DVD: Sea Wife (1957)

November 25, 2014 | By


SeaWife1957_sFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label: Twentieth Century-Fox

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  July 10, 2007

Genre:  Drama / Romance / War

Synopsis: A nun struggles to remain faithful while stranded on an island with three men. Can she resist the tropical and sub-epidermal heat?

Special Features:  Extras: Audio Commentary by author and film historian Aubrey Solomon / Animated Photo Gallery / Restoration Comparison / Theatrical Trailer / Interactive Pressbook / Advertising Galler / Lobby Card Gallery / DVD Slipcase





Based on the novel Sea-Wyf by J.M. Scott, Sea Wife is a curious mélange of genres – WWII drama + survival tale + tropical island exotica + romance – that originally began as a Roberto Rossellini film until Fox had concerns about the script’s sexual content, and to appease censors, opted for a tamer script, causing Rossellini to exit and production manager Bob McNaught to take on the directorial chores.

McNaught had experience producing, and the film looks lovely – Ted Scaife’s cinematography is ravishing, exploiting the vistas and radiant sunsets of the tropical island location – but in downplaying the obvious tension between three men and a young nun, the story just meanders before its framing structure delivers a protracted twist that’s partly bittersweet, partly an appeasement to film censors preferring the preservation of righteous-minded characters over natural emotions.

The ‘twist’ finale may have been present in Scott’s novel (in the film it doesn’t feel contrived, but a little too convenient), but it’s also in tune with the mores preferred by the era’s censors, as was the case with John Huston’s somewhat similar nun-soldier non-romance in Heaven Knows, Mr, Allison, released the same year as Sea Wife.

The core story involves four characters – a racist businessman (Basil Sidney), a traveler (Richard Burton), a ship’s purser (Cy Grant), and a nun (Joan Collins) – who struggle to survive in a rubber boat after their ship is sunk by a Japanese torpedo during WWII. By the time the quartet land on a remote island, they’re already bickering about trust issues, making a plan to escape by raft worthwhile.

George Burke’s first and only poke and screenwriting retains the nicknames the characters gave themselves in the raft and continued to use after they returned to London – Sea Wife (Collins), Biscuit (Burton), Bulldog (Sidney), and Number Four (Grant) – and the only urgency in the film, beyond the survival scenes in the boat, lies in Biscuit’s attempts to find Sea Wife in London by repeatedly placing newspaper ads in the hope his mystery love will contact him. Only three of the four characters survive the ordeal, so there’s some mystery as to the degree of one character’s guilt and culpability in staging events that led to the other’s demise, but the sexual teasing in the lengthy flashback scenes are so neutral most of the time.

Number Four is the only man who knows Sea Wife is a nun, and yet that secret is never pushed far since Bulldog is old and therefore has no interest in women; and Number Four is respectful and black (any screen attraction to a white woman, even emotional, would’ve been taboo in 1957). Biscuit does reveal his feelings, but he too keeps an emotional and physical distance, which seems insane when the bulk of the story involves three men in a boat with a hot woman who’s often wet. It’s all very British… and one suspects Rossellini would’ve accentuated moments of longing with visuals that don’t recap the beauty of the tropical island, but exploit the obvious physical attraction among Biscuit and Number Four, with maybe some leering from Bulldog.

In any event, the politeness of the drama means Collins looks pretty; the men are gentlemen near and far; and Sea Wife’s spiritual purity remains staid due to regular prayer, and her unwavering commitment to ‘another man.’

At least Burton’s character remains frustrated in the bookending London scenes, but there’s one bonus to Biscuit being so respectful: besides one explosive Burtonian outburst, the actor gives a fairly quiet performance that expresses conflict through subtle gestures. More over, Burton never looks bored – a problem that occasionally popped up in his later work.

Sidney’s Bulldog doesn’t change his racist ways – years after the ordeal, he’s merely tempered his hatred because of age and a small germ of guilt – while Grant plays Number Four as a second class sailor and citizen who remains dignified, although his possessiveness with a newfound machete on the island is odd: it’s fuzzy as to whether his stance is due to mounting mistrust; savouring a sudden injection of power among the group; or the big knife is his sexual substitute for Sea Wife, whom he knows favours Biscuit.

Neither silly nor inept, Sea Wife is just tepid, but it’s a solid production with an energetic evacuation sequence, and lifeboat survival scenes that are reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock Lifeboat, the classic WWII drama which Fox released in 1944. Most of the rubber boat night shots look like they were shot in a tank (the painted backdrops just don’t work), and there are gaping continuities between distant and shore shots of the boat when it starts to approach the island.

Fox’ DVD is billed as having a commentary track by Aubrey Solomon, but it’s just a handful of fleeting observations, often running less than a few minutes, with little details of the film’s production. More like a distillation from rudimentary liner notes, the commentary is accessible only through selection from the Special Features menu, which even prompts one to skip ahead when Solomon stops talking. This is perhaps the second worst track on a Fox disc, after The Final Conflict (1983).

Allegedly released in 4-track Perspecta sourround sound, Fox’ DVD transfer contains both dry mono and phony stereo tracks, both of which are adequate, and composers Kenneth V. Jones and Leonard Salzedo managed to interpolate decent variations of the film’s truly terrible theme song.

The casting of Fox starlet Joan Collins works extremely well – she has genuine screen chemistry with Burton – but the latter’s involvement seems odd, as though Fox was sensing their Robe (1953) star was fading, so the next logic was to drop Burton into smaller B-level films, if not a British production to make use of locked-up sterling pounds. Collins had also co-starred in a Biblical-ish film – the beautifully garish Land of the Pharaohs (1955) – but she wasn’t gaining much ground at Fox, often being cast in small sexpot roles, with The Wayward Bus (1957) offering a rare dramatic turn.

Cy Grant’s performance is very natural, and it’s a shame he didn’t make many films in his career, whereas veteran character actor Basil Sydney co-starred with Collins in the tropical island potboiler Island in the Sun that same year (making one wonder if Fox scheduled the two tropical productions simultaneously).



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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