“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven” – John Milton in Paradise Lost
Though some noir film layered in London fog is probably up for contention, otherwise, there’s arguably no movie murkier than this atmospheric sea-faring delight from Michael Curtiz. But what puts it above and beyond some of its contemporaries, especially swashbucklers like a Black Swan, has to do with a variability and surprising depth of characterization for what feels like such a minor vehicle.
From the framework of Jack London’s novel, screenwriter Robert Rossen has cleverly repurposed the material and made it thoroughly well-suited for the cast at hand, expanding the roles for his stars. For most of its running time, in fact, the story is aboard the ominously named vessel, “The Ghost,” while maintaining an unwavering level of intensity.
Certainly the aforementioned climate plays into it because it can exude a level of impending menace. Still, you can only get so far on that. There needs to be legitimate emotional resonance and some amount of real even complex conflict at the core if a glorified chamber piece like this is to stay afloat. Thankfully, due to its characters, it does. At any rate, we are provided several fascinating figures to try and comprehend.
John Garfield is one of them, a fiery sailor named George Leach who is on the run and he doesn’t care where he ends up. In his case, he winds up a lowly cabin boy. Again, he doesn’t care. Meanwhile, Ida Lupino is escaped from a woman’s reformatory and seeks the corroboration of a fiction writer named (van Weyden) as it ends up, their voyage is ill-fated following a collision that sets off a deluge of water leaving them hopelessly shipwrecked.
In the aftermath, they are picked up by the schooner “The Ghost,” its tyrannical captain Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) leading a crew of no-good and hard-bitten seamen. Barry Fitzgerald excites as the knife-toting cook who’s as ornery as you’ve ever seen the plucky Irishman. The writer is brought on as cabin boy given the rude awakening that the captain has no designs to drop him off onshore. His vocation and unwavering monotone are perfect for conveying this impartial point of view for the benefit of the audience. Meanwhile, John Garfield embittered with a chip on his shoulder is forced to take on harder labor and his anger smolders against everyone.
The girl, Ms. Webster (Lupino) is deathly sick and the swacked and constantly unstable doctor (Gene Lockhart) seems to be of little help. His nerves as a physician look completely shot. By some miracle, he’s able to get sober enough to nurse the lady back to health, of course, when she makes her first public appearance looking to be the picture of propriety, the seafaring men are quick to see through her. She’s another unwanted sea rat just like all of them.
It’s plain to see she’s not about to earn any favors and the same goes for the other newly acquired deckhands. They have few rights as the sea captain runs the ship with a dictatorial hand. In all affairs he controls everything and he can be a ruthless taskmaster with his boys carrying out his every order with a rowdy mania, even turning against their own when given a chance.
However, although Wolf is a tough man, he nevertheless has an inscrutable side well-read in Milton and knowing a past of innumerable hardship. It’s these very traits that make van Weyden crucial as someone who is able to get closer than the others in order to try and tease out who Larsen really is.
A mass of contradictions, with a brain and a need for dignity in a harsh world but he also has a vengeful brother hanging over him, avowing to blow him to smithereens. If there is any regret in Larsen, he’s resolutely set his course and rarely looks back, making sure to maintain his supremacy over his men in all circumstances. His philosophy is purely self-serving.
But even he begins to crack. The film is laden with claustrophobic and seasick-inducing interiors depicting living hell on the waves with Larsen lording over it with an iron fist. Of course, with mutiny afoot instigated by Leach, finally able to exercise his lust for authority, there’s bound to be drama, even as he begins to carry a torch for Ruth.
Because later he, Ms. Webster, and van Weyden look to escape only to have their provisions sabotaged by Larsen, and “The Ghost” is ultimately ambushed by its mortal enemy. The hourglass is running out. But even as the captain goes down with his ship, a near pitiful figure now, he looks to take as many others down with him as he can. In opposition to such selfishness, a contrasting force of sacrifice is called for.
Note: The cut I watched was the shortened 1947 cut. The restored cut was reissued in 2017 at its full length of 1 hour and 40 minutes. This was the theatrical cut before it was edited to fit on a double bill with another Curtiz picture The Sea Hawk (1941).