He was a skipper sworn never to be taken. She was the fuse on his floating time bomb.
John Wayne will, of course, always be remembered for his roles in numerous classic westerns. But during his career he also starred in a number of excellent World War II films. The Sea Chase is a more unconventional one, staying away from the conflict and the battlefields, instead focusing on one man not interested in fighting or glory, but in just getting home. Now, this tale of survival and courage has arrived on DVD courtesy of Warner Bros., separately or as part of the new John Wayne Legendary Heroes Collection box set.
At the dawn of World War II, Karl Ehrlich (John Wayne, Rio Bravo) is the captain of a German freighter, the Ergentrasse, stationed in Australia, far away from the troubles brewing in Europe. When Ehrlich’s friend, British Captain Napier (David Farrar, The 300 Spartans), announces that they’re now on opposite sides, the Ergentrasse is interned there in Sydney. In order to reunite his hard-working crew with their families back in Germany, Ehrlich decides to rally them and make a run for it.
If that weren’t enough for the gruff captain to worry about, there’s another complication thrown into the mix. Napier introduces Ehrlich to his fiancée, Elsa (Lana Turner, Peyton Place). But Ehrlich knows the truth—Elsa is really a German intelligence officer who romances important men to steal vital information from them. She, too, ends up a part of Ehrlich’s flight for home, butting heads with him and attracting attention from his crew along the way.
Now, Ehrlich must find a way to get to the other side of the world, with food and fuel running low, tension on board, and the entire British fleet in pursuit.
Although the packaging paints The Sea Chase as an action-packed thrill ride, it’s really more of a drama about survival at sea. Ehrlich has got to get his ship to the other side of the planet with only a few days’ worth of resources. It’s easy to get caught up in his struggle; he’s always thinking ahead, figuring out where to hide out and how to keep the boat running. As tensions arise among the crew, Wayne does his usual “don’t mess with me” act to prevent a near-mutiny. Although the final confrontation with the British is appropriately explosive, the real enemy faced by the Ergentrasse is the series of obstacles in its way.
Even during the long periods in which the ship is stationed at an uninhabited island, the conflicts and the interaction between the characters keep everything moving. But the tone of the movie changes about two-thirds of the way through the film, when Ehrlich reaches South America. After spending so much time with these characters, who sacrificed so much in order to stay afloat, suddenly they’re welcomed by the local government and are invited to stay in ritzy hotels. Although this allows Ehrlich to have another run-in with Napier, most of the tension in the story is lost.
The writers make it clear that the politics of WWII have little to do with the story. It’s clearly spelled out in the opening that Ehrlich doesn’t care about the war or why it’s being fought. He just wants to get home. That being said, John Wayne is to a German accent what Kevin Costner is to an English accent. It seems silly that we’re asked to accept Wayne, Turner, and the crew of American actors as “Germans.” As Napier, though, David Farrar is full-on English, and his accent and attitude really sparks during the narration scenes.
Even though he’s the least-German German of all time, Wayne nonetheless delivers a solid performance. Some have argued that he plays the same character in every movie—but if it works, it works. Here, Wayne plays Ehrlich as tired and world-weary; a man who’s devoted his life to the sea, with no family outside of his crew and his boat. It takes a headstrong personality to stand up to him, and fortunately Lana Turner proves herself up to the task. Elsa doesn’t put up with nonsense from anyone, and talks just as tough as any of the hardened sailors around her. The supporting cast is also good, including Paul Fix (Giant) as a former soldier turned cook, Lyle Bettger (The Lone Ranger) as a borderline psycho first officer, and James Arness (Gunsmoke) as a crewman frustrated to the point of near-mutiny.
Video quality is hit or miss, with generally bright, rich colors. But there is enough grain and specks to keep it from getting high marks. Audio fares very well. The dialogue and sound effects are clear, with the excellent music sounding terrific. The only extras are the original trailers for a few other John Wayne films.
It’s an intense survival drama with some nice character work. But it loses some of that intensity halfway through. And then there’s that whole “German” thing.