John Wayne plays a German sea captain in a film that goes out of its way to create a favorable image of our former enemy, with hardly a Nazi flag or even a German accent in sight. Wayne and his co-star Lana Turner are as Teutonic as Blondie and Dagwood, yet the story works as basic adventure – we like the charismatic star, and the sea chase format guarantees extra interest.
The Sea Chase
Warner Archive Collection
1955 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 117 min. / Street Date July 11, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: John Wayne, Lana Turner, David Farrar, Lyle Bettger, Tab Hunter, James Arness, Richard Davalos, John Qualen, Paul Fix, Alan Hale Jr., Peter Whitney, Claude Akins, John Doucette, Tudor Owen, Adam Williams.
Cinematography: William Clothier
Film Editors: William Ziegler, Owen Marks
Original Music: Roy Webb
Written by James Warner Bellah, John Twist from a novel by Andrew Geer
Produced and Directed by John Farrow
A couple of weeks ago I waded into the ‘fifties John Wayne action melodrama Blood Alley, in which Wayne’s all-purpose generic hero smuggles a boatload of villagers out of communist China. Made the same year, the better-produced The Sea Chase is about another goal-oriented quest on the open sea. This time out Wayne is a German merchant captain caught in an English port at the outset of WW2. Rather than be interned for the duration, he tries to take his ship back to Germany, halfway around the world. Unlike Blood Alley this is primarily a studio show, with the taskmaster director John Farrow producing as well. A real ship was filmed on location in Hawaii and the Canadian Navy cooperated for some exciting warship footage.
The story is sourced from fiction based on similar true events. At the beginning of hostilities England could do little to back up their declaration of war. Symbolic propaganda took the place of actual battles. Axis and Allied agents clashed in ways small and large in neutral waters and neutral ports, in actions that changed the face of espionage. The Sea Chase isn’t interested in this backdrop for its own sake. It instead sets up another ‘cattle drive’ story to demonstrate John Wayne’s seemingly unbeatable star power. He was grossly miscast now and then, yet rarely made a movie that audiences didn’t embrace: not even the ludicrous The Conqueror, where he plays a drawling Mongol warrior named Temujin, could hurt his appeal.
German Captain Karl Erlich (Wayne) and his tramp steamer the Ergenstrasse are stuck in the port of Sydney without much in the way of fuel or provisions. Everybody expects war to be declared at any moment, including Karl’s friend, British Navy Commander Jeff Napier (David Farrar of Black Narcissus). As Sydney is a commonwealth port the ship will be interned for the duration. Erlich instead sneaks out, but not before taking on an unexpected passenger. Elsa Keller (Lana Turner) is a German spy in danger of immediate arrest; Jeff happens to be one of the enemy officers she has seduced. As the Ergenstrasse is old and slow, Karl can avoid the pursuing British Navy only by taking an unlikely route East across the Pacific. Both Karl and Jeff consider this a legit wartime chase until Karl is betrayed by his own Chief Officer Kirchner (Lyle Bettger), an ardent Nazi intelligence agent. When the Ergenstrasse stops at a maritime emergency outpost on a remote Southern island, Kirchner takes it upon himself to murder three innocent shipwreck victims. This makes Jeff Napier all the more eager to catch the Ergenstrasse and hang its crew, including Erlich. Karl and his resourceful engineer Schmitt (John Qualen) must burn everything not nailed down, including some of the lifeboats, to get the ship to a lonely Pacific island, Pom Pom Galley. There they spend many days feverishly cutting firewood to burn in lieu of coal. The shame of Kirchner’s killings weighs heavily on Erlich’s conscience. The Ergenstrasse is already making world headlines, with Nazi Germany spreading a loathsome ‘fake news’ counter-story asserting that the English claims of murders are lies.
Some stories are simply un-killable, and although John Wayne made plenty of turkeys he almost always chose vehicles suitable for his range of characters. That The Sea Chase works at all is a miracle. Wayne doesn’t seem even a bit German, especially with the Western twang in his voice. The producers give his sailors crew cuts and dye their hair, but the ship isn’t very ‘German’ either. Even the Nazi consuls don’t have accents, and the Nazi villain played by perennial baddie Lyle Bettger behaves more like one of the actor’s familiar gangster or cowboy bad guys. No Nazi flags are shown flying. We see only one swastika near the end, when Erlich/Wayne throws a flag to the floor. We’re told that the original book’s Erlich was less of a conventional hero, and more along the lines of the German flyer played by Hardy Kruger in the fascinating The One that Got Away, who keeps escaping no matter how carefully he’s guarded, and eventually rejoins the Luftwaffe. The British film approaches its subject with a great sense of irony, respecting the pluck of the German pilot who just wouldn’t give up.
John Wayne couldn’t play such a character, so by strict definition The Sea Chase should be terminally miscast. But this is first and foremost a Wayne picture. Everything is shifted to the star’s requirements much the same way that a major role in a well-known musical might be altered to fit a powerful star like Barbra Streisand. The Sea Chase was filmed because Wayne is in it, not the other way around. In other words, the sheer power of Hollywood’s influence is such that even a cursory alignment with historical reality isn’t necessary. Because it’s John Wayne, dummy.
