Action in the North Atlantic

Action in the North Atlantic (also known as Heroes Without Uniforms) is a 1943 American black-and-white war film from Warner Bros. Pictures, produced by Jerry Wald, directed by Lloyd Bacon, that stars Humphrey Bogart and Raymond Massey as sailors in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II.[1] Typical of other films in the era, Action in the North Atlantic was created as a morale boosting film during this world war and a film that told the story of unsung heroes.[5] As noted by film critic Bosley Crowther, "... it's a good thing to have a picture which waves the flag for the merchant marine. Those boys are going through hell-and-high-water, as 'Action in the North Atlantic' shows."[6]

Action in the North Atlantic
Action in the North Atlantic - 1943 - poster.png
Theatrical release half-sheet display poster
Directed by
Produced byJerry Wald[1]
Written by
Music by
  • Adolph Deutsch
  • George Lipschultz (uncredited)
CinematographyTed D. McCord
Edited byGeorge Amy
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Distributed byWarner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • May 21, 1943 (1943-05-21)
Running time
127 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$3,460,000[2][3][4]


An American oil tanker, the SS Northern Star, captained by Capt. Steve Jarvis, is sunk in the North Atlantic Ocean by U-37, a German U-boat. Along with the First Officer, his friend Joe Rossi, they make it to a lifeboat loaded with other crewmen. When the U-Boat crew starts filming their plight, they respond with defiant gestures, and their lifeboat is rammed by the sub. The survivors swim to a raft and are finally rescued after 11 days adrift.

During their brief liberty, Steve spends time with his wife Sarah, while Joe meets and marries singer Pearl O'Neill. At the union hall, merchant seamen, including the Northern Star survivors, spend their time waiting to be assigned to a new ship.

Over a round of poker, Johnnie Pulaski jokes about getting a shore job. When pressed by other seaman, Pulaski reveals his fear of dying at sea. The others shame him into signing along with them on another ship.

Another sailor, Alfred "Boats" O'Hara, is tracked down by his wife, who has apparently not seen him since he was rescued. She angrily serves him with a divorce summons. O'Hara, knowing he is headed back to sea, gleefully tears it up, saying "Them 'Liberty boats' are sure well named".

Then it is back to sea aboard one of the new Liberty ships, SS Seawitch, on a convoy carrying vital war supplies to the Soviet port of Murmansk. This transport ship is armed with a 5-inch gun and anti-aircraft guns, and a Navy Armed Guard force joins Seawitch to operate them. Upon seeing the Navy sailors, the Seawitch crew show their immaturity but soon warm to their military comrades. The Navy personnel also instruct some of the crew in ground-to-air gunnery, to replace them in case they ever become casualties.

In Halifax the captains are instructed on how to sail in the convoy. En route, Convoy 211 is attacked by a wolfpack of German U-Boats. There are losses on both sides, and the convoy commander is forced to order his ships to temporarily scatter, to re-form at a preset rendezvous point.

A persistent U-Boat chasing Seawitch means she must stay away from the convoy when it re-forms. The submarine cannot get close by daylight because of the ship's 5-inch guns, and during the night Seawitch eludes the U-boat by shutting down her power plant to prevent detection by the sub's sonar.

Nearing land, the sub contacts the Luftwaffe, and the next day a pair of Heinkel He 59 seaplanes find Seawitch and attack with machine guns and bombs. Both aircraft are shot down, with one crashing into the Liberty ship's bow. Several seamen are killed and Captain Jarvis is wounded; Joe Rossi takes command. Then the U-Boat returns and torpedoes Seawitch. Rossi orders the crew to set deck fires and make smoke from the stack so it appears as if they are sinking. When the submarine surfaces to finish the job, Seawitch sails through its smoke screen and rams the U-Boat, sinking it.

As they get nearer to shore, a flight of Russian fighter aircraft appears and escorts Seawitch, with its valuable cargo intact, into Murmansk to a warm Russian welcome.


