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SEA WOLF, THE (director: Michael Curtiz; screenwriters: Robert Rossen/based on the novel by Jack London; cinematographer: Sol Polito; editor: George J. Amy; music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold; cast: Edward G. Robinson (Wolf Larsen), Ida Lupino (Ruth Brewtser), John Garfield (George Leach), Alexander Knox (Humphrey Van Weyden), Gene Lockhart (Dr. Louis Prescott), Barry Fitzgerald (Cooky), Stanley Ridges (Johnson), Howard Da Silva (Harrison), Francis McDonald (Svenson); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Henry Blanke; Warner Bros; 1941)

“Exciting sea yarn.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”/”Four Daughters”/”King Creole”)directs this exciting sea yarn, that’s based on a Jack London novel published in 1904. The literate screenplay is by Robert Rossen.

In 1900, in the San Francisco harbor, refined writer Humphrey Van Weyden (Alexander Knox) and wanted fugitive Ruth Brewster (Ida Lupino) are rescued by the seal-hunting schooner the Ghost after the ferry they are on capsizes crashing into another vessel in the fog. The megalomaniac captain of the Ghost, Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson), won’t take them back to port and they’re stuck going on the seal-hunt with the Ghost and its crew of degenerate misfits. The callous captain makes the upper-class writer a cabin boy and revives the drunken ship doctor Louis Prescott (Gene Lockhart) so he can revive Ruth with a blood transfusion.

Also aboard of interest are the following: George Leach (John Garfield), a surly hot-headed criminal who signs on to escape the law. Veteran sailor Johnson (Stanley Ridges) is shanghaied and the cook (Barry Fitzgerald) is the captain’s knife-wielding low-life stoolie.

The gist of the film is about the inhuman captain delighting in bullying the crew and breaking the spirit of his men so they obey him no matter what. The story turns into a battle of wits between the well-read but brutish captain and the humanist intellectual writer. The deceitful captain we soon learn is trying to escape to an unknown island from his enemy brother’s more powerful ship, armed with a cannon, and not hunting seals–but telling the crew they will steal the seals from his brother’s boat and become rich, in order to keep them from mutiny.

The Lucifer theme is lifted from a Milton poem that states ‘Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven,’ which is the captain’s credo.

When the ship doctor commits suicide rather than face being ridiculed, Leach organizes a mutiny and throws the captain and his loyal first mate Svenson (Francis McDonald) overboard. But the captain returns and again takes control of the ship. Finally Leach, Ruth, Johnson and Van Weyden escape the Ghost in a small boat, but Larsen anticipated the escape and filled their water carriers with vinegar. Returning to the Ghost for supplies, the escapees must confront only the captain, as the crew left on small boats after his brother’s boat the Macedonia destroyed his ship. Suffering from severe headaches that leave him temporary blind, the captain accepts his fate of going down with the ship. The film’s rosy moment is that in the end the two fugitives have a chance to escape and begin a new life, as they grab their needed supplies and head for the nearest port in their small boat.

Filmed at the onset of the Nazi power grabs in Europe and the beginning of the war, in this allegorical pic the captain is depicted as a malevolent dictator, like Hitler, who uses cruelty to keep his subjects in line and promises to make his loyal subjects rich with lies about obtaining stolen riches.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”