Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, John Garfield in the Sea Wolf
Wolf Larson (Edward G. Robinson) is the psychopathic captain of the Ghost, a veritable death ship for its crew, many of whom have been shanghaied. While the intellectual Humphrey Van Weyden (Alexander Knox) attempts to understand Larson, escaped convicts George Leach (John Garfield) and Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino) plot to escape his fascistic domination. Robinson realizes the tragic dimension of his role in this stylish adaptation of London's novel.
The first sceen adaptation of Jack London's THE SEA WOLF appeared in 1913, within the author's lifetime and only ten years after the novel was written. Since then, six other versions have been filmed, the last being WOLF LARSEN in 1957. Of all of these versions, the most memorable remains the 1941 Warner Bros. production directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Edward G. Robinson as Wolf Larsen, the tyrannical and amoral captain of the GHOST.
Throughout the 1930's, Warners' turned out a cycle of socially relevant
dramas, such as I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932), WILD BOYS
OF THE ROAD (1933), MARKED WOMEN (1937), and THEY WON'T FORGET (1937).
These films were peopled with working-class characters that appealed
to a Depression-era audience, and they combined realism with melodramatic
action. In a quest for greater prestige Warner Bros. also searched
for scripts adapted from literary classics. THE SEA WOLF must have
seemed like a good choice, since it contains plenty of excitement
and has something of a literary reputation. London's primary thematic
intention in the novel had been to attack Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy
of the superman through the allegorical figure of Wolf Larsen. In
1941, with the Fascist powers acting upon their concept of the "Master
Race," threatening to swallow up a large portion of the globe, the
analogy of the story to the atmosphere of the 1940's must have impressed
the film's screenwriter, Robert Rossen.
Although several of Hollywood's wartime propaganda efforts may appear
simplistic or even elementary to modern viewers, it seems rather presumptuous
to judge from the critically safer vantage point of hindsight. In
fact, some of the trendier films of the more recent 1960's also seem
naive by today's standards. In the 1940's, however, it was not difficult
to be affected by the thinly disguised propaganda in films such as
THE SEA WOLF or Alfred Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT (1944). In the latter
film, for example, a lifeboat serves as a microcosm containing all
of the conflicts that the war imposed on society at large. The sealing-
ship Ghost functions in a similar manner in THE SEA WOLF, and it is
not difficult to note certain resemblances between Walter Slezak's
character of the Nazi captain in LIFEBOAT and that of Wolf Larsen
as portrayed by Robinson in THE SEA WOLF.
THE SEA WOLF is an adventure film with overtones of sadism and grandiose
delusions. The plot itself is simple and little changed from the novel.
The survivors of a ferry crash are picked up by a freighter commanded
by a psychopathic captain, Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson), who holds
them captive. The characters include a writer, Humphrey Van Weyden
(Alexander Knox), two young and rather tough escaped convicts, George
Leach (John Garfield) and Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino), a drunken doctor
named Louie Prescott (Gene Lockhart), and a cook (Barry Fitzgerald),
in addition to a crew played by a number of Warner Bros. stock "heavies.
Larsen's death ship is little more than a pirate schooner on which
the captives suffer through beatings, a suicide, and finally a mutiny
during which the survivors attempt to escape. Finally, Van Weyden,
Leach, and Webster, who have escaped in an open boat but are adrift
aimlessly in the fog, are pursued by Larsen on the Ghost. The malevolent
captain suffers from severe headaches, however, and is overcome by
a seizure accompanied by blindness. When the small boat finally comes
alongside the Ghost in the fog, the three escapees stumble back onboard
to find the captain alone and blind in his mutiny-ruined ship, evil
to the end.
In his adaption of the London novel, Rossen made some important changes
in the characters. London had narrated his story from the point of
view of one Humphrey Van Weyden, an effete intellectual who, although
a weakling at the beginning, gradually becomes stronger, outwitting
Larsen in the process. The film adopts an omniscient view, and the
character of Van Weyden is eased from the center of the story. The
primary result of this change is that Larsen looms as a much more
dominant figure in the film than he was in the novel. Also, one of
the novel's minor characters, George Leach, who had drowned midway
through the book, is shifted to a leading role in opposition to Larsen
in the film version. It is ultimately Van Weyden who drowns along
with Larsen in order to save Leach. With this shift in the plot, the
character of Van Weyden's romantic interest, Maud Brewster, is eliminated.
In her place is substituted a new female character, Ruth Webster,
who is the type of good-bad girl ideally suited to the character
of Leach as portrayed by Garfield. Although she serves a similar function
to that of London's Maud, she is more directly pivotal to the conflict
between Leach and Larsen. Both of these lovers are on the run from
the law. Leach, in fact, volunteered for service on the Ghost while
several other crew members had to be shanghaied.