Uncredited roles


Warner Brothers' working title for the film was Heroes Without Uniforms, intended to be a two-reel documentary about the Merchant Marine. As the war continued, much combat action footage became available and the project was changed to a feature film with Edward G. Robinson and George Raft initially cast in the starring roles. Technical adviser Richard Sullivan was a 23-year-old Merchant Marine cadet who survived the sinking of his ship by a U-boat.[7]

Eventually Robinson had to drop out to do Destroyer at Columbia and was replaced by Raymond Massey. Raft was put into Background to Danger and was replaced by Humphrey Bogart.[8]

Because war restrictions did not permit filming at sea, the film was shot entirely on Warner Brothers studio sound stages and back lots. According to Bill Collins Presents the Golden Years of Hollywood, the ships sets were built in halves on two sound stages, with the tanker sinking sequence shot first on the studio's "Stage Nine".[9]

Director Lloyd Bacon's contract with Warner Brothers expired during production. Jack L. Warner wanted to wait until the film was finished before entering discussions about a new contract, but Bacon was not willing to continue without one. Warner fired him and brought in Byron Haskin to complete filming, which ran 45 days over schedule.[10]

Action in the North Atlantic has a famous back-story; watching their stunt men performing a dive off a burning ship, Bogie and Massey, both somewhat intoxicated (being 'off-duty'), started making bets on which stunt man was braver. One thing led to another, and eventually the stars themselves made the dive.

Authentic models of German and Soviet aircraft were used in the film, and all dialogue involving non-Americans was in the native tongue of the speaker, without subtitles, both rarities in films of this era.

The journalist Helen Lawrenson was paid compensation by Warners because dialogue was plagiarised from articles which she wrote about the U.S Merchant Marines ("Damn the Torpedoes", Harpers July 1942 and "They Keep 'Em Sailing", Colliers 8 August 1942).[11]


When Action in the North Atlantic was premiered in New York City, more than a dozen merchant mariners and several hundred U.S. sailors presented Jack Warner with the Merchant Marine Victory Flag. Henry J. Kaiser, the ship-building magnate, thought the film was such a morale booster that he wanted it shown to all his employees.[9]

According to a news item in The Hollywood Reporter on June 24, 1943, copies of Action in the North Atlantic were provided to the Merchant Marine schools for use in training when the War Shipping Administration judged that technical and educational material in the film would "aid considerably the training program". The studio donated three prints for official use at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, at cadet basic schools in San Mateo, California, and Pass Christian, Mississippi.[7]

Film critic Bosley Crowther reviewed the film for The New York Times, stating, "... tingling, informative picture which thoroughly lives up to its tag of "Action in the North Atlantic' ... some excellent performances help to hold the film together all the way. Raymond Massey and Humphrey Bogart are good and tough as the captain and first mate ..."[6]

in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on May 15, 1944, Raymond Massey and Julie Bishop reprised their roles while George Raft co-starred, replacing Bogart.[7]

Box officeEdit

According to Warner Bros records the film earned $2,144,000 domestically and $1,316,000 foreign.[2]


Action in the North Atlantic received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing (Best Original Story) for Guy Gilpatric.[12]



  1. ^ a b Walker 1994, p. 7.
  2. ^ a b c Warner Bros financial information in The William Shaefer Ledger. See Appendix 1, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (1995) 15:sup1, 1-31 p 23 DOI: 10.1080/01439689508604551
  3. ^ Schatz 1999, p. 218.
  4. ^ "Top grossers of the season." Variety, January 5, 1944, p. 54
  5. ^ Higham and Greenberg 1968, p. 96.
  6. ^ a b Crowther, Bosley. "Movie review: The screen; 'Action in the North Atlantic,' thrilling film of Merchant Marine, starring Humphrey Bogart, opens at the Strand." The New York Times, May 22, 1943.
  7. ^ a b c "Notes: 'Action in the North Atlantic'." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  8. ^ SCREEN NEWS HERE AND IN HOLLYWOOD New York Times ]11 Aug 1942: 15.
  9. ^ a b McGee, Scott. "Articles: 'Action in the North Atlantic'." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  10. ^ "Trivia: 'Action in the North Atlantic'." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  11. ^ Helen Lawrenson, Stranger at the Party, 1975, pp.228-229
  12. ^ "The 16th Academy Awards, 1944." Archived 2015-07-15 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved: July 3, 2016.


  • Higham, Charles and Joel Greenberg, Hollywood in the Forties. London: A. Zwemmer Limited, 1968. ISBN 978-0-498-06928-4.
  • Morella, Edward and Edward Z. Epstein and John Griggs. The Films of World War II. Secaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press, 1973. ISBN 0-8065-0365-3.
  • Schatz, Thomas. Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0-5202-2130-7.
  • Walker, John ed. Halliwell's Film Guide (10th edition). New York: Harper Collins, 1994. ISBN 978-0-0025-5349-0.

External linksEdit