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From Sail to Steam to Sail Again
by Jon Schuller

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The romance of the High Seas has been written about for centuries. We all know stories of adventure and romance, danger and daring that abound in literature around the world. Books large and small, famous or not, as well as plays, have captured peoples' imaginations since literature was invented. But the so-called "romance" was imaginary as a life at sea; it was an incredibly hard, dangerous and unrewarding life. Maybe the few who sailed the seas and made discoveries were the only ones who benefited from their brief moments of fame and fortune. Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Spanish conquistadors, Henry Hudson, Thomas Newcomen, James Watt and many more names discovered, or invented, places and machines that helped shrink the world. Sailing ships date back to ancient Egypt. The Vikings were fearless explorers who used their sailing skills to both discover and conquer other lands and peoples. Even today in the newest, most technological century yet, sailing boats and ships still exist and are more popular than ever. The largest ships, like aircraft carriers, are powered by nuclear energy. Jules Verne envisioned a nuclear powered submarine in the 19th Century. But, despite all of the technology that can be found on the oceans, humans still love the sea and wind-powered

At the beginning of the 20th Century the great American writer, Jack London, created a novel whose central character was an exceptionally cruel and cold man, yet highly intelligent, a ship's captain named Wolf Larsen. He ruled his world like an ancient tyrant with the power of life and death to be decided by him - and only him - in an instant. His sailing ship, named The Ghost, hunts and catches seals. On a particularly foggy night a passenger ferry collides with another, larger ship and begins to sink immediately. Two of its passengers are Humphrey van Weyden (played by Alexander Knox), a fiction writer and Ruth Webster (played by Ida Lupino), an escaped convict. They are rescued by the Ghost. The pair is brought to Captain Larsen (perfectly played by the great Edward G. Robinson) who tells them in no uncertain terms that he cannot return them (and his ship) to port as he has a schedule to keep. He takes van Weyden, an obviously sophisticated man and turns him into a "cabin boy," replacing van Weyden for a defiant young sailor named George Leach (played by John Garfield). The young woman, Webster, is unconscious from the shipwreck and the ship's inebriated Doctor Prescott (played by Gene Lockhart) tells Larsen she needs a blood transfusion or she'll die. Larsen could
care less and tells Leach to give her his blood, regardless or not if there's a match. She miraculously survives and in a short time she and Leach fall in love. He wants to protect her from Larsen and his scary crew.

Larsen shows his immense sadistic character when Prescott, trying to sober up and show off after his triumphantly successful operation that saved the girl's life, asks him to have the crew treat the good doctor with more respect and dignity. Larsen obliges by kicking Prescott down the stairs to the crew's amusement. Prescott climbs the main mast and shouts down to everyone that Larsen's own brother, Death Larsen, has vowed to find and kill his brutal brother. Prescott then jumps to his death on the deck below.

Leach convinces some crew members that now's the time to get rid of Larsen once and for all. They capture him and throw him overboard. Larsen survives and climbs back aboard. He reveals that he knew about the mutiny from an informant, the ship's cook (played by Barry Fitzgerald). The crew grabs Cookie and throws him over the side. As he holds a rope for dear life, he screams to be saved just as a shark bites his leg.

But Van Weyden, Leach, Webster and another crewman steal a small dory and escape. Somehow, Larsen knew of their escape, poisoning their
water supply.

Meanwhile, Death Larsen's ship has caught up with the Ghost, attacks it and as she begins to sink, the crew abandons ship taking what lifeboats are left. Larsen has become almost blind from intense headaches he's hidden from the crew. Van Weyden, Leach and the woman climb back aboard the Ghost to get supplies before it sinks completely. Larsen hears them, locks Leach up and tells van Weyden to stay with him but gives up the key to the storeroom so Leach and Webster can escape. Larsen wildly shoots van Weyden and forces him to stay with the now-blind captain until the ship goes down completely. Leach and Webster escape in the boat.

The movie premiered on March 21, 1941. It was directed by the famous Michael Curtiz. With an incredibly talented and familiar cast, The Sea Wolf captures the spirit of the novel and the old-versus-new tug-of-war in the early 20th Century values and beliefs. Edward G. Robinson brings the sadistic villain, Larsen, to life and depicts his heartless character perfectly. Supporting players, especially Garfield and Lupino, are well-cast as nameless people literally cast adrift in life's vast and unchartered oceans. Lupino was not only beautiful, but her acting talents are on full display as Ruth Webster. It's a classic film that never gets old or stale.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

I Can Feel It. Can You?

Life Seems to Imitate Art

One Is All It Usually Takes Redux

A Cornucopia of Great Movies

So Many Famous Folks' April Birthdays

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 29 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

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