Blockbuster action, 1943 style. I first saw this film as a kid, and some of the more vividly cruel touches, including a lifeboat loaded with filth-smeared, panting shipwreck survivors being rammed, and a U-boat captain laughing boyishly after torpedoing a cargo ship, welded themselves on my brain. And this is still a superlative example of classic Hollywood’s craft and instinct for turning grim realities and touchy subjects into grand entertainment. Raymond Massey is old school merchant marine skipper Steve Jarvis, and Humphrey Bogart is stalwart first mate Joe Rossi, taking on Nazis on the high seas. Director Lloyd Bacon was a weathered Hollywood pro who had helped define Warner Bros.’ reputation for earthy, realistic, tough-minded and tautly fashioned cinema across a variety of genres. He’s probably best known today for mixing Depression-era realism with a restrained, prototypical version of Hollywood glamorous panache to sneaky effect on 42nd Street and Footlight Parade (both 1933), and here does a similarly compulsive job mixing wartime exploits with a blue-collar bent and the usual exigencies of WW2 propaganda. Bacon does bring something like the nimble physicality and sense of forward motion demanded by a good musical to the proceedings. Bacon had also made the first sound adaptation of Moby Dick (1930), a fitting anticipation for this study in obsessive combat on the high seas. Bacon was fired before production was finished, however, and so Byron Haskin and Raoul Walsh both contributed to the final product.
The heroes are working stiffs at sea, a research sample of American sailors with variable backgrounds and lifestyles. Their ship, the Northern Star, laden with gasoline, gets a torpedo in the side from a cruising U-boat, and erupts into a floating fireball. Much of the crew is forced to abandon ship, and Jarvis and Rossi flee only after failing to save trapped engine room crew. Copious injury becomes grievous insult as the U-boat captain insists on interviewing the survivors from his lofty conning tower whilst one of his officers films them, earning a round show of up-yours thumbs. The Germans retaliate by ramming the lifeboat, costing the lives of more crewmen and the ship’s cat. After drifting for ten days, the survivors are picked up and returned to New York where they disperse to their separate lives, but most of them come back together when Jarvis is assigned a Liberty Ship, the SS Sea Witch, which joins a massive convoy bound for Murmansk in Russia.
Action in the North Atlantic isn’t as marvellously, breathlessly pulpy and narratively dense as Bogart’s subsequent transatlantic wartime escapade, Passage to Marseille (1944). Nor does it seem at first glance to be as ruthless or as daring in its expression of wartime idealism as the similarly gutsy Bogart vehicle Sahara (1943). And yet Action in the North Atlantic is a quintessential exhibit of the positive spirit during the war and the progressive messaging it allowed before the post-war, right-wing reaction. The portrayal of the sailors engaged with a union, complete with black seamen (included at Bogart’s insistence), was direct enough to get this branded as a left-wing, subversive work. The script was credited to John Howard Lawson, with dialogue contributions by future Robert Aldrich collaborator A.I. Bezzerides and crime writer W.R. Burnett, and an uncredited Alvah Bessie. Bessie and Lawson would later be two of the Hollywood Ten, and Bezzerides was also harassed. It all looks innocuous today, political messages mixed with hard-charging action and stereotyped but snappy character humour. Action in the North Atlantic’s communal focus is also familiar from other films of the era, and there's also a certain similarity to the studio's pre-war swashbucklers, where hearty crews under dashing heroes groused and grumbled but did sterling service anyway: the presence of Alan Hale as the much-married ‘Boats’ O’Hara emphasises this similarity. But this also has definite, powerful link to Warner’s pre-war run of socially conscious films about ordinary Joes and Janes, people doing a job of work, only with the pressure of survival now provided by war rather than the Depression. The film is structured around long sequences where the proletarian heroes lounge about playing cards, waiting to get down to business, swapping japes, jibes, and running gags. The film drolly examines maternal instincts in these hard-bitten sailors, revealed in their concern for the ship’s cat(s), but ultimately, passionately validates their roles and patriotism.
Dane Clark is Johnnie Pulaski, who lets his pals know that he wants a land job because he’s afraid of dying at sea and leaving his family abandoned, sparking a quorum in the sailors’ union on the virtues and problems of patriotism for working class men, pitting personal but still important concerns versus general responsibility: Pulaski is shamed, but his point is still valid. Twenty years later he would be the main hero, the cautious everyman who remains sceptical about official heroism but does right by his pals. Here he is clearly, and interestingly, both the most physically brave of the sailors but also the one most keenly alert to his vulnerability, and signalled in the end as the one most likely to ascend to a leadership role. Sam Levene is ‘Chips’ Abrams, who murmurs Kaddish amidst a general prayer for the dead. Dick Hogan is Ezra Hogan, a young cadet who Jarvis distrusts on principal as a “book-learning” boy who hasn’t learnt his sailing the hard way like he, Rossi, and the others have.
