German naval officer Karl Ehrlich loves his country but hates Hitler. Busted to the command of a lowly freighter docked in Australia as World War II erupts, Ehrlich must choose: be interned by the British or sail to Germany so his men can determine their own fates. On a foggy night, Ehrlich decides – and casts off!
As I said with my review of Blood Alley, when you spot John Wayne you come to expect a certain set of characteristics from the man. The Duke never fails to play the strong-willed man that can't back down from a fight or a challenge. Given that he'd essentially played the same character for decades wither in the saddle or commanding a squadron of troops, you can forgive him for wanting to break out of the mold a little bit. Shot virtually simultaneously as Blood Alley, The Sea Chance once again features John Wayne in command of a ship with a beautiful blonde played by Lana Turner trying to escape to freedom. Only this time Wayne is playing a German tasked with getting his ship, crew, and a beautiful spy out of English controlled Australia when World War II breaks out. To say the least, Wayne may not have been the best choice but does his best.
Hitler has just declared war on England and plunged the world back into conflict. On the other side of the world in Australia, Captain Karl Erlich (John Wayne) and the crew of his freighter the Ergenstrasse have to hear the bad news over the radio. Erlich is no friend of Hitler and openly opposed his regime, that's why he's hauling freight in the Pacific. But he's also an honorable man and can't stand to see his vessel fall into the hands of the local English commander Jeff Napier (David Farrar). When Erlich makes secret preparations to sneak his vessel out into the open waters of the Pacific and back to Germany, his plans are complicated when he's ordered to ferry a beautiful spy named Elsa (Lana Turner) back to Germany. If Erlich hopes to make it home, he'll have to outwit the English Navy, deal with dwindling supplies, and an angry crew. ''
After watching two films back to back featuring John Wayne in command of a ship, it's easy to peg the man as a land animal. While Wayne delivers his usual assured performance, He's just not someone who should have spent much time on the water. Horseback or driving an army Jeep are more suitable modes of transportation for this man of action. Again, you can't fault the guy for wanting to try something different, but as a producer of the film, he probably should have stayed behind the camera rather than commanding nearly every scene in front of it.
This isn't to say that The Sea Chase is a bad film. Far from it actually. I found the film to be a terrific action and suspense thriller. The setups are simple, you know the stakes, you know what the captain and crew of the Ergenstrasse faces and you're fully on board with their mission. They're not soldiers. They're not fighting a war, but they're caught up in it just the same. Some may stand with Hitler, others may not, but they all agree that their ship is their home and it shouldn't be allowed to fall into enemy hands. It's an interesting vantage point to have to empathize with. They're not good or bad, they're just men caught in the middle of world politics in a way they never expected.
As great as The Sea Chase is on its own merits, the biggest distraction is actually the lead. It was a problem audiences had with the film in 1955 and it remains a glaring issue today - John Wayne simply doesn't play a convincing German. It's not that he has a bad fake accent or speaks in terrible broken German. It's that he doesn't even try to. If you walked into the film a few minutes late and missed the setup that Wayne's Karl Erlich was a German sea captain ostracized from his homeland because he didn't like Hitler, you would naturally just assume The Duke was his usual tough-as-nails red-blooded American. Everyone around him is playing things as German as they can get. Young Tab Hunter is doing his best to nail a thick as oil accent as does frequent Wayne pal Claude Akins who went so far as to dye his hair a very bright blonde. Realistically an actor like Curt Jurgens would have been far better suited for this part.
In spite of John Wayne standing out like a sore thumb, The Sea Chase is a solid action adventure flick. The supporting cast of Lana Turner, David Farrar, and Lyle Bettger as the backstabbing Chief Officer Kirchner are great and they do their best to hold up Wayne's end of the bargain. Director John Farrow may get a little preoccupied with the more soap opera romanticisms, but he does manage to maintain a building sense of suspense as the English close in on Erlich and the Ergenstrasse. All around it's a solid flick that never fails to entertain. Sure, it could have been better if a few creative decisions had been different, but as it stands it's a good ride and one worth taking.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Sea Chase arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Archive. Pressed onto a Region Free BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard Blu-ray case. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu featuring traditional navigation options.
While both The Sea Chase and Blood Alley were both shot in Cinemascope with Warnercolor by the same cinematographer William Clothier in 1955, The Sea Chase evidently was handled better in the intervening years as it's a vastly better-looking transfer. From a new 2K scan, this 2.55:1 1080p transfer sports terrific details, lively colors, and a great sense of depth. Film grain is intact and a bit lively but not too noisy giving rise to some great details for facial features, and the production design work for the Ergenstrasse. Colors aren't as sharp as Technicolor films of the era but are still very strong with some great primaries. Reds and blues are terrific and the lush jungle foliage looks great. Black levels don't suffer from any contrast issues and offer some deep inky blacks offering up a nice sense of depth. All around this is a pretty fantastic transfer.
Like Blood Alley, The Sea Chase was also recorded with a four-track stereo mix that has unfortunately been lost. However, this DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track is still very impressive. Dialogue exchanges are clean and clear throughout without any interference or distractions. When action sequences kick in or when the crew of the ship is clearing trees for fuel, there is a great amount of separation giving the mix a terrific sense of imaging and space. The Roy Webb score also punches things up a notch giving this adventure the rousing music it requires. Given the film's age and reception, this is a strong, problem-free audio mix that lives up to expectations.
Unfortunately, no real bonus features are available on this release. Considering this film was shot alongside Blood Alley, it's a shame that more material isn't available as the two films were made under similar circumstances at roughly the exact same time. Only a trailer is available for this film.
Theatrical Trailer (HD 3:29)
The Sea Chase may feature Wayne in over his head as a miscast German sea captain, but it's still a solid film. Not his best, but by no means is it his worst (that honor falls upon 1956's The Conqueror). Wayne may not be a believable German, but he plays his typical tough-guy with gusto and that should be enough to carry fans' interests. It's a solid action adventure flick and well worth the watch. Warner Archive brings the film to Blu-ray in fine order with a solid A/V presentation. Sadly no bonus features were made available for this release. Worth a look.