donald Sinden

Stills gallery