Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 1940. Argosy Pictures, Walter Wanger Productions. Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on four Sea Plays by Eugene O’Neill. Cinematography by Gregg Toland. Produced by John Ford. Music by Richard Hageman. Production Design by James Basevi. Film Editing by Sherman Todd. Academy Awards 1940.
Four nautically-themed plays by Eugene O’Neill are strung together for a haunting and dark experience directed with the expertise that film lovers have come to expect from John Ford. A crew of rowdy sailors, among them John Wayne doing a curious Swedish accent, set sail from South America, heading north before setting course for England through waters alive with the conflict of World War II. The experiences we witness, moving from one set piece to the next, include an on-board party with fruit vendors who have more than just bananas to sell in their baskets, the uncovering of a possible German spy on board, a dangerous storm, and a night at a bar that puts Wayne’s future return to his family at grave risk. The sequences on the water feel real, the moody photography is like something out of a nightmare, and the dramatic ending is a daring rarity for a major Hollywood film of its time. There are elements that feel like familiar studio silliness, particularly in the characterizations of the nationally-identified sailors, but one can feel Ford straining against the expectations of the classic structure of Hollywood films and, in only partially succeeding, he creates something unique and unforgettable. Reportedly this was O’Neill’s favourite adaptation of any of his works.