ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC dutifully churned up patriotic fervor in 1943, one of the many popular war films that year, this one extolling the men who served in the Merchant Marine, the only film to acknowledge that vital and perilous service. The Navy drew at least four cinematic salutes in ’43, with Destination Tokyo, Stand By For Action, Destroyer and Crash Dive letting stars like Cary Grant, Robert Taylor, Edward G. Robinson and Tyrone Power blast the Axis and boost morale. Randolph Scott took care of the Coast Guard in Corvette K-225. Here, it’s Humphrey Bogart and Raymond Massey representing the civilian seamen who risked all on convoy duty. *
After surviving their cargo tub being sunk by a U-boat and spending 11 days on a raft (the Nazis happily rammed their lifeboat), a group of civilian mariners sign up again, this time in a new ‘Liberty Ship’, in a convoy bound for Murmansk, Russia. They fend off attacks from a U-boat ‘Wolf Pack’, and from Luftwaffe aircraft. Not everyone makes it, but “those are the breaks.”
Warner’s spent $2,231,000 making the saga, directed with proficiency by studio workhorse Lloyd Bacon, helped a great deal by the fine camera work from Ted D. McCord and Tony Gaudio (lots of good dramatic close-ups) and by the special effects and miniatures departments. The plentiful model work is obviously dated; the ships maneuver too fast and their relative proximity to each other is less than realistic. But it’s pretty neat in an old-school way (audiences no doubt ate it up seven decades ago), and there’s some excellently designed full-scale mayhem on the large studio sets, especially in the spectacular opening segment. There’s so much fire roaring all over the place with actors and stunt folk running around it’s a miracle someone wasn’t hurt. The movie is fairly brutal with its casualty depictions, and it revels in showing enemy sailors drowning in their depth-charged or crushed U-boats (get the crowd on their feet fight-back stuff).
Bogart’s fine in a low-key job, Massey gets a reprieve from his string of bad guy roles, and the supporting crew has your basic representative American types (ala Warner’s) played by Alan Hale (‘Boats O’Hara’), Sam Levene (‘Abel Abrams’) and Dane Clark (‘Johnny Pulaski’). John Howard Lawson’s script mixes in some okay banter with the expected Why-We-Fight preaching; neither are overdone.
Guy Gilpatric received an Oscar nomination for his Story, though it appears that he, screenwriter Lawson or some other hand in the brew (A.I. Bezzerides, Alvah Bessie and W.R. Burnette contributed bits) also managed to plagiarize some dialogue from articles written by journalist Helen Lawrenson. Having been a managing editor and film critic for “Vanity Fair”, the acid-tongued adventuress was no-one to pick a fight with: she won compensation from the studio. **
“I got faith in God, President Roosevelt, and the Brooklyn Dodgers—in the order of their importance.”
A contract dispute with Warner’s sidelined Bacon during production, so both Raoul Walsh and Byron Haskin stepped in to manage some elements. With Julie Bishop, Ruth Gordon, Peter Whitney, Dick Hogan, J.M. Kerrigan, Glenn Strange, Ludwig Stossel and James Flavin. Older film buffs with sharp eyes may pick out Glenn Langan (immortal 14 years later as The Amazing Colossal Man) and young German emigres Kurt Kreuger and Peter Van Eyck, who made good, safe livings in Hollywood playing nasty Nazis.
It came in a solid #40 in that crowded, anxious year, grossing $6,100,000. 126 minutes.
* At least 1,544 U.S. merchant ships were sunk in WW2, with the 3.9% casualty rate the highest per capita among the assorted branches: at least 11,000 dead among the 225,000 men who served. My Dad was in the Merchant Marine, shipping out to both the frigid, forbidding Atlantic and the kamikaze-inflamed Pacific. Thirty, with two children, he didn’t need to go…but he had to. Mom was a “Rosie the Riveter”, building Liberty Ships for Kaiser in Portland, Oregon shipyards. They each had hair-raising stories to pass along. Fighting Fascists runs in our blood. V for Victory!
** Uncredited script contributor Alvah Bessie later commented that this picture “. . . was one of very few movies made in America which not only showed there was a trade union movement, but also had scenes in the union hall, said a few basic things about unionism and showed what being a union member could mean for a man.” Despite having worked on patriotic—and United Nation’s plugging—material like this film, both Bessie and John Howard Lawson were blacklisted as part of “The Hollywood Ten”.
“Yeah, let me tell you something about my “iron nerve,” son. It’s made of rubber just like everybody else’s, so it’ll stretch when you need it. People got a funny idea that being brave is not being scared. I don’t know, I always figured, you weren’t scared, there’s nothing to be brave about. The trick is, how much scaring can you take?”
Though John Huston is the director most associated with Bogart, Lloyd Bacon claimed the highest tally; this was the last of eight pictures they worked on together. Both Bogart and Bacon had been in the Navy in WW1, and Bacon had been head of the Navy’s photo unit.
In his autobio “A Hundred Different Lives”, Massey relates a famous back-story from the production: watching their stunt men doing a dive off a burning ship, Bogie and Ray, both somewhat sloshed (they were ‘off-duty’), started making bets on whose stunt man was braver. Boasts escalated until there was only one solution: both actors dove in themselves.