Despite the changes and the compressions necessary to bring the story
to the screen, a good deal of the original novel, including its central
theme, remains completely intact. One could even argue that the film
has made some improvements. For example, in London's treatment, it
takes a certain amount of willpower on the part of the reader to generate
much sympathy for Van Weyden. In the film, audience identification
with Garfield's Leach is made immediately, and the conflict between
him and Larsen is structurally better balanced. Essentially, the role
of Van Weyden is the same in both versions -- he is an onlooker. Ruth
Webster is also a much more convincing character in the film than
is the rather bloodless and idealized Maud in the written version.
She also helps get things going sooner, in a dramatic sense, by entering
the story at the beginning rather than halfway through.
Whether all of these changes reflected Rossen's own ideas or were
demanded by the studio's front office is unverifiable and ultimately
unimportant. Intellectual characters such as Van Weyden rarely figured
centrally in the themes of films of the 1940's. Ideologically, the
film fits well within the Warners' mold of socially conscious thrillers,
several of which Rossen himself had written. It also bears certain
similarities to several of the writer's later films made when he was
a director, notably his version of novelist Robert Penn Warren's ALL
THE KING'S MEN (1949).
Stylistically, the film's authorship is even harder to resolve. From
his first Hollywood feature, THE THIRD DEGREE, in 1926, until 1953,
the Hungarian-born Curtiz dutifully filled his contract at Warner
Bros. to every one's mutual satisfaction. After the collapse of the
studio system, when Curtiz was free to go elsewhere, his career ironically
went into a precipitous decline. A competent rather than inspired
director, even his best films, such as CASABLANCA (1942) and MILDRED
PIERCE (1945), seem successful only partially as a result of his direct
responsibility and appear more visibly dependent in varying degrees
upon other hands as well as choice casting. None of these films is
without directorial flair, but Curtiz could never imbue his films
with any consistent personality as did Raoul Walsh in similar circumstances.
Apart from a detectable tendency toward expressionism, which seems
endemic of many films of the 1940's, it is difficult to discern his
stylistic signature from other middle-of-the-road stylists such as
Jean Negulesco or George Sherman.
In the case of THE SEA WOLF, Curtiz is ably abetted by Sol Polito'
s low-key cinematography, Anton Grot's art direction, and the special
effects of Byron Haskin and Nathan Levinson. For long shots, miniatures
were used, since the entire film was shot in the studio. This was
probably a matter of thematic necessity. The setting is almost continually
fogbound, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. The expressive use
of back-lighting, as, for example, when Ruth Webster goes to meet
Larsen in his cabin, imparts an oppressively Germanic flavor to the
film. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, departing from the style he established
in the Errol Flynn "swashbuckler" films, composed an excellently moody
The casting is particularly appropriate, although at times it verges
close to stereotyping, particularly in the case of Fitzgerald as the
reptilian Cooky. Garfield and Lupino create some chemistry between
them, balancing their hard-bitten roles with a degree of vulnerability.
As Van Weyden, Knox is intelligent and quietly courageous and not
at all weak like the character in the novel. Dominating all of the
scenes, however, is Robinson as Wolf Larsen. There is always some
danger of Larsen's becoming a mere abstraction of evil, but Robinson
makes the character credible and human. This is particularly true
in the film, when the nearly insane and blind Larsen staggers around
the Ghost. Robinson fully realizes the tragic dimension of the role.
For all of the film's many contributions, it is Robinson's performance
that stays in the mind longest.
Release Date: 1941
Hal B. Wallis for Warner Bros.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cinematographer: Sol Polito
File Editor: George Amy
Art direction - Anton Grot
Special effects - Byron Haskin and Nathan Levinson
Music - Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Run Time: 100 minutes
Wolf Larsen - Edward G. Robinson
George Leach - John Garfield
Ruth Webster - Ida Lupino
Humphrey Van Weyden - Alexander Knox
Doctor Louie Prescott - Gene Lockhart
Cooky - Barry Fitzgerald
Johnson - Stanley Ridges
Svenson - Francis McDonald
Young Sailor - David Bruce
Harrison - Howard Da Silva
Crewman - Louis Mason
New York Times: March 26, 1941, p. 27
Newsweek: March 31, 1941, p. 66
Time: April 14, 1941, p. 93
Variety: March 26, 1941, p. 16
Named persons in Production Credits:
Hal B. Wallis
Studios named in Production Credits:
Black and White
Beginning in 1913, there have been seven screen versions to date of THE SEA WOLF, among which this 1941 production is universally considered to be the most memorable.
THE SEA WOLF., Magill's Survey of Cinema, 06-15-1995.