Sunday, March 1, 2015

"The Sea Wolf" with Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Ida Lupino (1941)

I can hardly believe that I have never reviewed this film here before. It’s one of my favorite books; as well as films; so you would think that I’d have reviewed it in the 6 years I have been doing this. But I haven’t. Well, no time like the present, so here goes.

In this film adaptation of the novel by Jack London, 'Wolf' Larsen; played by Edward G. Robinson; is the skipper of the ill-fated vessel “The Ghost”. With a fiery reputation as a hard and cruel man, Larsen doesn’t have an easy time in keeping a crew.  He resorts to “shanghaiing” unsuspecting prospects at the local waterfront bars. When his men try to do this to George Leach; played by John Garfield ; they are surprised to find him a willing recruit. He is on the run from the police in San Francisco, where this story begins at the turn of the 20th century.

At the same time as these events are unfolding in a seedy bar, Ruth Brewster; played by Ida Lupino; is on a ferry in the Bay, surrounded by dense fog. A fellow passenger, Humphrey Van Weyden; played by Alexander Knox; is also aboard. The two are unacquainted with one another and so Van Weyden is surprised when Ruth snuggles up to him as two detectives are searching the ferry for a runaway prisoner. It is easy for Van Weyden to figure out she is the person the two detectives are seeking, but just as he is about to give her up the ferry is rammed by a ship and sinks.

Van Weyden and Brewster are picked up by a ship which is outbound for a long voyage to the seal grounds in search of skins. At least that is the story they are told. Van Weyden demands that he and Ms. Brewster be taken back to San Francisco, but the Captain considers this to be a waste of his time. He informs them that they are aboard for the duration.

As the two begin to know the ship and the Captain better they realize that they are in the grips of a mad man. Larsen discovers that Brewster is not the lady she pretends to be and mocks her for it. He correctly sizes Van Weyden up as a man who has never made a living with his hands and begins a deadly game of intellectual “one up man ship” with the hapless man.

The basic premise held by Larsen is that “might makes right”; and that only the strong survive, at the expense of the weak. To Larsen the two castaways are merely prey to be toyed with while he decides their fate. And why shouldn’t he? They are weak and he is strong; isn’t that the natural order of things?

As the relationship between the Captain and Van Weyden grows; so do the stakes at hand rise. Noticing that the Captain has a library stocked with the greatest literature ever written he decides to challenge the Captain in his beliefs. They use Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” to test one another’s beliefs.

While this is happening the crew learns that this voyage is not about seal hunting at all. It is, instead, a voyage of revenge. Captain Larsen has a brother who is also a Captain on a sealing vessel, and that brother intends to kill him; unless Larsen gets him first. But he has an Achilles Heel which only Van Weyden knows about; the Captain has a tumor of the brain which causes him blinding headaches. He has been able to keep this from the crew, but Van Weyden figures it out and uses this as a weapon against the Captain.

Meantime, a relationship has formed between Ms. Brewster and George Leach; arising no doubt out of the fact that they are both running from the law, as well as trying to escape the hell of the world inhabited; and controlled; by Wolf Larsen.

There are two characters worthy of note among the crew, as they represent two very different things. Pure evil is of course represented by Larsen himself; but he has a companion in his dark ways in the form of the ship’s Cook; known as “Cooky” and played expertly by Barry Fitzgerald. The other character is the ship’s Dr. Prescott; played by Gene Lockhart; a hopeless drunk who is constantly hounded by the crew and the Captain. He plays the part of innocence to the more aggressive part of Van Wyden as passively good. 

But true innocence is actually represented here by the relationship between Leach and Brewster, who; even as convicts on the run; never have the ill intentions of either Larsen or the manipulative qualities of Van Weyden. Their motives are pure.

When all is said and done in this wonderful adaptation of the novel, Wolf Larsen is proven to be correct when he says that everyone; when necessary; will resort to whatever is necessary to survive. When the choice is life or death, morals go by the wayside. And, inadvertently, Van Weyden proves him to be correct.

If you have never read the book you should. Next to “Moby Dick” by Melville, this book stands as a monument to the ever present battle between good and evil. And although the film adds two characters who were not in the original novel; the presence  of Leach and Brewster serves as a gentle counterbalance to the black and white struggle between good and evil.

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