“There's a price no man will pay for living.”
I am not too much of a fan of swashbucklers. I do not like thinking about what life on a pirate ship must have been like: all the men cramped together and smelly beyond anything that is holy. Also when there is a woman involved she has usually been kidnapped and must be rescued in a beyond silly way. I just do not really like pirate films. I can handle Captain Blood that film is fantastic but other than that I cannot sit through pirate films (this also includes all the Pirates of the Caribbean. I tried watching the first one and thought it boring). So now I am sure you are probably thinking if I do not like swashbucklers/pirate film why on earth did I watch The Sea Wolf which takes place on an early 1900s pirate ship. Well I watched The Sea Wolf for the cast. And it turns out the story was not so bad.
In a bar George Leach (John Garfield) overhears someone ask a sailor if they want to go on a job on a ship called The Ghost. The sailor refuses. George is wanted by the police and takes the takes the job. On the boat to the ship a drunken man says to George “when you go to sleep at night you pray for morning and in the day you pray for night.”
On a steam ship Ruth (Ida Lupino) is running away from the law. She meets Humphrey Van Weyden (Alexander Knox). As they are sitting down on the deck their ship collides with another one and sinks it. Ruth and Humphrey survive the crash. In the water Humphrey sees The Ghost sail pass them. He calls out for help.
The next day Humphrey sees a man die from a bad heart on the ship’s deck and no one shows any emotion about it. He meets the captain a man named Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson). Wolf does not plan on setting Humphrey on land any time soon and makes him work on the ship. George stands up to Wolf and Wolf puts George in his place by having him beat. At dinner that night someone keeps asking Wolf why they keep changing direction all the time. Wolf’s brother has a ship and his brother is after him in revenge.
The cook finds Humphrey’s notes on what he thinks of the voyage and gives them to Wolf. Wolf likes the notes. Humphrey tells the captain that he wants to write about his time on the ship. Wolf likes that idea he wants people to know the real him that he has been on the sea his whole life. At that moment George comes to the quarters and tells Wolf and Humphrey that Ruth is not doing too well she may be dying. In her delirium she rambles how she does not want to go back to prison. Wolf finds it funny that they saved someone like them. The ship’s doctor is drunk and not confident in his abilities anymore. Ruth needs a transfusion but he does not think he can do it with what is on board the ship.
Fortunately the doctor is able to sober up and save Ruth’s life. Ruth comes on deck and Wolf tells the men to make her comfortable by putting her behind bars. She gets upset because she thinks Humphrey talked since she had told him she had been running away. He tells her he said nothing that she was the one who had talked in her delirium.
The ship’s doctor, Louie, asks Wolf to tell the men to treat him with respect. Wolf makes him look like a bigger fool by agreeing and then tripping him and mocking him in front of the men. In haste to get away from the taunting men Louie climbs up to the mast. When he reaches the top he yells down that the men will mostly never come back alive and that Wolf is afraid of his brother. After this Louie jumps to his death.
Ruth goes to see George. He promises to get them both off of the ship. That night a couple of men, including George, gang up on Wolf and throw him overboard. Wolf manages to climb back on board. He gets the cook to find out who started the mutiny but he is not going to do anything because he needs help fighting his brother. He makes it sound like all the men will have to do is steal whale skins. Wolf tells the men there is a trader among them. He singles out the cook who had been doing the spying he told him to do. The men throw the cook overboard.
Wolf gets blinding headaches where he goes blind. While Wolf is temporarily blind Humphrey helps George get off the ship with Ruth and he plans to leave as well. Wolf knew what they would do and filled a jug with vinegar instead of water. The men on the ship see Wolf is blind.
Out at sea George, Humphrey, and Ruth see The Ghost with no one on it. They go aboard to get food and water. George gets locked in the storage room by Wolf. Ruth and Humphrey find him. Humphrey makes up the end of his book about Wolf. Wolf shoots him. Humphrey plays on Wolf’s blindness and says he is not hurt. He does this to get the key to let George out. Humphrey winds up dying as the ship sinks into the water. George and Ruth see they are only two miles away from a small fishing village and sail there.
The cast was very good. Ida Lupino was not in the film very much. She was definitely put in the film for a romantic interest and to add some drama. But whatever scenes Lupino was in she was fantastic. John Garfield always played the tough guy. I was not too crazy about his character. Like Lupino I felt he was just thrown in there for the sake of putting in a tough guy character. The Sea Wolf is based off a story by Jack London which I have never read so I am not sure if George Leach was a character in the book or not. I would not be surprised though if Warner Bros. threw Garfield and Lupino in the film because they were two popular actors at the time. Edward G. Robinson did a great job playing the sadistic bad guy. Wolf was crazy and twisted and Robinson just nailed the part. Alexander Knox I saw in Rossellini’s Europe 51’ and I did not like him very much in that and I did not particularly care for him in The Sea Wolf although he was better in this.
I liked The Sea Wolf. The story was different from other pirate films. The girl was not kidnapped from a ship the pirates got aboard and the hero was also not kidnapped nor was he someone who had to go save the girl and the ship. I liked the line “When you go to sleep at night you pray for morning and in the day you pray for night” it just set an ominous scary tone for the story and film. I do suggest watching The Sea Wolf. Unfortunately it is not available to own on DVD nor is it available to view on Youtube. I caught this on TCM some time ago so keep an eye out for it on the channel.