A more misleading title would be hard to find – and that goes for the posters too. This is a misfit movie – a bunch of raw recruits knocked into shape by an unwilling captain tasked with sailing a ship into a South Pacific war zone in WWII. Admittedly, Jack Lemmon is in exasperated double-take default in the opening section, but it quickly shifts from comedy to drama as Lemmon shepherds his inexperienced crew into a more compact team. Screenwriter Frank Murphy has an exceptionally good portfolio – Panic in the Streets (1950), The Desert Rats (1953), Broken Lance (1954) and Compulsion (1959) – but brings less to the table as a director, this only his second – and final – outing in that capacity. But given he is directing from his own screenplay, he must take the blame for the incongruous hybrid. Add in an unnecessary tune from Ricky Nelson and the briefest of brief romances and no wonder it’s hard to make head or tail of the movie until it does eventually head out to sea.
Once Lemmon is given more to do than shake or scratch his head the picture movies into more satisfactory territory. Instead of dismissing the crew as idiots, he takes command and shows dramatic chops that are a hint of things to come (Days of Wine and Roses just two pictures away) when he sloughed off comedy for more serious undertakings. Reason for Lemmon being assigned this motorised sailing ship rather than something more obviously U.S. Navy is that he is in the last chance saloon. Once under sail, setting aside some dodgy process work, and it becomes clear they are heading into harm’s way rather than simply delivering the boat to General MacArthur in more harmless waters, the story switches into perilous wartime perilous adventure with decent battle, a couple of twists and some dramatic confrontation.
Lemmon is always watchable and I always thought he could have done with more self-belief when it came to tackling more dramatic parts. When he goes ramrod-stiff and starts barking out orders and has to out-maneuver superiors and enemy, he is entirely convincing, as, too, safeguarding or rescuing or leading his men in battle. Setting aside the need for Ricky Nelson to register his credentials as a singer, he is not bad either, as an ensign making his way, an ingenue role that suits this ingenue. Veteran John Lund (My Friend Irma) appears as a crusty admiral and Chips Rafferty, the only Australian actor anybody had ever heard of at that point outside of Rod Taylor, has a cameo. Irishwoman Patricia O’Driscoll manages a passable Aussie accent as the brief romance, her role mostly confined to looks of longing while Lemmon is at sea. Raspy-voiced Mike Kellin as an out-of-his-depth chief mate turned up in the television series based on the picture. If ever there was a film of two halves (well, one-third and two-thirds) it’s this, but the second section passes muster.