Is there a more brutal film from this period than The Sea Wolf? The Jack London tale has been adapted often, both before and since, this time by Warner Brothers with a non-nonsense script by Robert Rossen and Michael Curtiz directing some of Warner’s top contract players led by Edward G. Robinson handing out the punishment as Captain Wolf Larsen. The Sea Wolf delivers the horrors of the sea through the eyes of a sensitive young writer (Alexander Knox) who’s pulled aboard and kept captive as cabin boy and to some degree companion to the surprisingly intellectual Larsen.
Before we even get to see Larsen and his mysterious ship the Ghost cutting through the fog over the chilly waters off the coast of San Francisco, we’ve already been treated to a rough and tumble bar scene culminating with John Garfield’s wanted man George Leach throwing punches and volunteering for service on board the notorious Ghost. In a separate scene we meet Ida Lupino, playing escaped convict Ruth Webster, who pleads with Knox’s Humphrey Van Weyden to protect her from the lawmen on her trail. Webster is saved from a return to the penitentiary, not by Van Weyden, but by chance as their riverboat collides with another vessel causing a catastrophic accident directly leading to Webster and Van Weyden’s rescue by the Ghost.
Soon after we meet the Ghost we meet it’s captain, Wolf Larsen. Pacing the deck with a permanent scowl etched across his face, Edward G. Robinson rips into what is perhaps the most psychotic character he’s ever played, which is saying a lot for the force who was Little Caesar (1931) and later Johnny Rocco in Key Largo (1948). When Van Weyden first meets the Captain it’s over the convulsing body of Larsen’s first mate, of whom Larsen declares, “You die too easy.” Disgusted by Larsen’s indifference to death, Van Weyden is shortly told that he’s “soft like a woman,” and then horrified when the Captain tells him that the Ghost, presumptively at sea to hunt seals, stops at no port and avoids all other ships. Van Weyden and the others are trapped on board until they return to San Francisco.
We quickly find Larsen is master of the cruelest game of cat and mouse imaginable. In fact, he creates the mice, by pretending at kindness and luring others into a false sense of security, even brotherhood, before lowering the boom on them with a heavy handed cruelty colored by a joyous mockery, often for no other reason than his own bent form of amusement. Larsen likes to laugh, but only at the pain he inflicts upon others.
Perhaps no one on board the Ghost suffered the wrath of Larsen as Gene Lockhart’s Louie did. Louie, once the respectable Dr. Prescott ashore, is a doctor with a zero percent survival rate at sea. His hands shake due to his alcoholism, but more than his trembling fingers Larsen may be right when he tells Louie that he’s lost his skill because he’s lost his nerve. Louie recaptures some past glory when he saves Lupino’s Webster and celebrates a newly discovered self-respect by dressing like a landlubber to the delight of the bedraggled crew. Louie tells Larsen that he used to own twenty suits like the one he wears now, one better than the next, and seems to find sympathy when he requests the Captain see to the men respecting him, even asking to be called Dr. Prescott. Of course this is nothing but a set-up to Larsen’s grand punch line which shortly turns Louie into the most tragic figure on board the Ghost.
Beyond the depth of Louie’s character, The Sea Wolf also manages to neatly weave a romance in between the action as two like souls, Lupino’s ex-convict Webster and John Garfield’s Leach, on the run himself, come together with dreams of escaping their present prison tied to Larsen’s cruelties as well as their equally dreary pasts. While Garfield’s short tempered Leach (“This kind of blood never cools off”) can be a bit hard to take, Ida Lupino delivers a masterful performance as the jinxed Webster, who recovers at Louie’s hand only to be subjected to the twisted nature of Larsen’s humor (even women aren’t immune to Larsen’s charms), finally declaring “You should have let me die!” A line delivered with such force and emotion that it’s leaves no doubt that more screen time would have led to Lupino stealing more than her own scenes, possibly the entire film.
But despite talents on board as large as Lupino and Garfield and the terror unleashed throughout by Larsen at the heart of The Sea Wolf is an intellectual duel between Larsen and Knox’s Humphrey Van Weyden. From the point Van Weyden discovers Larsen’s heavily annotated library he becomes confidante to Larsen who admits he’s missed talking over greater matters with anyone for a long time. Larsen’s credo is Milton’s “Better to reign in hell then serve in heaven” from Paradise Lost and beyond enforcing his reign over the microcosm of the Ghost he repudiates Van Weyden’s service on land, having no respect for a lifestyle lacking anything but total control. Larsen is at the same time excited with intermingled moments of indecisiveness over the prospects of writer Van Weyden telling his story to the masses. He longs for extending his reign across a greater public, bringing Van Weyden’s readers a taste of his hell, but shirks from exposing himself to their scrutiny represented on board by Van Weyden’s own low opinion of Larsen as a man.
Despite his admiration for Van Weyden’s intelligence, Larsen is just as scornful of all that comes with it and thus despite an intellectual bond Van Weyden is not immune to the cruelties of the Captain either. But it’s through his intellectualism that Van Weyden can make a stand as he can conquer Larsen through ideas bold enough to avoid Larsen’s lash and spark his fears. That said, Larsen brings one trump card to their discussions and that is the idea that his voyage aboard the Ghost will harden Van Weyden and mold him into a cutthroat over time. Van Weyden resists as best he can, but surrounded by men who are for the most part little better than criminals does prove to test him more than once.
I’ve never had the pleasure of reading London’s original story of The Sea Wolf, but I am aware of criticism by some who say this version veers too far from the source. At the same time I must wonder if that is a bad thing because Michael Curtiz delivers a masterpiece in just under 90 minutes, with characters who must have blazed across screens in 1941 with an unparalleled shock value at that time. The Sea Wolf is different than any other picture I’ve come across from the period and certainly much crueler than say Errol Flynn’s sea exploits at the same Warner Brothers studio during this time. Enhanced by an original score from Oscar winning composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, The Sea Wolf itself would garner one nomination from the Academy for Best Effects, Special Effects, an award which would go to Paramount’s I Wanted Wings (1941).
Somewhat overlooked in a year which brought masterpieces as varied as Citizen Kane, Sergeant York, The Little Foxes, How Green Was My Valley, and The Maltese Falcon, The Sea Wolf perhaps proved too much for contemporary audiences to handle but viewed today it elevates action to art and deserves to be remembered, revived, and maybe even revered.