The Sea Wolf
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMichael Curtiz
Screenplay byRobert Rossen
Based onThe Sea-Wolf
1904 novel
by Jack London
Produced byHal B. Wallis (executive)
Henry Blanke (associate)
StarringEdward G. Robinson
Ida Lupino
John Garfield
Alexander Knox
CinematographySol Polito
Edited byGeorge Amy
Music byErich Wolfgang Korngold
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 1904 novel The Sea-Wolf with Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, John Garfield, and Alexander Knox making his debut in an American film. The film was written by Robert Rossen and directed by Michael Curtiz.

The film was first premiered onboard the S.S. America.[3][4] Later it 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 1940 Errol Flynn vehicle with a similar name. 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.[5]


Refined and literate fiction writer Humphrey Van Weyden (Alexander Knox) and escaped convict Ruth Webster (Ida 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 Ghost's captain, Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson), a brutal sadist who delights in dominating and abusing his crew.

Larsen 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 and greedy ship's cook. 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 that man is essentially an amoral animal, and that morality is a 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 uncivilized life among the crew, where no one has any value higher than his own personal gain.

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

Fear of being hunted drives some members of the crew to mutiny, led by the already rebellious George Leach. 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, "Cooky" (Barry Fitzgerald). They punish Cooky 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 one of Cooky's legs. The crewmen quickly pull him and his life is saved.

Eventually, Leach, Webster, Van Weyden, and a crewman, Johnson (Stanley Ridges), escape on a dory. However, they discover that the wily Larsen had replaced their water supply with vinegar. Later, while the others sleep, Johnson 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 by cannon and after several hits the Ghost begins to slowly sink. The Ghost makes an escape into a fog bank, but Larsen is blind again and his debility is revealed to all. Thus, the crew seizes this opportunity to abandon ship by taking to the lifeboats and they will leave Larson aboard by himself.

Van Weyden, Leach, and Webster sight the outline of a ship through the fog, but shockingly realize she's the Ghost and, having no other choice, reboard her. The ship appears to be deserted, George Leach goes below for provisions. He is ambushed by Wolf Larsen, who locks him in a storage 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 near completely 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 from his bullet wound. Vindicated in his own mind, Wolf Larsen awaits his demise. Leach and Webster reboard the dory together and sail toward an island that is visible only 2 miles away.



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 dishwasher and a rebellious seaman and gave the seaman a love interest, played by Lupino.[6] Rossen added scenes for this pair, partly urged by Lupino.[7] However, Warner Bros. cut many political items during production.[6]

George Raft turned down 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."[8]

The eerie atmosphere was heightened by the studio's newly-installed fog-making machine in the largest soundstage that could accommodate full-scale ship deck sets.[9]

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

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.[10]

Radio adaptation

The Sea Wolf was presented on Screen Directors Playhouse on February 3, 1950, with Robinson re-creating his role from the film.[11]

See also


  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. ^ Rode, Alan K. (17 November 2017). Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-7397-9. Retrieved 18 January 2022.
  4. ^ "American Film". Retrieved 18 January 2022.
  5. ^ Maltin, Leonard (25 October 2017). "THE SEA WOLF: LONGER AND BETTER!". Leonard Maltin's Movie Crazy. Retrieved 9 December 2017.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Neve, Brian (2005). "The Hollywood Left: Robert Rossen and Postwar Hollywood" (PDF). Film Studies. 7: 54–65. doi:10.7227/FS.7.7. Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 May 2011. Retrieved 23 Feb 2010.
  8. ^ Vagg, Stephen (February 9, 2020). "Why Stars Stop Being Stars: George Raft". Filmink.
  9. ^ Hirschhorn, Clive (1979). The Warner Bros. Story, Octopus Books, London, ISBN 0 7064 0797 0. pp. 216 & 221.
  10. ^ "The 14th Academy Awards (1942) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2013-06-21.
  11. ^ "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 42 (3): 39. Summer 2016.