Monday 25 July 2016

Movie Review: Action In The North Atlantic (1943)

A World War Two merchant navy war film, Action In The North Atlantic suppresses most of its propaganda tendencies to deliver a rollicking seaborne adventure.

World War Two is raging and the merchant marines are doing their best to supply the war effort in Europe. Commanding an oil tanker, Captain Steve Jarvis (Raymond Massey) and his first officer and friend Joe Rossi (Humphrey Bogart) tangle with a German U-boat and are sunk, their lifeboat rammed for good measure. Steve's men make it onto a raft and drift for eleven days before being rescued.

Awaiting their next assignment, Steve recuperates with his wife Sarah (Ruth Gordon) while Joe meets and marries lounge singer Pearl O'Neill (Julie Bishop). The two men are then paired up again and placed in charge of the new Liberty class SS Seawitch. They join a large multinational supply convoy on the way to the Soviet port of Murmansk via a stop in Halifax. Despite a navy escort, the journey across the North Atlantic will be perilous.

Most of Action In The North Atlantic is directed by Lloyd Bacon, although a contractual dispute meant that he did not complete the film. Byron Haskin and Raoul Walsh, both uncredited, were brought in to complete the project. At just over two hours, this is an ambitious, visually rich war adventure, and the pace never slows down. While there are a few scenes undoubtedly geared towards rallying the troops and encouraging recruitment, between them the directors create an impressive war film, with a commitment to quick pacing, tension build-up, regular doses of action and plenty of variety.

Action In The North Atlantic spends most of its running time on water, and features an assortment of engagements: stealthy sub attacks, survival in lifeboats and rafts, a battle between a sub wolfpack and a large convoy, a prolonged one-on-one chase across the high seas, and seaplane attacks. Using a combination of stock footage and models the special effects and scenes of wanton destruction on the ocean are excellent. Large ships are torpedoed, set on fire, attacked from the air, and abandoned, while subs are destroyed with depth charges, rammed and sunk.

The enemy is portrayed as committed without being dehumanized. All the scenes featuring German combatants and their commanders are in German with no subtitles, adding a welcome sense of authenticity.

The scenes on dry land are relatively few, and are used to effectively sketch in the backgrounds and love lives of the key characters. The relationship between Captain Jarvis and first officer Rossi underpins the story, and the film avoids any superfluous dramatics, complexities or buddy tendencies, with Raymond Massey and Humphrey Bogart delivering typically dependable performances. Jarvis and Rossi respect each other and work well together towards the same cause, and there isn't much more in their dynamic.

The film invests plenty of time with secondary characters, the seamen who have to unquestioningly obey orders, endure boredom and bad food, question the likelihood of their own survival, and then jump into sudden action within seconds of the alarm sounding. Alan Hale Sr., Sam Levene and Dane Clark are among the grease-stained actors who bring the crew to life while adding some comic relief.

Action In The North Atlantic delivers what it promises, in a quality package brimming with wartime verve.

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