Blu-ray Review: Lana Turner and John Wayne, An Oddly Compelling Pair in The Sea Chase (1955)


John Wayne, German. It doesn't make sense on paper, nor does it on the screen. In The Sea Chase the All-American cowboy doesn't seem remotely European, but he is reliably heroic as a morally sturdy naval officer in this sturdy war drama. He even makes you buy that Lana Turner, as a glamorous spy, could fall for him.

Wayne is Karl Ehrlich (really), a naval captain stationed on a freighter called The Ergenstrasse in Australia at the start of World War II. Though he despises Hitler, he realizes he must consider his crew's right to choose where their allegiances rest. He sets sail, escaping internment by the British, and takes on the challenge of returning his men to their homeland.

Facing the threat of mutiny, a treacherous Nazi sympathizer on his crew, and being under hot pursuit by the Brits, Ehrlich's life is further complicated by the arrival of Elsa Keller (Turner), who is also on the run. As the only woman onboard she is another dangerous distraction as he scrambles to find more wood to fuel the drastically understocked ship.

Of course Wayne and Turner have to fall in love, even if you'd never put them together. As a couple, they don't sizzle; this isn't a hot movie romance, but it is intriguing. It's more that they express the exhaustion of people who have lived hard and are ready for the comfort of someone who understands them. 

The love affair wouldn't have worked if Turner had landed in one of Wayne's westerns or he in one of her high-toned dramas, but the open seas is a fine middle ground. Their regard for each other is what makes them so touching together.

Turner slinks around in a tight, low-cut white dress, making the crew members drunk with lust. Wayne is scandalized; he knows she has driven a man to suicide. For her it is simply life, she causes a fuss as a matter of course; it has become background noise to her. 

So has dressing to kill. There's no need for her to wear a jaunty red scarf with her tight white sweater while stuck on a freighter, but it's how she plays the game and perhaps the glamour cheers her up. Also, she is Lana Turner, movie star. Even when she has to resort to men's dungarees to have clean clothes, she works it.

The pair are supported by a solid cast, with reliable actors like Dick Davalos (East of Eden), Alan Hale and James Arness onboard. Tab Hunter also makes an early appearance as a crewman. At this point in his career he couldn't even shout "land ho!" convincingly, but he clearly has presence.

Though this isn't quite the pulse-pounding actioner it aims to be, the slow build tension can be effective. Director John Farrow provides some genre thrills while also capturing the despair and destruction of this mostly self-contained bit of World War II drama.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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