The handsome CinemaScope production puts Erlich’s tramp steamer in the background of many shots ashore, requiring a model only for night scenes in stormy seas. The show doesn’t overdo the rear-projection — we’re convinced that Lana Turner was along for the ride, and not just limited to scenes picked up on a Warners’ sound stage. John Farrow’s fine visual direction also helps us believe that the Ergenstrasse has slipped South into Antarctic waters and then steamed to the fictional Polynesian island called Pom Pom Galley. After reaching the Chilean port of Valparaiso, the ship leaps most of the way around the globe to the North Sea, where a British trap awaits. The story’s biggest irony is the callous way the Nazis use the Ergenstrasse. They generate boastful propaganda when Erlich proves that the British Navy doesn’t entirely rule the waves. They Berlin gives away the ship’s position, sacrificing it as a decoy. Captain Erlich had been busted from a major command for his anti-Nazi views, and isn’t really welcome back home.
John Wayne had no issues with this ‘my country right or wrong’ message. We’re asked to admire Erlich for being true to his homeland even when his homeland has been taken over by political gangsters set on evil plans. The Sea Chase is yet another ’50s film seemingly intent on fine tuning public attitudes toward foreign policy. As soon as the U.S. took sides with West Germany against the Soviets, film stories warning of new Fascist threats tapered off. Other movies reassured us that the Germans were now our friends, and that the Nazi fanatics were isolated rotten apples that are best forgotten. A good antidote to this Hollywood political amnesia is René Clément’s amazing Les Maudits (The Damned), about the effort of a pack of Nazi renegades and fellow travelers to escape to South America in a U-Boat. A more relevant The Sea Chase would star Lyle Bettger as Captain Erlich, and make him a matter-of-fact patriot, not a Nazi maniac. Of course, who would produce an expensive Hollywood picture like that, when John Wayne guarantees success? I would like to have seen a fine actor Bettger for once get a sympathetic role.
Lana Turner seems even less German than Wayne, less a calculating Nordic Mata Hari than just another misunderstood classy dame. Elsa has been given a notorious past, in this case hopping in the sack with every loose-lipped English officer she can find. But we’re assured that she’s really a swell gal, and is redeemed by Erlich’s honest patriotic integrity. Critics complained that Wayne and Turner’s scenes lack romantic heat. This entire aspect of the movie is rather downplayed – Elsa appears to be ‘turned on’ by Captain Erlich’s sterling ethics. When Wayne kisses Turner he just buries his face into her neck, as if avoiding the lips that Johnny Stompanato had kissed. The dialogue overall is not bad for this level of filmmaking, but we just don’t understand how anybody could allow John Wayne to smile at Lana Turner and say, “You know, you’re really beautiful when you’re angry.”
English actor David Farrar has the nothing role of the (rather dumb) English officer who slaps Erlich in front of the Chilean press, accusing his former friend of piracy and murder. Farrar was excellent as the unhappy bomb disposal expert in the superior Archers film The Small Back Room, but sensitivity isn’t needed here. Every time we cut back to the pursuing British ship, Roy Webb’s score reminds us that Britannia Rules the Waves. We see some casual meet ‘n’ greet on deck: ‘oh hullo there, you know, maybe we ought to act on your intuition to go right to that island you said Erlich mentioned. Jolly good. See you on the bridge.’ Actually, only scenes like that remind us that a chase is underway. Readers of the original Geer book report that the (perhaps true) real story was better than fiction. The actual fugitive German ship erected makeshift sails when its fuel ran out. Kon-Tiki in reverse!
The supporting cast is a major draw. Wayne couldn’t fit in Ward Bond, but he has other old pals along for the ride, doing fine work under John Farrow’s watching eye: John Qualen, Paul Fix, James Arness. The rest of the cast is a who’s who of fifties names. Warners are clearly pushing its young contract faces Tab Hunter and Richard Davalos. Arness, Hunter and Davalos get the showiest parts, while Claude Akins, Peter Whitney, Alan Hale Jr. and John Doucette fill in nicely.
The Sea Chase ends rather abruptly. One of the reasons the Ergenstrasse gets as far as it does is that Jeff Napier’s ship has to break off its pursuit to support the cornering of the Graf Spee ’round Uruguay way. [There’s a newish German Blu-ray of the Archers’ epic about that encounter that I’ll be reviewing soon.] The actual end of John Wayne’s voyage to nowhere is rather sketchy. The script implies a ‘Twilight of the Gods’ climax but the movie’s final cut softens the finish considerably. As a period drama John Farrow’s show is devoid of historical feeling or real insight, but one must admit that star-power and big screen adventure pull it through. I liked it from the first time I saw it on the neighbor’s new color TV in 1963 or so, on a round picture tube where the color was mostly orange. When James Arness’s sailor screws up and chops Claude Akins’ leg with a woodsman’s axe, we hear an attenuated Wilhelm Scream. The scene became a major discussion topic for the next day’s talk on the third-grade playground.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Sea Chase is a terrific scan of a fine film element. With few opticals needed, all those shots of ships play quite well on the extra-wide screen. William Clothier kept the ‘scope lens well adjusted, as I see no ‘CinemaScope Mumps’ or uneven field effects, even on pans — no ‘warp-O-scope,’ as Hoyt Yeatman used to say. A lot of this is surely due to John Farrow’s sensible direction, which finds ways to play scenes without resorting to standard intercutting of masters and close-ups. They somehow even avoid making the ship’s cabin interiors look too roomy, although we are limited to the Captain’s fairly spacious quarters.
Warners’ poster art on the disc jacket is not very compelling, and the vintage illustration makes Lana Turner look more like Nicole Kidman. The disc’s sole extra is a trailer with poor color, a good reminder of how improved the new transfer is. The enjoyment of a movie can be a simple pleasure. A western can be relaxing simply to watch people riding horses in pretty scenery, an it can be pleasant just to watch a movie about people on a boat going somewhere. And John Wayne, bless him, is good company.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Sea Chase
Movie: Good +/-
Sound: Excellent (2-channel stereo)
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 16, 2017
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson