Action in the North Atlantic

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Action in the North Atlantic
Action in the North Atlantic - 1943 - poster.png
Directed by
Produced by Jerry Wald[1]
Written by
Music by
  • Adolph Deutsch
  • George Lipschultz (uncredited)
Cinematography Ted D. McCord
Edited by George Amy
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date
  • May 21, 1943 (1943-05-21)
Running time
127 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $2.6 million[2][3]

Action in the North Atlantic (also known as Heroes Without Uniforms) is a 1943 American war film directed by Lloyd Bacon and starring Humphrey Bogart and Raymond Massey as sailors in the U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II.[1] Typical of other films in the era, Action in the North Atlantic was created as a morale boosting propaganda film.[4] As noted by film critic Bosley Crowther, "... it's a good thing to have a picture which waves the flag for the merchant marine. Those boys are going through hell-and-high-water, as 'Action in the North Atlantic' shows."[5]


An American oil tanker, the SS Northern Star, mastered by Capt. Steve Jarvis (Raymond Massey), is sunk in the North Atlantic Ocean by a German U-boat. Along with the first officer, his friend Joe Rossi (Humphrey Bogart), they make it to a lifeboat loaded with other crewmen. When the U-boat crew starts filming their plight they respond with rude gestures and are rammed. The men swim to a raft and are rescued after 11 days adrift.

During their brief liberty, Steve spends time with his wife Sarah (Ruth Gordon), while Joe meets and marries singer Pearl O'Neill (Julie Bishop). At the union hall, merchant seamen, including the Northern Star survivors, spend their time waiting to be assigned to a new ship. Over a round of poker, Johnnie Pulaski (Dane Clark) jokes about getting a shore job.

When pressed by other seaman, Pulaski reveals his fear of dying at sea. The others shame him into signing along with them for another ship. Another sailor, Alfred "Boats" O'Hara (Alan Hale, Sr.), is tracked down by his wife, who has apparently not seen him since he was rescued. She angrily serves him with a summons. O'Hara, knowing he is headed back to sea, gleefully tears it up, saying "them 'Liberty boats' are sure well named."

Then it is back to sea aboard a new Liberty ship, the SS Seawitch, on a convoy carrying vital war supplies to the Soviet port of Murmansk. This ship is armed with a 5-inch gun and anti-aircraft guns, and a small Navy crew boards to operate them. They also instruct some of the Seawitch crew on how to replace them in case they become casualties. In Halifax the captains are instructed on how to sail in the convoy. En route, Convoy 211 is attacked by a wolfpack, a group of German U-boats that hunt for convoys. There are losses on both sides, but the convoy commander is forced to order his ships to temporarily disperse.

A peristent U-boat chasing the Seawitch means it must stay away from the convoy when it re-forms. The sub cannot get close by daylight because of the ship's guns, and during the night the Seawitch eludes the sub by shutting down its engines to prevent detection by passive sonar.

The U-boat contacts the Luftwaffe, and the next day, a pair of Heinkel He 59 seaplanes find the Seawitch and attack. Both aircraft are shot down, with one crashing into the bow, but several seamen are killed and Steve is shot in the leg, so Joe takes command. Then the U-boat returns and torpedoes the freighter. Joe orders the men to set fires and make smoke so that it appears as if the ship is sinking. When the submarine surfaces to finish Seawitch off, the ship rams and sinks it.

Finally a squadron of Russian aircraft appear to escort the Seawitch, with its valuable cargo intact, into Murmansk to a warm Russian welcome.



Warner Brothers' working title for the film was Heroes Without Uniforms, intended to be a two-reel documentary about the Merchant Marine. As the war continued, much combat action footage became available and the project was changed to a feature film with Edward G. Robinson and George Raft initially cast in the starring roles. Technical adviser Richard Sullivan was a 23-year-old Merchant Marine cadet who survived the sinking of his ship by a U-boat.[6]

Because war restrictions did not permit filming at sea, the film was shot entirely on Warner Brothers studio sound stages and back lots. According to Bill Collins Presents the Golden Years of Hollywood, the ships sets were built in halves on two sound stages, with the tanker sinking sequence shot first on the studio's "Stage Nine".[7]

Director Lloyd Bacon's contract with Warner Brothers expired during production. Jack L. Warner wanted to wait until the film was finished before entering discussions about a new contract, but Bacon wasn't willing to continue without one. Warner fired him and brought in Byron Haskin to complete filming, which ran 45 days over schedule.[8]

Action in the North Atlantic has a famous back-story; watching their stunt men performing a dive off a burning ship, Bogie and Massey, both somewhat intoxicated (being 'off-duty'), started making bets on which stunt man was braver. One thing led to another, and eventually the stars themselves made the dive.

Authentic models of German and Soviet aircraft were used in the film, and all dialogue involving non-Americans was in the native tongue of the speaker, both rarities in films of this era.


When Action in the North Atlantic was premiered in New York, more than a dozen merchant mariners and several hundred U.S. sailors presented Jack Warner with the Merchant Marine Victory Flag. Henry J. Kaiser, the ship-building magnate, thought the film was such a morale booster that he wanted it shown to all his employees.[7]

According to a news item in The Hollywood Reporter on June 24, 1943, copies of Action in the North Atlantic were provided to the Merchant Marine schools for use in training when the War Shipping Administration judged that technical and educational material in the film would "aid considerably the training program." The studio donated three prints for official use at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, and at cadet basic schools in San Mateo, California, and Pass Christian, Mississippi. [6]

Film critic Bosley Crowther reviewed the film for The New York Times, stating, "... tingling, informative picture which thoroughly lives up to its tag of "Action in the North Atlantic' ... some excellent performances help to hold the film together all the way. Raymond Massey and Humphrey Bogart are good and tough as the captain and first mate ..." [5]

in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast on May 15, 1944, Raymond Massey and Julie Bishop reprised their roles while George Raft co-starred, replacing Bogart.[6]


Action in the North Atlantic received an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing (Best Original Story) for Guy Gilpatric.[9]



  1. ^ a b Walker 1994, p. 7.
  2. ^ Schatz 1999, p. 218.
  3. ^ "Top grossers of the season." Variety, January 5, 1944, p. 54
  4. ^ Higham and Greenberg 1968, p. 96.
  5. ^ a b Crowther, Bosley. "Movie review: The screen; 'Action in the North Atlantic,' thrilling film of Merchant Marine, starring Humphrey Bogart, opens at the Strand." The New York Times, May 22, 1943.
  6. ^ a b c "Notes: 'Action in the North Atlantic'." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  7. ^ a b McGee, Scott. "Articles: 'Action in the North Atlantic'." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  8. ^ "Trivia: 'Action in the North Atlantic'." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.
  9. ^ "The 16th Academy Awards, 1944." Archived 2015-07-15 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved: July 3, 2016.


  • Higham, Charles and Joel Greenberg, Hollywood in the Forties. London: A. Zwemmer Limited, 1968. ISBN 978-0-498-06928-4.
  • Schatz, Thomas. Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0-5202-2130-7.
  • Walker, John ed. Halliwell's Film Guide (10th edition). New York: Harper Collins, 1994. ISBN 978-0-0025-5349-0.

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