The Sea Chase
The Sea Chase is a 1955 World War II drama film starring John Wayne and Lana Turner, and featuring David Farrar, Lyle Bettger, and Tab Hunter. It was directed by John Farrow from a screenplay by James Warner Bellah and John Twist based on the novel of the same name by Andrew Geer. The plot is a nautical cat and mouse game, with Wayne determined to get his German freighter home during the first few months of the war, all the while being chased by British and Australian naval ships.
|The Sea Chase|
|Directed by||John Farrow|
|Produced by||John Farrow|
|Screenplay by||James Warner Bellah|
Frank S. Nugent (uncredited)
|Based on||The Sea Chase|
by Andrew Geer
|Narrated by||David Farrar|
|Music by||Roy Webb|
|Edited by||William H. Ziegler|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Box office||$6 million (US)|
Captain Karl Ehrlich (John Wayne) is the master of the elderly German steam freighter Ergenstrasse, docked at Sydney, Australia, on the eve of the Second World War. Ehrlich is a former career naval officer who lost his rank and position after refusing to support the current Nazi regime. As his ship prepares for sea (to avoid being interned if war is declared), he meets with an old friend, British Commander Jeff Napier (David Farrar), and Napier's German fiancée Elsa Keller (Lana Turner). Ehrlich knows Elsa has a dubious past and tries to break them up.
Germany has invaded Poland, and war is imminent. As his ship prepares to slip away, Ehrlich receives a visit from the German Consul-General, who asks him to take aboard a spy who is facing capture. It is only after the Ergenstrasse slips out of harbour in thick fog that Ehrlich discovers the spy is in fact Elsa, who seduced Napier for the information she could learn. She is cynically dismissive of Ehrlich's old-fashioned personal integrity. Ehrlich's chief officer, the pro-Nazi Kirchner (Lyle Bettger), who is also with German intelligence, soon makes a pass at Elsa, but she tells him to be patient.
Old, slow and short on coal, the Ergenstrasse is seen as easy prey by the Australian Navy and by Napier in particular, who understandably holds a grudge. But Napier is the only man who does not underestimate Ehrlich. The wily captain leads his enemies on a chase across the Pacific Ocean, beginning with a run to the south to throw off pursuit, and pausing for supplies at an unmanned rescue station on Auckland Island. Three fishermen are already marooned there; Kirchner casually murders them, but tells no one. Napier later discovers the bodies and believes his old friend is responsible. He vows to bring the German to justice as a war criminal.
Ehrlich sets course for a remote, uninhabited mid-Pacific island, Pom Pom Galli in the Tuamotus. Running out of coal, he begins burning wood from the ship for fuel, upsetting the crew when he orders the lifeboats burned. A potential mutiny is averted when they reach the island. There, Ehrlich drives the crew to cut trees for fuel, but impresses Elsa on several occasions by showing a humane side. Discovering that Kirchner murdered the fishermen, Ehrlich forces him to sign a true account of his actions in the ship's log.
Meanwhile, Napier convinces the Rockhampton's captain that his old friend will make for Pom Pom Galli, which he spoke of visiting before. They arrive just too late to catch him, first at Pom Pom Galli and then en route to Valparaíso in neutral Chile, where Napier cannot attack. While in port, Napier confronts Ehrlich about the murders; Ehrlich says that if they catch the Ergenstrasse they can read the truth in his log. Meanwhile Elsa learns the truth herself, dumps Kirchner, and declares her love for Ehrlich.
Luck is with the Ergenstrasse when the Rockhampton is called away to support the cruisers facing the German pocket battleship Graf Spee in Montevideo, Uruguay. Napier requests a transfer to the British Naval patrols in the North Sea, believing that Ehrlich must pass through the patrols in his attempt to reach Kiel, and flies to England as the Ergenstrasse departs for Germany.
For political reasons, German radio broadcasts a message through Lord Haw-Haw that discloses the position of the Ergenstrasse as it passes Norway, thus giving up the ship and crew to the Royal Navy and to the waiting Napier, now commanding a corvette. Napier tracks down Ehrlich's ship and sinks it in the North Sea; only Ehrlich, Elsa, and an unwilling Kirchner remain aboard for the short, one-sided battle. It is left unclear whether they die, but the other crewmen hand over the ship's log to Napier, proving that Kirchner committed the murders alone.
