The Sea Shall Not Have Them/Albert R.N. (Kino Lorber, NR)

Usually war movies are all about action, but Lewis Gilbert takes the opposite approach in The Sea Shall Not Have Them. Lewis places his central focus on four characters who spend most of the film drifting across the North Atlantic in a dinghy, where they suffer from exposure to the cold and wet while being unable to do much to help themselves. It’s 1944 and the North Sea is a battleground, but they must express their strength through endurance and constancy rather than heroic action. It’s a more realistic approach to war than is usually seen in the movies, with most of the shooting and such confined to the last 15 minutes, but the unusual pacing didn’t put off the British audiences who flocked to see it in 1953.

If The Sea Shall Not Have Them is short on action, it’s long on acting talent, stiff upper lips, and servicemen banter. The screenplay by Gilbert and Vernon Harris, based on a bestselling novel by John Harris, follows the attempt to rescue a British plane crew who had to ditch it and hope for the best. One crew member (Flying Officer Harding, played by Jack Watling) is badly injured, creating the opportunity for the others to display selfless behavior. Another (Air Commodore Waltby, played by Michael Redgrave) is carrying a brief case containing vital wartime secrets (he won’t say what’s in it, but tells the others that if they are rescued by an enemy vessel, they must toss it overboard). Also on board are Sergeant Kirby (played by the always reliable Bonar Colleano) to embody the spirit of the working-class Brit, and Flight Sergeant Mackay (Dirk Bogarde) to round out the crew.

While Redgrave and company are drifting in their dinghy, a rescue mission led by Flying Officer Treherne (Anthony Steel) and Flight Sergeant Singsby (Nigel Patrick) is underway. The rescue crew doesn’t have much to go on besides the approximate location where the crew ditched their aircraft, and the longer the rescue takes, the more time the dinghy has to drift away from there. Various things happen along the way—mechanical trouble, a fire on shipboard, the rescue of a German pilot, clashes between an inexperienced crew member and a crusty old salt—but film’s real interest is not so much in the plot as in how perfectly the cast members embody the character types expected in a British war movie of the period.

The Sea Shall Not Have Them holds up pretty well today if you take it as a cultural object expressing the interests of a particular population at a particular time, and also as an interesting contract to the more spectacular Hollywood war movies of the period. I suspect Lewis was working with a relatively low budget, but he certainly had a cast to die for, with even small roles played by the likes of Sydney Tafler, Griffith Jones, Victor Maddern, Joan Sims, and Ian Whittaker (the latter is best known today as an Oscar-winning set designer).

Albert, R.N., also known as Break to Freedom, is another Lewis war film released in 1953. This one is based on a play by Guy Morgan and Edward Sammis, has a similarly starry cast to The Sea Shall Not Have Them, and has the additional hook of being based on events that actually happened in Marlag O, a POW camp for Allied naval officers near Bremen. According to the Camp Kommandant (Frederic Valk), everyone in his camp is content and has no desire to escape, and it does seem an unusually cushy place, with a bunk room no more crowded than the average youth hostel (no horse stalls for these prisoners), access to musical instruments and a record player, plenty of cigarettes, and a theater program. Who knows, maybe Marlag O was the Theresienstadt of POW camps, or maybe this film is a precursor to Hogan’s Heroes.

No matter what the Kommandant says, the Allied prisoners keep trying to escape, but prior attempts to tunnel their way out have all ended in failure. New arrival Lieutenant Geoffrey Ainsworth (Anthony Steel; the character was based on the artist John Worsley) has an idea involving less manual labor and more cleverness: create a realistic dummy to stand in for one of them. Since they are allowed to shower in a bathhouse outside the camp’s perimeter, they can carry the dummy in pieces on the way out, then assemble it for the return journey while one of their number stays behind. Since they march three abreast, with locked arms, to and from the bathouse, it’s no problem to put the dummy in a middle position and make the head count come out right.

The escape attempts keep the plot moving forward, but the real interest in Albert R.N. is the interactions among the men. All the types you would expect to find are here, from the brash Texan (William Sylvester) that insists on doing things his own way to the wise old officer (Jack Warner) who really understands the men and tries to keep the peace among them. Only two German guards are really defined as characters, with the ruthless Hauptmann Schultz (Anton Diffring**) contrasting with Valk’s more genial Kommandant. They’re both written in broad strokes and are easily outwitted by the prisoners, however, which only adds to my suspicion that this movie provided inspiration for Hogan’s Heroes. | Sarah Boslaugh

*The title is the motto of the RAF Air Sea Rescue Service. It also gave rise to a memorable quip by Noel Coward: “I don’t see why not. Everyone else has” which makes more sense if you realize that Dirk Bogarde was gay (as was Coward) and Michael Redgrave was bisexual.

** Somewhat ironically, Diffring was Jewish and fled Germany in 1939, yet made his career playing Nazis, usually of the nasty variety, in English-language films.

The Sea Shall Not Have Them and Albert R.N. are distributed are distributed on Blu-ray (two movies on one disc) by Kino Lorber. The only extra on the disc is the trailer for Albert R.N.

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