Thursday, May 4, 2017

Back to 1955: The Sea Chase

by Heath Holland
John Wayne stars in this World War II drama that is anything but conventional.

It would be weird of me, maybe even wrong, to do a series on the films of the mid-fifties and not throw in one that stars John Wayne. John Wayne and the westerns he made are as integral a part of that decade as anything I can think of. Unfortunately, John Wayne didn’t make any westerns in 1955. What he did make that year are two different movies in which he plays a ship captain. In one of them, he’s a merchant who is caught deep in communist China and must escape. In the other…well, that’s the one I want to talk about.

America in 1955 was still very much in the shadow of World War II. Many directors, including the great John Ford, were still making movies about WWII years after the final shot had been fired. They’d been changed forever by what they had seen and done on the front lines of battle, and no event in history has changed the face of cinema as much as World War II. John Wayne is probably the actor most people would consider to be the greatest war movie hero ever, yet Wayne never actually served in the military, especially not during WWII. That’s kind of crazy, if you think about it. This fact drove some, including John Ford, a little bit nuts. One of cinema’s greatest war heroes never fought in a war.
Somehow, this doesn’t matter, nor did this fact stop him from portraying himself as a patriot who embraced the image of one of America’s great defenders. With his distinct drawl and weathered appearance, John Wayne really is the definitive WWII movie hero. That’s what makes 1955’s The Sea Chase such a peculiar movie. John Wayne stars as the captain of a beat up old steamship that is being pursued by the enemy at the outbreak of World War II. You ready for the twist? He’s a German, and he’s being chased by the good guys. Whaaaaaa?! As it turns out, he plays Captain Erlich, a German who is opposed to Hitler’s propaganda and wants no part of the atrocities being committed by his country’s government. Unfortunately, there’s a little incident involving a bunch of dead soldiers and a spy that’s taken refuge on his ship. As the English military pursues him across South America, Captain Erlich must evade them if he hopes to clear his name. If this plot wasn’t unusual enough, John Wayne and everyone else who is supposed to be a German plays their role with an American accent. Maybe John Wayne doing German would have been more offensive than not even trying. You can’t help but wonder what that would have sounded like, though.

While The Sea Chase is not a great movie, it is undeniably an interesting one. For one thing, the role reversal alone of John Wayne as a sympathetic German makes this worth a look. It also shows that Hollywood filmmakers were already looking at the war differently, seeking to understand perspectives other than their own. Most media vilified Germany during and after the war, so this film’s portrayal of a German captain as an honorable man is a big deal. Plus, the movie is a lot of fun, with the nautical theme offering a more adventurous take than the typical war movie allows.
Another reason to watch this movie is for the cast. Hollywood chameleon Lana Turner co-stars as a mysterious character who has motives of her own. Members of the ship’s crew are played by James Arness (Sheriff Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke), Alan Hale Jr. (The Skipper from Gilligan’s Island), and fifties dreamboat Tab Hunter (Ride the Wild Surf). The supporting cast contributes quite a bit to the overall story, and almost everyone is uniformly great. Lana Turner was considered to be one of the sexiest women in Hollywood, and she gets to portray someone with power and strength while still retaining her femininity and softness. James Arness is an intimidating giant in the kind of role that he didn’t get to play very often. In fact, everyone seems to be in top form except for John Wayne himself, who gives the same, stalwart performance that nevertheless made him famous.

The Sea Chase was directed by John Farrow, who gave us one of John Wayne’s more famous westerns with 1953’s Hondo (It was in 3D!). He also directed a string of war films himself, as well as one of the early Tarzan films, eventually marrying Maureen O’Sullivan, the actress who played Jane. Farrow seems to know just the right way to film nautical action and how to film on the ship without us feeling either claustrophobic or uninterested, and this is probably because he was a veteran of the Navy himself who had served on ships and submarines alike. Farrow’s own personal history is as interesting as any of the movies he directed. Born in Australia, he left home at an early age to sail the seas, where he participated in revolutions and countless adventures. At least, that’s what he claims. Farrow obviously had sea experience, as he brings a sense of space to shots where it could be very easy to get lost, making the ship feel like a real place and not a movie set. He also brings the vivid landscapes of Hawaii and Sydney, Australia to life, showing us far more than seascapes and rocks. Though this movie is set during World War II, it still retains a sense of fun and adventure, and I attribute those qualities to the director.
It would have been easy for The Sea Chase to become another in a string of fifties films that are perfectly serviceable but aren’t really all that interesting. I think the movie avoids this fate by, frankly, being too weird to be ignored. It also succeeds at telling an interesting story about something that was still very topical, but from an unconventional point of view. The direction is very good and the cast (well, the supporting cast) is outstanding. Even John Wayne, who is easy to take for granted, is worth watching because it’s a role that isn’t what you expect from him. The next time you find yourself talking to someone about John Wayne’s body of work, you can ask them if they’ve seen the one where he’s the German sea captain running from the Nazis AND the good guys. They definitely won’t get it confused with anything else he did.


  1. I would watch this for Lana Turner alone, but I imagine she must get really grimy and undone after living on a boat for weeks on end without bathing, except using briny sea water. Actually, I would watch it to see that, although I expect she's looks immaculate throughout.

    That, and I love sea faring movies. Thanks for the review Heath!


  2. From 1951 the U.S.-led administration of West Germany (led by a well-connected lawyer who had represented the notorious I.G. Farben conglomerate before the war)seemed to become Nazi-friendly, releasing war-criminals from prison and reinstating the assets of industrialists who had profited hugely from backing Hitler and from using slave-labour(many thousands were worked to death in their plants).
    To coincide with the above,movies ceased showing the Germans and Japanese as vicious brutal murderers; they became humanised (like Wayne's noble 'Captain Ehrlich' in this one: in 1954's "Bad Day At Black Rock" the (unseen) Japanese were represented as a poor,victimised farmer and his son who had died a hero, fighting for Uncle Sam in Italy).
    Both (West) Germany and Japan had suddenly become important in holding the fort against rampant Communism,and their image had had to be rapidly sanitised, so movies provided the best way of rapidly reeducating people,brainwashing them,even,to get them into line with new status-quo.