The Sea Wolf (1941 film)

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The Sea Wolf
Seawolf poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMichael Curtiz
Produced byHal B. Wallis (executive)
Henry Blanke (associate)
Screenplay byRobert Rossen
Based onThe Sea Wolf
by Jack London
StarringEdward G. Robinson
Ida Lupino
John Garfield
Alexander Knox
Music byErich Wolfgang Korngold
CinematographySol Polito
Edited byGeorge Amy
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • March 21, 1941 (1941-03-21)
Running time
100 minutes (original cut)
86 minutes (re-release cut)
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,881,000[2]

The Sea Wolf is a 1941 American adventure drama film adaptation of Jack London's novel The Sea Wolf with Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, John Garfield, and Alexander Knox. The film was written by Robert Rossen and directed by Michael Curtiz.

The film was screened at the 9th annual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival on April 26, 2018 in Los Angeles. The version of the film screened was the original theatrical cut that was reassembled after 35mm nitrate elements were discovered at the Museum of Modern Art. It included thirteen minutes of footage that were cut from the film in 1947 when it was re-released as a double-feature with the film The Sea Hawk. The original cut of the film, digitally remastered and restored, was released through Warner Brothers' Archive Collection on DVD and Blu-ray on October 10, 2017.[3]


Refined and literate fiction writer Humphrey van Weyden (Knox) and escaped convict Ruth Webster (Lupino) are passengers on a ferry that collides with another vessel and sinks. They are rescued from drowning by the Ghost, a seal-hunting ship. At the helm is the Captain, Wolf Larsen (Robinson), a brutal sadist who delights in dominating and abusing his crew.

Most of the film is centered on Larsen’s peculiar character. He is very well read and impressively self-educated, but crude and brutish in his personal inclinations. He refuses to return to port early and forces van Weyden to work in the kitchen under the supervision of the treacherous, greedy, abusive ship's cook (Barry Fitzgerald). He also compels van Weyden to spend time alone with him in his cabin, where the two discuss philosophy and the nature of humanity. Larsen asserts the Nietzschean proposition (which Jack London passionately believed) that man is essentially an amoral animal, and that morality is an artificial construct that has no bearing on life onboard his ship. He predicts that van Weyden's character will change as he accustoms himself to the non-civilized life among the crew, where no one has any value higher than his own personal gain.

When Prescott (Lockhart), the ship's drunken doctor, determines that the unconscious Webster needs a transfusion to survive, Larsen "volunteers" Leach (Garfield), even though there is no way to test if his blood is compatible. It is, and she recovers. As time goes by, she comes to depend on Leach for protection and, despite himself, Leach falls in love with her.

Larsen humiliates Prescott, who retaliates by revealing to the crew that Larsen's own brother, Death Larsen, another sea captain, is hunting him, having vowed to kill him; Prescott then commits suicide.

Fear of being hunted drives some members of the crew to mutiny, lead by the already rebellious George Leach (John Garfield). They ambush Larsen and throw him and his first mate overboard. However, Larsen manages to grab a trailing rope, climb back aboard, and put down the mutiny. He announces to the crew that an informant has revealed to him who the conspirators were but, instead of punishing them, he betrays the informant, the ship’s cook, to them. They punish the cook by dropping him into the water, dragging him behind the ship as he holds onto a rope for dear life. This is at first intended as a practical joke, however a shark bites off the cook's leg.

Eventually, Leach, Webster, van Weyden, and another crewman escape on a dory. However, they discover that the wily Larsen had replaced their water supply with vinegar. The fourth man later sacrifices himself by going overboard to help conserve the little water they have.

Larsen is subject to intense headaches that leave him temporarily blind, but has managed to hide his condition from the crew. He knows that he will eventually lose his sight permanently. When Larsen's brother catches up with him, the Ghost is attacked and it starts to sink. The ship escapes into a fog bank, but Larsen goes blind again and his debility is revealed to all. The crew seizes the opportunity to take to the boats.

Van Weyden, Leach, and Webster sight the Ghost and, having no other choice, reboard her. The ship appears to be deserted, so Leach goes below for provisions. He is surprised by Larsen and locked in a compartment. Larsen is determined to go down with the Ghost and take as many others with him as he can. Van Weyden tries to get the key from Larsen and is fatally shot, but manages to hide the fact from the now nearly blind captain. He tricks Larsen into giving Webster the key by promising to stay with Larsen to the bitter end. This act of seeming self-sacrifice disturbs Larsen, causing him to question his whole philosophy, until he realizes that van Weyden is dying. Vindicated in his own mind, Wolf Larsen awaits his demise.



Robert Rossen's re-draft of the script may be the greatest influence on the film. While the tyrannical captain remained both victim and oppressed in a capitalist hierarchy, he became a symbol of fascism. Rossen also split the novel's idealistic hero into an intellectual bosun and a rebellious seaman and gave the seaman a love interest, played by Lupino.[4] Rossen added scenes for this pair, partly urged by Lupino.[5] However, Warner Bros. cut many political items during production.[4]

George Raft turned down the a role because it was too small. Filmink magazine later said "as if that mattered with Michael Curtiz directing, and Edward G Robinson starring from a Jack London novel."[6]

The Sea Wolf has several connections to the city of London, Ontario, aside from the source author's surname. Studio executive Jack L. Warner and cast member Gene Lockhart were both born in the city and cast member Knox attended university there. For these reasons, the film's Canadian premiere was held at London's Capitol Theatre.

Box Office[edit]

According to Warner Bros records the film earned $1,237,000 domestically and $644,000 foreign.[2]


The film was nominated for the Oscar for Best Special Effects (Byron Haskin, Nathan Levinson) at the 14th Academy Awards.[7]

Radio adaptation[edit]

The Sea Wolf was presented on Screen Directors Playhouse on February 3, 1950, with Robinson re-creating his role from the film.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Ed Rudy Behlmer Inside Warner Bros (1935-1951), 1985 p 208
  2. ^ a b c Warner Bros financial information in The William Shaefer Ledger. See Appendix 1, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, (1995) 15:sup1, 1-31 p 21 DOI: 10.1080/01439689508604551
  3. ^ Maltin, Leonard (25 October 2017). "THE SEA WOLF: LONGER AND BETTER!". Leonard Maltin's Movie Crazy. Retrieved 9 December 2017.
  4. ^ a b Williams, Tony (1998). "From Novel to Film". In Rocco Fumento, Tony Williams (ed.). Jack London's The sea wolf: a screenplay. SIU Press. pp. xvii–xxvi. ISBN 0-8093-2176-9. Retrieved 3 Mar 2010.
  5. ^ Neve, Brian (2005). "The Hollywood Left: Robert Rossen and Postwar Hollywood" (PDF). Film Studies: 54–65. Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 May 2011. Retrieved 23 Feb 2010.
  6. ^ Vagg, Stephen (February 9, 2020). "Why Stars Stop Being Stars: George Raft". Filmink.
  7. ^ "The 14th Academy Awards (1942) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2013-06-21.
  8. ^ "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 42 (3): 39. Summer 2016.

External links[edit]