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.
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.
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.
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