Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Sea Chase

Tonight's lineup on TCM is a night of movies made by Lana Turner in the 1950s. The night kicks off at 8:00 PM with the 1958 version of Imitation of Life, which of course I've blogged about before. I don't think I've ever even seen the second movie, The Rains of Ranchipur (at 10:15 PM), in its entirety. But it's a Cinemascope and Technicolor remake of The Rains Came, which was just on TCM last week. At any rate, the movie I'd like to mention today is up third tonight: The Sea Chase, at 12:15 AM.

Lana Turner is the female lead, but the star is John Wayne. He plays Karl Ehrlich, the captain of the Ergenstrasse, a German tramp steamer docked in Syndey in late August, 1939. That date is important: Nazi Germany attacked Poland on September 1, which lead the UK to declare war against Germany, with other Commonwealth countries, including Australia, not far behind. So, at the beginning of the movie we have a war which everybody knows is coming, but hasn't quite come yet. And Ehrlich knows that if the war does come, the Australians, including his friend Commander Napier (David Farrar), are going to take Ehrlich and his crew prisoner. So when word comes that Germany has attacked Poland and the declaration of war is imminent, Ehrlich has the Ergenstrasse leave Sydney under cover of darkness.

However, there are a whole bunch of complications. First of these is that the Ergenstrasse, having been forced into a hasty escape, doesn't have all that much fuel on board. Their itinerary called for them to go to Yokohoma, but the Allies know this, and there's no way the ship, lacking fuel and being slower than Allied war ships, could ever make Yokohoma. So they're going to have to change course. Second, Ehrlich isn't a Nazi. Indeed, the reason he's captaining a broken-down cargo ship like the Ergenstrasse is because of his less than absolute loyalty toards the Nazis. Still, like every ship, there's a Nazi intelligence officer aboard, Kirchner (played by Lyle Bettger). He's certain to cause problems for Captain Ehrlich.

The third problem is Lana Turner. Well, her character, Elsa Keller. At the beginning of the movie we see Napier coming on board the Ergenstrasse with Keller, who just happens to be Napier's fiancée as well. But she's more than just a bride-to-be. Ehrlich knows she's got a past that involves a bunch of men, and when Ehrlich is making those hasty plans for the Ergenstrasse to leave Sydney at night, the German Consul in Sydney brings Elsa to the ship, with plans for her to stay on board. Elsa, in fact, is a spy, who uses her good looks to get close to men and then get military secrets from them. She's a problem for Ehrlich partly because of her past, and partly because she's good-looking enough that she's going to arouse all of the men in the crew.

So there are a lot of problems for Captain Ehrlich. And he's trying to take the Ergenstrasse all the way across the Pacific to Valparaiso in neutral Chile, where the British won't be able to molest him or his crew. But of course, getting to Valparaiso isn't going to be very easy as there's a decided lack of supplies. Ehrlich knows of an island where ships are scuttled, which should in theory enable the Ergenstrasse to get some supplies of some sort. The problem is, there are a couple of British fishermen on the island, and Kirchner murders them. Napier and the Allies are never going to believe Ehrlich's claim that Kirchner did this of his own accord in violation of Ehrlich's orders, so Ehrlich knows the crew is now a bunch of outlaws who wouldn't be prisoners of war, but murderers. Still, the Ergenstrasse tries to make it to Valparaiso....

John Wayne is decidedly un-German. Lana Turner isn't much more believably German either. In fact, the only member of the Ergenstrasse crew who could passably pull off a German accent is John Qualen playing the ship's engineer. Still, this really isn't that much more egregious than many of the movies Hollywood was making 20 years earlier -- think Spencer Tracy playing a fisherman of Portuguese descent in Captains Courageous. The plot is fairly good, if a bit formulaic. Many of the difficulties you can imagine for an underdog ship like the Ergenstrasse and its crew do indeed take place in The Sea Chase, from crew members wondering whether they should trust their captain any longer to shark attacks. Unfortunately, the ending, which I won't give away, is something I found to be even more ludicrous than all these actors playing Germans. For the most part, though, The Sea Chase is solid entertainment that would have paid the bills for the actors making it, but probably nothing any of them would have looked back on as the high point of their careers.

The Sea Chase has received a DVD release courtesy of the Warner Archive.

No comments: