Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Cruel Sea, The (1952)


Main image of Cruel Sea, The (1952)
Directed byCharles Frend
Production CompanyEaling Studios
Produced byLeslie Norman
A Production byMichael Balcon
Screenplay byEric Ambler
From the novel byNicholas Monsarrat
CinematographyGordon Dines

Cast: Jack Hawkins (Ericson); Donald Sinden (Lockhart); Denholm Elliott (Morell); John Stratton (Ferraby); Stanley Baker (Bennett); Liam Redmond (Watts); Meredith Edwards (Yeoman Wells); Bruce Seton (Tallow)

Show full cast and credits

The story of the Corvette Compass Rose and her Captain, who moulds an inexperienced crew into an effective and disciplined fighting force, from the dark days before Dunkirk through to final victory.

Show full synopsis

Eight years after the end of World War II, Michael Balcon's Ealing Studios brought Nicholas Monsarrat's best-selling novel The Cruel Sea to the screen, launching the careers of Donald Sinden (Lieutenant Lockhart), Denholm Elliott (Lieutenant Morell), and Virginia McKenna (Wren Hallam), and establishing Jack Hawkins (Captain Ericson) as a star.

Director Charles Frend brought his own experience of the genre gained from The Big Blockade (1941), the acclaimed San Demetrio London (1943) and the spy drama The Foreman Went to France (1942). Frend's documentary leanings (partly learned from working with Alberto Cavalcanti) show through in the raw images of battle and of the industrial nature of the ship.

Co-operation from the Admiralty was extended, though the Royal Navy had either sold or scrapped its fleet of Corvettes at the end of the war, and one had to be brought back from Malta (loaned to the Greek Navy and awaiting breaking). The Coreopsis was quickly transformed into Compass Rose, with the majority of filming taking place on board. Returning to Plymouth one evening, Compass Rose collided with HMS Camperdown, causing considerable damage to the newly fitted-out destroyer.

Scriptwriter Eric Ambler and Frend don't shy away from highlighting the futility of war, and characters express real emotion, rather than a stereotype of repression and control: several officers (including the Captain, Ericson) turn to drink, an officer (Ferraby) has a breakdown, a rating calls the Captain a "Bloody murderer!", and Ericson himself cries when his decision to depth-charge a U-Boat results in the death of British sailors.

This scene was shot several times at the behest of an over-cautious Michael Balcon, who was concerned about the effect on the film such an overt display of emotion would have. It was the original take, with tears streaming down Ericson's face, that was finally used.

Frend emphasises the emotional and psychological damage inflicted by the war, from the callousness of Morell's adulterous wife, to the needless death of Tallow's sister in a German bombing raid. There is a deliberate irony when all those touched by this damage are killed when Compass Rose is sunk in its first enemy attack. This is echoed at the end of the film, when Ericson reflects on only having successfully sunk two enemy U-Boats as they sail past the surrendered (yet still numerous) U-Boat fleet. The palpable sense of futility was seldom seen again in British war films.

Freddie Gaffney

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Ship on fire (3:19)
2. Men in the water (3:37)
3. A diversion job (2:59)
Original Posters
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Battles of the Coronel and Falkland Islands, The (1927)
Dunkirk (1958)
We Dive At Dawn (1943)
Baker, Sir Stanley (1928-76)
Elliott, Denholm (1922-1992)
Frend, Charles (1909-1977)
Hawkins, Jack (1910-1973)
Letts, Barry (1925-2009)
McKenna, Virginia (1931-)
Norman, Leslie (1911-1993)
Sinden, Sir Donald (1923-)
Tanner, Peter (1914-2002)