Hogan, like the Liberty ship itself, is the product of a new age of mass-produced knowledge and machines to cope with the raw exigencies of modern warfare, but the film is dedicated to denying the notion that the human parts are as interchangeable as the mechanisms. The motley crew are governed by sharply divergent characters whose different modes of life are revealed in coupled vignettes. Jarvis lives in a suburban home with a white picket fence, and has a doting, long-weathered wife (Ruth Gordon in a delicately affecting cameo) to welcome him, whilst Rossi is a nightclub sharpie who hits the taverns in his pinstripe suit. He surreptitiously knocks out an overly-talkative patron who doesn’t believe that loose lips sink ships as he blabs about a new convoy, and strikes sparks with chanteuse Pearl O'Neill (Julie Bishop).
Jarvis, used to his mate’s womanising ways, mistakes Pearl for one of the chippies he regularly gets entangled with, when he comes to fetch Rossi at his apartment, only to learn they’ve gotten hitched. Jarvis and Rossi nonetheless have a great working relationship, Bacon’s camera picking them out in a dreamy fog, emerging as iconic, timeless figures on oceans of legend, then immediately imbued with reality as Rossi cradles a persistent toothache. Bogart, at least, had actual experience in this sort of thing, having served as an able seaman on the USS Leviathan during the waning months of WW1, where he may (or may not) have received his career-defining facial scar. The most famous anecdote from the film’s production depicts Bogart and Massey getting pie-eyed whilst watching their stunt doubles work, and then doing a dangerous stunt dive themselves; whether true or not, it feels apt in the context of a film where it really looks like the actors were taking chances at times. The emphasis on diverse people whose fate depends on mutual reliance (sans more prominent African-Americans, sadly) as depicted on the microcosmic level of the crew is linked to internationalist war effort, as the Sea Witch sails into Halifax harbour to join its convoy as crews hail each-other in a dozen tongues, including Chinese, with ecumenical vibrancy.
Bacon wields the technical resources of a top-grade Warner Bros. production to pull off some thunderous set-pieces, sporting excellent black-and-white photography by Ted D. McCord. Bacon’s attempts to combine slick, venturesome hype with authenticity extends to a very uncommon touch at the time, allowing the Germans, when seen, to converse at length untranslated, the subjects of their conversations usually clear enough but left impenetrably alien, thus servicing documentary-like immediacy and propagandistic distancing at the same time. The sinking of the Northern Star is staged in a maelstrom of boiling fire and dashing dolly shots, and the film is replete with model work of a standard that wouldn’t be matched too often in the next forty years. The voyage to Russia sees the convoy having to scatter when it runs into a wolf pack, memorably visualised in an eerie underwater shot of shark-like submarine silhouettes, and all hell breaks loose in a panorama of destruction and frenzied reaction as the ships madly dodge each-other amidst explosions of torpedoes and depth charges.
Subsequent battles with fighter planes and another, perniciously dogged U-boat are equally tremendous, whilst never devolving into spectacle for its own sake. These are men battling for the lives and pals, like Pulaski and Hogan flinging themselves in harm’s way to save the ship by manning a gun, climaxing with one plane crashing into the Sea Witch’s bow, with Hogan killed because his clothing gets caught on the gun, a great example of the kind of small but attentive, expertly intensifying visual vignette that elevates the film. And of course, the finale offers tables quite neatly turned as Rossi rams their tormenting U-boat, Bacon offering unseemly delight in letting the audience see the German Captain drowning in his flooding vessel, to elicit the same kind of relish in a bad guy’s demise in, say, that slow-motion, vertiginous shot of Hans Gruber falling to his death in Die Hard (1988). The only major drags on Action in the North Atlantic, which feels a tad distended at a fraction over two hours long, are the pauses for the inevitable propaganda moments, although Bacon and Lawson did their best to contour the message beats into the drama, including a pause for contemplation of sacrifice over a row of flag-draped coffins following a battle with airplanes that leaves the ship looking like a wrecking yard littered with corpses and machine parts. This is grand old moviemaking all the same.