"THE SEA WOLF" is based on a novel by Jack London and takes place in the late 1800's aboard a seal hunting ship called the "Ghost”. It stars Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, Ida Lupino, and Gene Lockhart. The Captain is a brutal, black hearted, tyrant named Wolf Larson. This part is played splendidly by Robinson. Prior to leaving San Francisco and sailing for the hunting grounds of Alaska, they are in need of more crew members.
At a bar on the Barbary Coast sits Charlie Leach(Garfield). He overhears a crimp try to persuade a seaman to ship out on the "Ghost." The seaman knows the story of the ship and the master who runs it and wants no part. He is later forcefully shanghaied. Charlie, innocent of the ships reputation and desperately wanting to evade the law, signs on. As he is being transported to the ship in a small boat there is a collision between a bay ferry and a cargo ship. The boat picks up two survivors, a man - Humphrey Van Weydon,(Lockhart) a writer, and Ruth Webster(Lupino), an escaped convict. Instead of putting them ashore, the boat proceeds to the "Ghost". Good thing too since the male survivor – Van Weydon, is a pivotal character in the narrative.
Once the survivors and the criminal set foot on the ship their life becomes a living hell. The importance of the character of Van Weydon is that the Captain is a highly self-educated man who cannot intellectually communicate with any of the less educated crew. Since Van Weydon is a writer, he now has an equal. The Captain also suffers from debilitating headaches accompanied by temporary blindness -a condition he tries to keep secret from the crew. He rules his ship with an iron fist and the crew lives in fear of his wrath which is projected personally and by the First Mates. In this atmosphere of violence and deceit, it goes without question that the voyage to Alaska will be a grim one. The Captain harbors another secret - he lives in mortal fear and is in cutthroat competition with his brother who also is Captain of another seal hunter. Driven like Ahab to kill the white whale, he will willingly sacrifice his crew in the quest to beat and destroy his brother. This would all be routine except for the three new crewmembers, which by their intelligence, guile, and cunning, disrupt the Captains plans. However in the end it is the Captain's brutality and ultimate total blindness that will be his destruction.
One of the problems London readers have with the cinematic characterization of Wolf Larson is that London describes him as physically powerful with handsome chiseled features. As we all know, this isn't a description of Edward G. Robinson. Nevertheless whatever he lacks in the physicality of Larson, he clearly translates the pessimism and brutality of the character. The basic outline follows London’s novel, but in the desire to make it attractive to a varied audience, the relationship is given prominence as to include a romance where one was lacking. In the book, Leach is a minor character and Ruth Webster isn't a convict, but a poet and acquaintance of Van Weydon.
The bottom line was that it had to be adapted for Hollywood and the masses. Some screenwriters and directors can pull this off with good results(Stephen King's "The Green Mile" being a recent example) or miserably (James Clavell's "Taipan", practically unwatchable). In this case I vote for the former. Admirers of Jack London and classic cinema will not be disappointed.