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.
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.
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.