From the opening credits, which dedicate the film to the 'Officers and Men of the Royal and Merchant Navy' and the note that 'many scenes in our film... were taken at sea under actual wartime conditions' Convoy is, in many senses, the archetypal Ealing war film. The focus, like the later The Cruel Sea (1953) is on the captain and officers, and the choices they make during wartime; but the film also has time for the ordinary sailors, and their role in the running and order of the ship. The ship's community, both above and below deck, is quickly but well drawn, although the addition of some of the broader character notes (and narrative developments) is an obvious reminder that this is Ealing Studios' first attempt to create a war film that could successfully combine documentary footage with dramatic narrative scenes, propagandist tendencies with melodramatic acting styles and characters. Given that Ships with Wings (1941) and The Big Blockade (1942) were later, and less successful, attempts to combine similar aspects, it is telling that director Pen Tennyson - the man Michael Balcon described as the future of Ealing after his first film There Ain't No Justice (1939) - managed it so convincingly here.
Captain Tom Armitage (Clive Brook) commands the officers and crew of HMS Apollo, as they head out to form part of a North Sea convoy, protecting ships heading into British ports. Joining the Apollo is Lt. David Cranford (John Clements), who had an affair with Armitage's wife, Lucy (Judy Campbell) years before. Armitage and Cranford clash when it is revealed Lucy is on board a wayward merchant ship, the Sea Flower. Cranford is locked up for trying to send help, but narrative events - including a Nazi U-boat's attempt to lure ships into a trap using the Sea Flower, and the appearance of a German dreadnought - bring him back on deck in time to see Lucy, amend bridges with Armitage, and die a heroic death as the Apollo single-handedly takes on the dreadnought (called Deutschland, in a not-so-subtle metaphor).
While that description seems some distance from later Ealing films that make more claim to realism and documentary techniques, many of the film's visual qualities owe an obvious debt to that developing tradition. Several long sequences pull together three key elements that would be central to Ealing's wartime filmmaking approach: solid location filming (here, on board destroyers and other boats), strong ensemble performances, and often exceptional model work. The final face-off between the British and German ships, and the earlier submarine / North Sea Patrol battle make particular use of these elements, but the non-fighting scenes of ships at sea are equally strong examples of it.
One key element in the film's success is the comic touch that would lighten later Ealing wartime films such as The Bells Go Down (1943), and that arises from the largely working class characters. The crew of the Apollo bicker about the lack of leave and have food fights in the mess; the minefield skipper (Hay Petrie) and his mate (Mervyn Johns) are busy fishing as guns boom in the distance; while there is a running joke about Armitage's batman Bates' (George Carney) inability to deliver a cup of hot coffee or cocoa to Armitage at the right time (until during the final battle). These small moments of humour do much to lift the creaky melodrama of the Armitage-Cranford-Lucy triangle, and some of the more on-the-nose propaganda (including Lucy reciting Nelson's prayer on the eve of Trafalgar; the German captain noting 'Their heart is British, they are attacking again'; or the Apollo crew offering German prisoners a tot of rum).
As a solid if not completely successful combination of drama and documentary, Convoy remains fascinating for what it gets right, and for what it suggests about a future Ealing that could never come, given that Tennyson died after completing this, his third Ealing film. Tennyson may have been one of Ealing's great 'might-have-beens' after the success of There Ain't No Justice and The Proud Valley (1940), but this film suggests that Ealing Studios were already learning specific lessons from the first ten or fifteen films produced under Balcon's regime.
[Convoy is not currently available on DVD from Studio Canal]
Next time, Ealing's Technicolor celebration of British heroic failure in Scott of the Antarctic (1948)...
Follow Dr Keith M. Johnston on Twitter: www.twitter.com/keithmjohnston