Warner Bros bought the film rights to the novel, which was published in 1948, and John Wayne was announced for the lead in June 1951, with Bolton Mallory reported to be working on the script. Soon after, James Warner Bellah was announced as working on the script.
Production of the film was delayed for a while. In August 1953 John Farrow, who had made Hondo with Wayne, signed as director. Frank Nugent rewrote the script. Filming finally began in September 1954. MGM loaned Lana Turner to the production for this film.
John Wayne later said Farrow "didn't really have a great deal to do with" Hondo because it was a Batjac production and "Everything was set up before he came on it. But he did direct Sea Chase and prove to me that he should not be put in charge of a producer-director position. He failed to tell the good story that was in the book. But now, we're talking about a matter of opinion and that's only my opinion. For some, he may be considered a fine director."
John Wayne came down with ear infections twice during the shooting of the film, and two other actors received infections due to skin diving.
The song that Lana Turner sings is "Steh' Ich im Finster Mitternacht", which is also known as "Treue Liebe". The German song had English lyrics written specifically for the film.
The fictional HMAS Rockhampton is played by HMCS New Glasgow, a River-class frigate built in Canada as a wartime emergency anti-submarine escort. She was placed in reserve in 1945, but in 1954 had recently been updated and recommissioned as a Prestonian-class frigate. This class has a classic wartime outline, similar to the Black Swan and Grimsby class sloops operated by the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Navy in 1939 including HMS Morecambe Bay and Wellington, which served in the Pacific, and is now a museum ship on the River Thames in London.
The script was adapted from a novel of the same name by Andrew Geer, which in turn was based on an incident involving the 1929-built German Norddeutscher Lloyd steamer Erlangen (6,100 tons). Under the captaincy of Alfred Grams, the freighter slipped out of Otago Harbour, New Zealand, on 28 August 1939, on the very eve of war, ostensibly for Port Kembla, New South Wales, where she was to have filled her coal bunkers for the homeward passage to Europe.
She then headed for the subantarctic Auckland Islands, where she successfully evaded the cruiser HMNZS Leander and re-stocked with food and wood, cutting down large swathes of the Southern Rata forest. The freighter then made a desperate and successful escape—using jerry-rigged sails—to Ancud in southern Chile. She subsequently made her way into the South Atlantic, where she was intercepted off Montevideo on 24 July 1941 by HMS Newcastle, and scuttled by her crew.
Though using the same basic plot as the film, the book painted Kirchner as the hero and Ehrlich as the villain, essentially swapping their roles; the book portrays Kirchner and Keller as unintended victims of Erlich's obsession, though in both stories, the key characters all appear to go down with the ship at the climax.
A Bathurst-class corvette named HMAS Rockhampton was built by Walkers Limited in Queensland in 1942 for the Royal Australian Navy. She operated in Australian and New Guinea waters during the later years of the Second World War, three years after the events depicted in the film.
- The Sea Chase at the American Film Institute Catalog
- 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1955', Variety Weekly, January 25, 1956
- This fictitious island is also mentioned in the film La Classe américaine (1993).
- "She's been off the screen, but now. HEPBURN IS BACK". The Argus. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. 30 July 1955. p. 43. Retrieved 6 April 2012.
- C. B. P. (November 28, 1948) The Sea Chase The New York Times p.BR30
- Hopper, Hedda (July 13, 1951) "Looking at Hollywood: John Wayne Gets Top Role in 'The Sea Chase' at Warners" Chicago Daily Tribune p.A6
- Pryor, Thomas M. (September 15, 1951) "Roy Rogers Tests TV Deal for Film: Suit in Los Angeles Court May Decide Issue of Sale of Movies for Use on Television Metro Plans Documentary" The New York Times p.B7
- Hopper, Hedda (August 25, 1953) "Farrow Will Direct Wayne in 'Sea Chase'" Los Angeles Times p.A6
- Pryor, Thomas M. (July 10, 1954) "Robbins is Sued on Ballet Rights: Associates in 'High Button Shoes' Assert His Claim to Ownership Delays Film" The New York Times p.7
- McInerney, Joe (September–October 1972). "John Wayne Talks Tough: An interview by Joe McInerney". Film Comment. pp. 52–55.