Combining dramatic content of four Eugene O’Neill one-act plays, John Ford pilots adventures of a tramp steamer from the West Indies to an American port, and then across the Atlantic with cargo of high explosives. Picture is typically Fordian, his direction accentuating characterizations and adventures of the voyage.
Story plods along at slow tempo, making onlookers wonder when ship will finally make an English port safely. There’s a rather confusing passage in which Ian Hunter, as a deckhand, is pictured as an enemy spy, and although he is finally cleared, nothing explains his actions that lead to original suspicions.
Aside from explosive cargo aboard, little interest is generated in final safety of crew, as yarn points out they are all men of the sea, who will ship out again soon as pay evaporates; all but John Wayne, who wants a nestegg for a farm in Sweden.
Along the voyage there’s plenty of dialog and action in the crew’s quarters, with Thomas Mitchell the accepted leader of the group. Storm at sea, in which ship’s anchor breaks loose, is particularly realistic. Passage through the submarine zone with blackout restrictions is more informative than dramatic. Stuka-bombing and machine-gunning of the ship in sight of land is a dramatic excuse for heroic death of Hunter just before landing.
Mitchell hits a high mark in the seaman’s character – two-fisted, domineering, and still kindly and loyal to his pals. Wayne’s role is submerged among the sailor characters.
1940: Nominations: Best Picture, Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, Editing, Original Score