Monday, May 22, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Action in the North Atlantic" (1943)

At first glance, "Action in the North Atlantic" seems like a typical jingoistic World War II war drama, conceived to pump up the troops overseas and the folks at home, while delivering some thrilling action and a little romance.

And it is. All that is missing is a "Buy War Bonds" title card.

It's about the Merchant Marines, carrying oil and military arms across the sea where they are desperately needed by Allied forces while dodging German U-boats and aircraft. It's the usual "swell bunch of guys" rogue's gallery of supporting characters, playing cards and getting into beefs, while coming together in a swell way during times of duress, with occasional nostalgic asides about their swell gals back home. It's swell!

What sets it apart from the pack, though, are two things: the truly impressive naval combat sequences/special effects, and the realistic grim tone and depictions of violence.

Let's talk about the latter first. I was struck by the overt (for its time) depictions of bodies being flung away in explosions or otherwise severely traumatized. Usually in films of this era, you'd hear an explosion off-sceen and then cut to dissipating smoke as a noble hero lies dying, but largely undamaged other than some handsomely blackened cheeks.

In one early scene, a lifeboat full of men is rammed by a German submarine, and a body is seen being chewed up by its propellers. It's very brief -- I rewound and played the film frame-by-frame to confirm -- but still gruesome stuff.

Beyond the depictions of violence, though, is the dire sense of consequences ready to befall anyone. (Well, maybe not star Humphrey Bogart.)

During that same sequence, when an oil tanker is torpedoed and sunk, one of the younger crewman, Johnny Pulaski (Dane Clark), valiantly rescues one of his mates who got trapped in the mess room. He turns back from the clamor toward the lifeboats, busts through the door with an ax, shields him from the raging inferno, straps him into a life vest, then takes it off when they see the ocean is a pool of fire from burning oil, dives into the icy brine together, helps him swim under the glames... only to have the man drown a few feet from the lifeboat.

Similarly, the captain and first mate (Raymond Massey and Bogie, respectively) learn there are men trapped in the stern of the ship, and make to go back and rescue them personally. But they take one look a the burning deck in front of them and conclude it's suicide. Neither do they go down with the ship, though they are the last ones into the lifeboat.

That may not seem like a big deal. But normally we'd see some kind of "we'll find a way!" heroics. The fact they decline to sacrifice themselves in a brave but pointless act speaks to the realities of wartime.

And speaking of war, the depictions of it are just tremendous. By 1943 the U.S. military had accrued a decent library of stock footage from the war, which is sprinkled throughout the film. But for the most part director Lloyd Bacon, a workhorse of the Warner Bros.' pen, used actual actors on actual sets, often with fire and debris right up in their faces.

I was mentally comparing it to similar scenes in the recent "Deepwater Horizon," and "Action" holds up quite well 74 years later.

This is especially impressive given that war edicts prevented any filming at sea -- the threat of enemy submarines right off our coastlines being a very real thing in 1942-43. So everything was shot on the Warners lot, including some rather good ship models for the complicated maneuvers depicted.

Even by today's standards, the war scenes are engrossing and impressive.

(I should note that Bacon did not actually complete filming on the production, as his contract was up and a dispute with the studio resulted in an uncredited Byron Haskin wrapping things up.)

The story's a pretty straight line. John Howard Lawson penned the screenplay, from a story by Guy Gilpatric. Gilpatric got an Academy Award nomination for his work while Lawson did not, under the more arcane rules of the Oscars back then.

Massey plays Steve Jarvis, Captain of the tanker Northern Star, and Bogart is his wiseacre first office, Joe Rossi. Their ship is torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine, whose crew even films and taunts the survivors before running aground their lifeboat. Jarvis vows to get his revenge, and after some floating in a raft and a little shore time for lovin' and such, they get a new mission aboard the Liberty-class cargo ship Seawitch, and another scrap with the Nazis.

The Germans are repeatedly referred to as Nazis, though of course the terms are not interchangeable. The depiction of the enemy is one of the harshest I've ever seen in a WWII film, with the Germans seen as bloodthirsty killers not dissimilar from a pack of slavering wolves. They also speak their native language throughout, a notable departure for films of that era, in long dialogue scenes that can be annoying if you don't sprechen sie deutsch.

Alan Hale, Sr. -- daddy of "The Skipper" and a noted character actor in his own right -- plays "Boats," the older bosun who's in charge of the enlisted men. He rarely goes ashore, because that means facing legal papers from his growing gallery of wives, ex- or otherwise. Sam Levene plays "Chips," the vaguely ethnic veteran  who can divine the movement of the Germans by the ache in his corns. He's supposed to be a veteran of World War I, though Levene was only born in 1905.

Dick Hogan is the young cadet fresh from Merchant Marine officer school, distrusted by the captain for getting his learning from books instead of the open sea. Though he proves himself able in the end. Julie Bishop plays the lounge singer who attracts Bogart's eye and becomes his wife in about a minute and a half.

Ruth Gordon, who would go on to an accomplished screenwriting career before becoming a star late in life, tackles one of her early acting role as Jarvis' loving wife. She would not act in another movie until 1965.

Wilhelm von Brincken plays the sneering German submarine captain. He has an interesting backstory. He met his wife in America while serving in the German consulate during World War I, and was arrested for espionage and sent to prison (including Alcatraz). Afterward he was recruited by Erich Von Stroheim to work in Hollywood, enjoying a busy career for the next two decades, including playing the Red Baron in Howard Hughes' "Hells Angels." When war came again, he was kept quite busy playing enemy commanders on land, sea and air.

"Action in the North Atlantic" may not amount to much more than wartime propaganda. But it's very well-done propaganda.

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