Souls at Sea (1937)

Drirected by Henry Hathaway, this is a rare and interesting piece of classic Hollywood. It is, firstly, just about the only pre-Civil Rights era film I’ve seen that portrays the Middle Passage slave trade. Gary Cooper plays a seaman who, at the opening, is on trial for playing god with the lives of survivors of a shipwreck; he’s written off as a shady character involved in slave-trading. Except that, as flashbacks reveal, he’s an obsessed man, engaged in a private vendetta against the slave trade, signing up in the crews of slave ships and sabotaging them. He’s eventually used in a secret mission by the post-Wilberforce British government to infiltrate a Savannah slave-trading outfit. On the way there, he falls in love with sister of a British officer who’s complicit in the trade. Cooper’s own motivations are intriguingly hazy; there’s only the slightest hint that he’s acting through guilt over his wife going mad when she saw the treatment of slaves. George Raft plays his fellow sailor, an unrepentant roughneck and slaver, who stumbles toward redeeming himself in a romance with a serving girl who’s run off from the British class system (just to be even-handed in the period politics). Where all this is going is inventing many clichés of the Titanic-type story, when the ships catches fire in a bravura sequence. Cooper’s the only one level-headed enough to get the rescue situation under hand; he’s eventually forced to shoot rioting idiots when they threaten to swamp the lifeboat. Superlatively produced, sustains an excellent dramatic slow-burn, and is only 90 minutes long!

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