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Sea Chase, The

Warner Bros. // Unrated // May 3, 2005
List Price: $14.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted June 11, 2005 | E-mail the Author
John Wayne starred in two films in 1955, and in both he played the veteran skipper of an aging ship trying, against impossible odds, to flee to a safe port. Blood Alley, released in October, had Wayne whisking an entire village of Chinese peasants from their Communist oppressors, while The Sea Chase, released earlier that year, in May, found Wayne the German captain of a tramp steamer one step ahead of British destroyers trying to prevent him from reaching the fatherland. Blood Alley's simplistic but virulent anticommunism now plays very fifties, and has dated the film badly. The Sea Chase, lacking the other's blood and thunder action, isn't as luridly entertaining, but plays better today.

In 1939, as war breaks out in Europe, the tramp steamer Ergenstrasse is docked in Sidney, and skipper John Ehrlich (Wayne) makes preparations to slip out of the harbor in thick fog. At the last minute the German consul general orders Ehrlich to take aboard a passenger, a German spy. The spy turns out to be Elsa Keller (Lana Turner) who, under orders, had become engaged to Ehrlich's childhood friend, British officer Jeff Napier (David Farrar, affecting an odd accent that alternates between British and Australian; he also narrates).

The Ergenstrasse succeeds in eluding the harbor master and nearby naval vessels, but is short on provisions and fuel. Against British expectations, Ehrlich steers his ship southeast to Auckland Island, to a shipwreck supply station. They find the provisions they need, but also a small band of genuinely shipwrecked British sailors. Against direct orders, first mate Kirchner (Lyle Bettger), actually a German Naval Intelligence man, secretly murders the men.

Hoping to reach the neutral port of Valparaiso, Ehrlich leads his men to the small island of Pom Pom Galli, where the crew works long hours chopping wood to feed the Ergenstrasse hungry (and normally coal-burning) engines. Meanwhile, the ship's success in eluding the British Navy becomes a worldwide sensation, though the Allies, having discovered the bodies of the men butchered on Auckland, become determined to see Ehrlich and his crew hang.

Despite a draggy last act, when stagy, studio-bound melodrama replaces carefully measured suspense shot on location (in Hawaii), The Sea Chase succeeds on several levels. John Farrow's deliberate pacing works to the film's advantage: at sea for weeks on end, there's a lot of nervous tension, waiting and worrying about discovery. When the ship has to stop and take aboard fuel, the work is taxing and tense, though Ehrlich's solutions to various crises are sometimes ingenious. (To squelch a rat infestation, he greases ropes leading off the ship with spoiled meat.) When one sailor is mauled by a shark and contracts gangrene, there's little to do but stand around and wait for him to die. Wayne, who loved sailing in real life, is entirely at home on a big ship like this, and the supporting cast, most of whom have little to do, nonetheless act like real, experienced sailors. Alan Hale, Jr., Claude Akins (misbilled in the credits as "Claude Akin"), John Doucette, and Tab Hunter all have small roles.

Tellingly, character actor John Qualen, who specialized in thickly-accented broad character types, underplays his unusually big supporting part as the ship's engineer. James Arness, whom Wayne mentored around this time, has a good role as a disgruntled sailor who towers even over Ehrlich.

Adapted from a novel by Andrew Geer, the film carefully dodges the conundrums of John Wayne's eagerness to return home to Nazi Germany. It's emphasized again and again that Wayne's Ehrlich is staunchly anti-Nazi, and that if he can get his men back to Germany he'll likely be arrested. Early on, there's a reference to a Nazi flag astern, complete with swastika, but it's never shown. When Ehrlich decides to fly his ship's colors at one point he quickly discards a Nazi flag he finds in favor of one dating back to the Weimar Republic.

The business with Lana Turner's character, a Mata Hari type made decent by Ehrlich's basic goodness and charm, is cliched but Wayne and Turner pull it off. Less successful is the quasi-romantic rectangle generated by David Farrar's character, which is played up in the beginning and then essentially dropped; and Lyle Bettger's Wagner-loving Nazi, who lusts after the fellow spy.

Video & Audio

Filmed in CinemaScope and Warner Color, The Sea Chase looks extremely good in its 16:9 anamorphic transfer. As with Blood Alley, cinematographer William A. Clothier has a great eye for wide screen compositions, and his lighting is quite subtle for early CinemaScope. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround makes the most of Roy Webb's score and has directional dialogue. A mono French track is included, along with optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Extra Features

The only supplement is the by now familiar Wayne Trailer Gallery, with original theatrical trailers for Tall in the Saddle, Fort Apache (1948), Blood Alley, The Sea Chase (both 1955), The Train Robbers (1973), Cahill: United States Marshall (1973), and McQ (1974). The trailer for The Sea Chase, which calls the film "The High and the Mighty of the Seven Seas," is 16:9 encoded and complete with text and narration.

Parting Thoughts

The Sea Chase is a colorful, low-key suspense film that looks great on big screen televisions. It has aged a lot better than many of John Wayne's other films from the 1950s, holding up quite well today.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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