A typical Italian poster for the film, featuring the 23 year-old Lupino as a ‘pin-up’ rather than a serious actor

The Sea Wolf is the third of Ida Lupino’s starring roles at Warner Bros. in the first period of her seven year contract. After two pictures with Humphrey Bogart, They Drive By Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941) at a time when Bogart was still struggling to be accepted as an A List star at Warner Bros., Lupino now found herself up against an undisputed A List star in the form of Edward G. Robinson. In High Sierra she had topped the bill, even though her part was relatively small and the film belongs to Bogart. Here she is second-billed but part of an ensemble taking on Robinson as Jack London’s monstrous sea captain ‘Wolf Larsen’. It’s a high calibre ensemble and Lupino got to work with John Garfield who would become a close friend. Lupino’s high billing was a Warner Bros. promotional device because she was at the time deemed “one of Hollywood’s hottest stars” for her performance in They Drive By Night. In terms of importance in the narrative Alexander Knox should have appeared on the billing, but it was his first film.

George Leach (John Garfield) and Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino)

Much as in High Sierra, Lupino is on screen for less of the time than the male leads, Robinson or Garfield. She might simply be part of Warner’s front office attempt to add a woman to the cast in order to keep the female audience happy, but she’s far too good an actor to be used this way and she makes the most of all her time in front of the camera. On the other hand, she isn’t allowed to actually do anything. Rather she serves to motivate the men in some way. London’s novel first appeared in 1904 and this was the fifth of several film and later TV adaptations. It was a Warner Bros. prestige picture with a strong cast and crew and all the expense of a sea-going adventure in Warners’ giant tank with special effects work by Byron Haskin (photography) and Nathan Levinson (sound), who jointly received the only Oscar nomination for the film. Michael Curtiz, arguably the most valuable director at the studio, knew all about the tank in which he’d made The Sea Hawk with Errol Flynn a year earlier. Sol Polito was the principal cinematographer who is said to have devised a gyroscopic device for his camera that would give the represent sensation of a ship at sea. The music score was by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and art direction by Anton Grot, whose foggy San Francisco streets of 1900 launch the narrative in fine style. The adaptation of London’s bestseller (the subject of a promotional short film included on the Blu-ray for The Sea Wolf) was by Robert Rossen. Along with John Garfield and Alexander Knox, Rossen was one of the people on the production who suffered blacklisting or severe pressure from HUAC because of their left-wing views in the late 1940s. Rossen was able to return with an Oscar nomination for writing and directing The Hustler in 1961. Ida Lupino was careful to avoid direct conflict with HUAC but she supported her friends on the left whenever possible.

Captain Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) and ‘Cooky’ (Barry Fitzgerald)

Plot outline

George Leach (John Garfield) is a fugitive in San Francisco in 1900 who accepts the dubious privilege of being accepted as a crew member of The Ghost, the schooner captained by Wolf Larsen, rather than be re-captured by the police. Ruth Brewster (Ida Lupino) is an escaped convict in danger of being apprehended while on a ferry in ‘Frisco Bay. She has tried to deny her identity by persuading a writer, Humphrey Van Weyden (Alexander Knox) to cover for her when the ferry collides with a large steamer in the fog and sinks. The couple are eventually rescued by The Ghost, only to discover they have escaped death but now face the living hell that is life under Captain Larsen.

Larsen is described by one of the crew as a ‘scavenger’, the lowest form of pirate, stealing cargo from other ships. He doesn’t intend to put in at any other ports until he returns to San Francisco, so Leach and Brewster fear that they have not escaped at all. Many of the crew are ‘pressed men’ who loathe their captain. The chances of a mutiny seem high, but Larsen has some support including that of the cook (Barry Fitzgerald). Will a mutiny succeed? What kind of demons force an intelligent man like Larsen to behave as he does?


I think that this film is powered mainly by its excellent cast, Jack London’s imagination and the strong technical credits. Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review argued that films shot in a tank can never properly represent the open sea, but apart from a couple of long shots in daylight, I thought the tank work was quite convincing. I guess in hindsight that I don’t expect realism and I’m happier to view the action as happening in an expressionist film. Most of the action tends to be in the gloom or the fog. again, another reviewer suggests that the film is presented like ‘German Expressionism’. I wouldn’t go that far but I did think about a comparison between this film and John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (US 1940), which was photographed by Gregg Toland in an almost exaggerated style that would later suggest film noir.

Dr. Prescott (Gene Lockhart) sober and well-dressed with Humphrey Weyden (Alexander Knox) and Larsen

As for the performances, has Edward G. Robinson ever been anything other than mesmerising on screen? John Garfield is also magnificent and the scenes between him and Lupino are intense. The surprise for me was Alexander Knox who plays Van Weyden. I understand this was his first film after a successful stage career. Knox was Canadian and had moved to England where he built a career on the London stage with roles at the Old Vic. His role in the narrative is to be the writer (and surrogate for Jack London) who eventually gets close to Larsen and becomes almost like his therapist, teasing out what has caused his psychosis. The other two named performances are by Gene Lockhart and Barry Fitzgerald. Lockhart plays the drunken doctor on board The Ghost. Inevitably, he has to sober up to perform a life-saving medical procedure, but once sober he finds it difficult to comply with Larsen’s behaviour, unlike ‘Cooky’ (Barry Fitzgerald) who is as unscrupulous as Larsen himself. Fitzgerald played a not totally dissimilar role in The Long Voyage Home.

Ruth and George. Can they escape together?

What I wasn’t aware of was that scriptwriter Rossen intended the film to be an anti-Nazi allegory with Larsen presented as the kind of Nietzschean figure who is proto-fascist. I’m indebted to Laura Boyes and her blog at ‘Movie Diva’ for her discussion of this aspect of The Sea Wolf. Wikipedia suggests that Lupino was keen for Rossen to extend this aspect of the script – and I suspect she was supported by Garfield. But Warner Bros. constrained Rossen. Even so, it is easy to see Larsen as this kind of character. As I understand the adaptation, Rossen did change a few things around and in particular Lupino’s role. It is implied that Ruth is a actually a prostitute as this couldn’t be stated explicitly under Production Code rules. But this is a negative step – in London’s original novel she is a writer like Van Weyden. That would have transformed the role and given Lupino new ideas to work with. Rossen also developed the part of Leach and changed the potential romance of the novel to work between Ruth and Leach rather than Van Weyden. But though Rossen did change details in the story, he retained the philosophical debate between Van Weyden and Larsen – and the former’s psychological reading of the latter.

It should be pointed out that the film was released in the US well before Pearl Harbour, in March 1941. A year later and Jack Warner’s view on an anti-Nazi line might have changed. As it was, Lupino was still a UK citizen concerned about the welfare of her father in London. I’ve tried to find out when the film appeared in the UK and it looks like late January 1942 when it opened at the Warner in the West End. Because of the delays in getting films from Hollywood into the UK, Lupino’s pics were often six months to a year behind in the UK. Ironically, the British Newspaper Archive found the film for me, ariving in Lahore, British India, in late 1941 before its UK rollout.

I watched the Warner Bros. Blu-ray of the restored print of The Sea Wolf and a fine print it is. Some 14 minutes were cut from the original nitrate print when the film was re-released in 1947. These have now been restored and the new 100 minute restored print is on the Blu-ray (and DVD, I think).