The Sea Wolf (1941) Blu-ray Review: Another Major Discovery from the WAC

Formerly lost at sea, the original 100-min cut of this classic sails in to home video thanks to the Warner Archive.
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The discovery of any classic film in its original uncut form brings with it an opportunity to rejoice. Recently, the Warner Archive Collection uncovered an uncut 35mm nitrate print of Michael Curtiz's classic 1941 film adaptation of Jack London's The Sea Wolf. Buried away for decades in the Museum of Modern Art's storage facility in New York, the unveiling of such a print was a significant find ‒ as the film had only been available in a heavily-shortened version since its first theatrical re-release in 1947. Naturally, much like the WAC's recent re-discovery of the three-hour TV cut of Richard Donner's Superman, the highly-anticipated Blu-ray release wasn't far behind.

Sporting the great leading cast of Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, John Garfield, and Alexander Knox, Curtiz's The Sea Wolf is a testament to (real) filmmaking: the kind where storytelling and acting takes precedence over shaky camerawork, CGI, and a hip soundtrack (the mere thought of a remake in this day and age is the sort of thing that causes bile to rise). The tale revolves around the motley miscreants inhabiting the sealing pirate ship Ghost ‒ as lead by the sadistic and spiteful Captain Wolf Larsen (Robinson, in one of his most brilliant performances), who exhibits a certain degree of glee when it comes to subjecting his unique personnel to cruel and unusual punishments.

After a collision with a steamboat forces a passenger ferry to sink, the craft's two survivors ‒ a well-bred writer named Humphrey van Weyden (Knox) and his polar opposite, escaped criminal Ruth Webster (Lupino) ‒ are picked up by the Ghost, thus causing an internal storm aboard the nefarious vessel amongst captain and crew alike to begin brewing. But Ms. Webster isn't the only cop-dodger who joined the Ghostthat night: headstrong George Leach (the wonderful John Garfield) was the only man to accept the crew's attempts to recruit new hands, as he too is on the lam. Initially designated as Larsen's cabin boy, Leach is spared the humiliation once educated non-sailor van Weyden unwittingly joins the crew.

Also starring in this seafaring human drama of darkness and redemption from screenwriter Robert Rossen are Gene Lockhart as the ship's doomed, drunken surgeon and Barry Fitzgerald as the vessel's impish chef, The Sea Wolf sails back into our hearts' harbors via a stellar new, uncut restoration. Sadly, the original negative of the film had been trimmed for the 86-minute re-release in 1947, and the only complete version of this Warner Bros. classic was a 16mm print which had once belonged to John Garfield himself. Fortunately, the discovery of the 35mm nitrate print has enabled scholars and fans to experience The Sea Wolf at its intended length of 100 minutes. And what a difference those 14 minutes make!

Granted, anyone who has never seen The Sea Wolf probably won't notice the restored footage (admirers of Sol Polito's atmospheric noir-like photography won't complain). Of course, that can be attributed to the WAC's highly commendable efforts to preserve The Sea Wolf ‒ not only for this Blu-ray presentation, but for future generations as well. Indeed, the image of this nearly-lost cut is quite stunning, and the Warner Archive's usual commitment to quality is present throughout the MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer. Even the decks of the original monaural sound received a thorough scrubbing for this release for a marvelous DTS-HD MA Mono 2.0 track. English (SDH) subtitles are provided for this release.

Special features for this praise-worthy Warner Archive Blu-ray release include the film's original theatrical trailer (which finds a public library patron being introduced to Jack London's book by a librarian ‒ what better way to sell the movie than to promote the book, right?) and the Screen Director's Playhouse Radio Broadcast of the title from 1950. Edward G. Robinson takes on the role of Capt. Larsen once more here, giving the late icon a chance to speak his inner monologue for aural audiences. It's the sort of thing that may grant just a little more access to his character's fascinating mind. Although, ultimately, nothing may ever top the discovery of the original 100-minute cut of this Warner Bros. classic.

Highly Recommended.

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