In Honor Of The 75th Anniversary Of The Film “Casablanca”-Humphrey Bogart’s Action In The North Atlantic
From The Pen Of Frank Jackman
Action In The North Atlantic, starring Humphrey Bogart, Raymond Massey, screenplay by John Howard Lawson, 1943
No question sailors, guys who are sworn lovers of the sea even if they born in wheat fields, who find landlubbers and stability tough to take are a different breed, especially the guys who served in the merchant marines the subject of the film under review, Humphrey Bogart’s Action In The North Atlantic. No question these were tough guys especially in the old days when they had a girl in every port, maybe two if they were adventuresome, drank their hard paid wages off in waterfront saloons mixing it up with other sailors, or girls whatever came first and put the fear into even tough old swabbies, navy guys who were no slouches if it came right down to it. Civilians, smart civilians, stayed away from that waterfront or places like Scollay Square in Boston when the ships were in.
Well some much for the tough guy stuff because this film, a pretty straight forward pro-Allied forces World War II war propaganda film, also showed two other sides of these tough guys. One was their sticking together when times got tough out in the rough seas Atlantic when a big gale could sent a ship down with the fishes and each man needed to be able to depend on the prowess of the others when Mother Nature turned nasty. Also especially during wartime where in addition to the rough seas the Germans were wolf -packing submarines to pick off isolated merchant ships plying the waters to Europe with supplies. That sticking together included their adherence to the National Maritime Union (NMU) and the union hiring hall which was won in hard fought battles against the shipping bosses. A good example of that hiring hall in action is shown in the film as guys lined up to get work on the next ships coming in. The other aspect shows their serious patriotism for their country and its allies in getting the needed supplies to Europe which is the heart of this film.
The action here is pretty straight forward as you would expect, no frills, with the first part of the film showing how vulnerable isolated basically unarmed merchant ships were in the North Atlantic when the U-boats picked up the scent. Joe (the first officer of the ship played by a grim and determined Humphrey Bogart) and his ship’s captain (played by a grim and determined Robert Massey in an old puritan way evoking a gentler Captain Ahab) show their metal after they are hit by an enemy torpedo and have to abandon ship only to be rammed in their lifeboat by the U-boat and left on a raft for many days before they are rescued.
Now most civilians, landlubbers, would consider that enough adventure for a life-time and pass on going out to sea again for the duration but not old tars like Joe, the Captain, and the surviving crew. After a short time on shore they are off again on a new ship, a Liberty ship freshly built which made their old sunken tub seem like a clipper ship or something. (Although the film puts the Liberty ships in their best light their record was very uneven since they were built very quickly, one a day from what I heard later when someone from the Fore River Shipyard near where I grew up, and were unreliable overall many going down as a result of poor workmanship.) But this run was to be different a run in a convoy escorted by naval war ships to, well, Murmansk in the Soviet Union, an ally then facing the brunt of the German land and air assaults and in need of supplies, and hence the title of this review.
Of course captains of German U-boats running in wolf packs were licking their lips over this development since it would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Or so they thought. The captain and Joe’s Liberty ship drifted from the convoy and they seemed to be dead in the water against a U-boat that was tracking them for the kill. Needless to say despite being down for the count they made that U-boat sink like a stone after ramming it. And so bedraggled the ship got to Murmansk and the much needed supplies get delivered. A job well done and thanks.
A note: The NMU in the World War II period was filled with Communist Party supporters who volunteered for the dangerous Murmansk run as did supporters of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party both groups acting in practical support of their defense of the Soviet Union positions. The screenwriter of the film, John Howard Lawson, after World War II when the red scare Cold War descended on the world and the previous ally, the Soviet Union, became the new main enemy was part of the Hollywood Ten who were blacklisted and jailed for their support to the American Communist Party. Such are world politics.