The first time we see the Ghost, the sailing ship where most of Michael Curtiz’s 1941 screen version of the Jack London turn of the century novel “The Sea Wolf” is set, emerging from the fog, just off the coast of California, it sure likes a ghost ship. It is not, of course, because this is not a supernatural story. No, the Ghost is a ghost ship in so much as it follows no traditional shipping lanes and stops at no ports. This might elicit the question as to exactly how the ship’s captain and crew turn a profit to keep their vessel going, and there is some goo goo gah gah about hunting seals, but we never see any seals hunted and besides, that is neither here nor there. No, the Ghost and its cold-hearted, crazed captain Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) made me think of Matthew Broderick saying how his bank manager in “You Can Count On Me” (2000) fancied himself the dictator of his itty bitty little regional bank. Captain Larsen has essentially turned the Ghost into his own little nation, bound only to “the laws of the sea”, laws that he seems to have re-drafted to fit his own authoritarian urges and psychotic amusement.
“The Sea Wolf” opens with a few new Ghost crewmembers being recruited, both willingly and unwillingly, to accidentally get mired in this sea-faring dictatorship. Wanted man George Leach (John Garfield) boards willingly while an escaped con, Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino), and a writer, Humphrey van Weyden (Alexander Knox), wind up aboard when they are rescued from the water after their ferry has sunk. In no time these three find themselves trapped under the scurrilous clutches of Larsen who stalks the decks like a well-composted lunatic. You might wonder why these men would sail for such a vile man who clearly has no interest in anything other than playing mind games, but it is made readily apparent that he maintains control, and finds his own glee, by feeding their hate.
Take the ship’s doctor Louis Prescott (Gene Lockhart). He has a spotty record of care, given his drunkenness, given his shaky hands on account of his drunkenness, which has made him a mockery aboard the Ghost. But now Prescott has cleaned himself up and pulled on his impressive old ornate clothes and fixed up Ruth and he wants to be taken seriously; he wants the ship’s men to call him doctor; he wants Larsen to tell the ship’s men to call him doctor. Larsen agrees. Alas, when Larsen and Prescott emerge on the deck, the scurrilous captain kicks Prescott down the stairs and laughs at him. Everyone laughs at him. And in this moment you see Wolf Larsen for the bully he is, roaming his ship like the bully might have roamed the school hallways.
That’s why I never quite bought the film’s incessant determination to employ literature as a means to psycho-analyze Larsen. This is broached when van Weyden enters the captain’s quarters and finds, naturally, a copy of Paradise Lost turned to a page where, obviously, the line “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven” is underlined. It’s that kind of analysis, and made even more explicit when van Weyden makes a study case of Larsen and then explains out loud why he thinks the way the captain is the way he is, more for our benefit than Larsen’s, and pales in comparison to the primal emotion of Edward G. Robinson’s performance apart from all this dime store psychology.
Still, even apart from this frustrating need to tell us what we can glean from the movie itself, “The Sea Wolf” works in the end, primarily in the way that Larsen maintains the delusion of his own power even as that power crumbles, even as everyone flees, even as a mutiny by way of escape is led by George and Ruth, even as his ship begins to sink. His ship sinking, however, proves of less consequence than besting van Weyden in one last verbal tete-a-tete. In other words, as long as Larsen believes in his own mind that he came out on top even as his ship goes down, well, he’ll go out a winner. It reminded me of someone else.