Sea Fury (1958)

Following the potent Hell Drivers (1957), director Cy Endfield and star Stanley Baker reunited for Sea Fury, a film that extended their initial collaboration’s brand of blue-collar melodrama. The setting is more romantic and rarefied, depicting the lives of sailors working on ocean-going tugboats who form a small, rivalrous community in an otherwise sleepy Spanish town. Baker is Abel Hewson, a once-prosperous sailor fallen on hard times after losing his boat after engaging in some illegal activities. He comes to town hoping to land a place on the crew of the Fury II, a tug run by Capt. Bellew (Victor McLaglen), who regularly competes with a Dutch colleague, Mulder (Francis De Wolff), for the lucrative but dangerous work of towing in troubled ships from the mountainous seas of the Bay of Biscay. Hewson impresses Bellew accidentally when he gets into a brawl in the marketplace with a sleaze who accosts young Josita (future Thunderball bad girl Luciana Paluzzi), and soon the Captain has developed an almost fatherly fondness for the hapless sailor. 

Bellew secures Hewson a place on the crew. Other members resent Hewson's quick advancement and jarring professionalism, as well as Bellew’s liking for him, particularly Gorman (Robert Shaw), who gets passed over in spite of previously running the crew. The seeds of ruction between the captain and Hewson are laid however when Josita’s father Salgado (Roger Delgado), desperate to marry his daughter off to someone with cash, all but waves her under the nose of Bellew hoping he’ll bite. Although ageing and hardly a fashion plate, the Captain can’t help but be hopelessly smitten with the gorgeous young lady and he showers her with presents, as when he tries to pour her into a flashy dress after a boozy dinner with the crew. Josita however is stuck on Hewson, leaving him inevitably torn between attraction to her and loyalty to the Captain who saved him from degradation. Gorman, catching wind of the covert romance, immediately sees a chance to destroy Hewson.

Sea Fury is an awkward and severely flawed film in many ways, but it certainly earns its place in Endfield’s career, bridging his early noir-accented work in America and Britain and his later, glossier, grander efforts. It’s a glossary of Endfield’s obsessions – with social Darwinism, with increasingly isolated and symbolic universes where survivalist mores reign, with studies in stoic duty as its own virtue, with a world where low men on the totem pole often make the history and the fortunes others profit from, but occasionally find their own bit of glory too. Endfield revisited the themes of alienation and ostracism seen in Hell Drivers, and their clear basis in Endfield’s blacklist experience and subsequent rebuilding of his life in a foreign country. Baker and Endfield were certainly a director and star pairing who were deeply simpatico, both determined to make gritty accounts grounded in an everyday world and its striving citizens, exploring both the nobility and the fracture points in the psyche of their working-class heroes. Hewson is an exile keeping a step ahead of shame, entering a closed environment where he threatens a tenuous balance of powers and conventions. This element is more muted here, as if Endfield was already losing interest in it, or couldn’t work out how to leverage it in this setting without seeming repetitious. 

Sea Fury nonetheless articulates more of Endfield’s key ideas, in contemplating the kinds of guts many would consider extraordinary as a simple requirement of getting through the day for others, and in the theme of sexual desire converging with money’s centrifugal power, causing Bellew, Salgado, Hewson, and Josita to all do things they’d rather not. This is a classic noir motif echoing out of Endfield’s early work in that genre, whilst also laying breadcrumbs leading to the pure macho competition for possession of the woman and demesne in Sands of the Kalahari (1965), where money is purposefully removed as a motive but the urge it represents is laid bare. It’s also easy to read Bellew as a corrupt studio chief drooling over a starlet. Josita’s pulchritude defeats Bellew’s nobler, more sensible instincts in his desperate hunger for a last flash of sensual fulfilment as he slips into old age. What’s lacking here for Endfield is an outlet for his radical anger: none of the character conflicts are allowed to properly boil over or turn ugly. Bellew is no villain, but a victim of his ungainly lusts, and the interactions of Josita and Hewson lack conviction. 

When the inevitable moment of crisis arrives, the narrative immediately swerves to leave it rather inconsequential. Casting McLaglen as Bellew makes his desire to romance Josita a shade more grotesque than might have been, as the man was looking mighty rough by this time, although in the end there is a compensating note of pathos in contemplating the choice of bereavements he faces, between the loss of his last spark of youth and his new friend. The enemy here is the tension of both the gruelling job out on the sea and the septic boredom of port life, almost abstract forces that the characters have to face, in a manner not so dissimilar to the way the stifling dullness of soldiering suddenly becomes a do-or-die battle in Zulu (1964). McLaglen’s presence connects the film spiritually to John Ford’s oeuvre, but also highlights the degree to which Endfield opposes the key philosophy behind much of both Ford’s and Howard Hawks’ work, and made rough maps that a host of later American auteurs including filmmakers as diverse as Kubrick, Craven, and Peckinpah, would later explore such zones more closely. Where the older directors envisioned fractious and divided units eventually cohering and hardy women fitting in with the men, forging the essence of a civilisation, in Endfield’s mind the primal lurks shallow under all skins, the men are often overboiling id-pots who can barely keep their mitts off the ladies the moment their inner lecher gains licence. The finale boils down to an existential situation where a lone hero must fight for survival, cast off by the world of men.

Sea Fury does meander and slouch badly for the first hour, but it comes together for a last act that is worth struggling through for, as the tug crew venture out to try and bring in a crippled cargo ship, with a hold full of sodium that can potentially erupt in a white-hot fireball if touched by water. Hell Drivers had shown clear spiritual kinship with H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), and here again Endfield annexes that film to spice up the action with its hero having to negotiate the delicate cargo of explosive material. Hewson, furiously sacked mid-mission by his boss after Bellew emerges from a sodden, self-pitying bender, makes a foolhardy leap of faith onto the ship and sets about trying to rescue the prize, an action that is at once extraordinarily dangerous but also a moment of relief, as Hewson finally enters a situation where only his own muscle and will to live matter. Endfield handles these scenes superlatively, striking unnerving notes as Hewson realises he’s not alone on the ship, and then when he’s confronted by the ship’s captain, still on board his vessel but dazed and unaware of the split in the back of his skull, like the survivor of a horror film stumbled into the wrong genre. Hewson and his half-dead companion labour against the surging sea and the tick of the clock to save their own lives and the broken ship in a marvellously shot and filmed climax, replete vertiginous overhead shots of Baker squirming under gushing water and struggling towards the sunlight with his fate contained in one smoking barrel. If all of Sea Fury was on such a level it would have been a mighty work. Look fast too for Barry Foster as the tug’s radio man.

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