One of the Most Challenging Stories of Faith Ever Told!
Once upon a time, Joan Collins wasn’t the queen bitch on Dynasty and Richard Burton hadn’t crumbled into the alchoholic mess which resulted in his early death in 1984. Once upon a time, dear readers, they were esteemed actors. By all standards, at least one of them still is.
Let’s go back to 1957, when the two paired up to make Sea Wife. The poster surely draws you in- I make many of my viewing choices based on poster art and even though I’ve been led astray down the primrose path more times than I can count, I am sticking to it. So Sea Wife looks interesting as heck, right? We’ve got castaways riding a self-made raft into a hurricane perhaps? Hints of romance between the leads? I’m in.
Things start off well, with Burton traipsing around post World War II London placing personal advertisements in the national press beseeching someone named Sea Wife to contact him. Who is this Sea Wife? A long lost girl from before the war? A spy?
First, it was nice to see a busy newspaper building and the reliance society once had on the power of the press. As time progresses Burton’s missive get more and more perplexing and desperate. Finally drinking in his room, there comes a knock on Burton’s door. He’s been summoned by someone interested in his ads. His prayers are answered!
On arriving it is an older man in clearly failing health. Sea Wife he isn’t and we learn that this is Bulldog. After awkward re-introductions Bulldog mutters that he’d do it all over again if he had to. We flash back to Singapore in 1942.
Bulldog, Biscuit, Sea Wife and Number Four (the last two are new to our saga) are all fleeing the invading Japanese and boarding a small cruise ship. Though none of the four know each other, Sea Wife is of course Joan Collins and Number Four is Cy Grant. By the way, Number Four is a black man (and also the Purser of the ship), which is a huge bone of contention for Bulldog. Evidently Bulldog is a raging (and perhaps overly stereotypically written) racist. He makes some as expected comments and all go about their way on the ship.
Shortly thereafter the ship is torpedoed and sunk with our four cast members now finding each other in a small inflatable. Though the sinking and their escape is filmed wondrously in Cinemascope, this is also where the film starts to wander a bit and leans increasingly on clichés for its plot.
More nasty (though increasingly expected) comments from Bulldog ensue but the team makes do out of mutual need. Adrift, they begin to run low on food and water. Just at you’re getting a Lifeboat feel, up from the depths comes a Japanese submarine. After most of the party fails to secure any aid, Number Four manages to secure food and water for them after revealing some secret to the submariners in their native tongue.
As they continue their drifting even these supplies are lost and the days and nights begin to blur together as delirium sets in. Finally when all appears lost they arrive at an island full of only water and coconuts (as Biscuit/Burton exclaims). Number Four finds a knife with which to cut down bamboo so as to fashion a raft. But now having something of his own, he refuses to share the knife with anyone (surely out of a justifiable sense of danger from Bulldog) and as a result builds the entire raft mostly by himself.
With the raft ready to depart Number Four realizes that he’s lost his knife. Bulldog sends him off into the bamboo to look for it, but as Number Four vanishes into the scrub, Bulldog shoves off after subduing momentarily Sea Wife and Biscuit. As the raft leaves the surf, Bulldog takes the knife from where he’s hidden it and brandishes it at Number Four, who has now returned and is charging into the water so as not to be left behind. But as he nears the raft he is eaten by a shark.
We jump back to the present, with the two surviving men back at Bulldog’s convalescent home. After repeated pressing, Bulldog tells Biscuit that Sea Wife is dead. Biscuit leaves and walks out despondent. Without realizing it he walks right by Sea Wife. She turns to watch him cross the street but doesn’t stop him.
Though somehow Sea Wife is actually very enjoyable, there are simply too many questions and inexplicable happenings to take it seriously. You see, there are a few things I haven’t shared.
Biscuit has his eye on She Wife, but she constantly refuses his advances yet refuses to tell him why. It’s because she is a nun. It doesn’t seem to make sense for her to string him along for the entire picture. Telling him her vocation would end all the flirting and dreamy looks he has for her right quick. Number Four knows the truth (this is the secret he shares with the Japanese submariners) yet doesn’t share the secret. That this unrequited one-way affection- the undercurrent of the picture- remains unexplained seems odd.
Though the cast is really only the four strong, with the exception of Collins they are all top notch. Richard Burton is his usually stern yet rollicking self, carrying the picture on his back. Basil Sydney is also strong as the unrepentant and insanely ignorant Bulldog. The ludicrousness of his mindset is most notable at the end when he states he could only tolerate having two of the threesome of She Wife, the knife, and Number Four. And, of course, he picks the knife and She Wife.
Joan Collins, however, is the one weak link in the chain. For all the hoopla, she never seems overly engaged in the proceedings or even worthy of Burton’s attention (outside of being the only female in the picture). In addition to the unexplained reluctance of telling poor Biscuit that she is a nun, she wastes two keen opportunities to power into her role. The first of these is when the men in their hunger catch and eat a sea bird. She can only whisper “stop” in a mewing whisper from the far corner of the raft. She’s even more unengaged when she realizes Bulldog is abandoning her friend Number Four; a man she was close enough to share presumably all of her secrets. Once the shark gets him it is almost as if she shrugs her shoulders a bit and sits back down.
Filmed in Jamaica and (of course) on set, Sea Wife is good to look at, with lots of wide expanses of ocean and island lushness to fill the screen. Though those wide expanses could have been filled with a bit more originality and action, the ride is a very enjoyable one. The highlights of the film are surely the first reel- prior to the flashback when our suspense is at its peak, the sinking, and Richard Burton. Though most else of the film from the plot, some of the acting, a pedestrian score, and a few hideous rear projection shots seldom get above average, somehow it all works.
So maybe that movie poster theory isn’t so bad after all?